There was great interest in President Obama’s European tour, and rightly so. The United States still has a symbiotic relationship with many nations in the “Old World” and counts on its allies for purposes of trade and global security. Given the deterioration of U.S. relations with many of these nations during the Bush years, Mr. Obama’s first trip overseas, while bearing minimal substantive outcomes, was an important tour for the new President.
President Obama must now plan to make another trip, a pilgrimage of sort, to sub-Saharan Africa. The continent has long had a complex relationship with the United States given the history of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So much of the understanding among Americans of so-called Black Africa is steeped in stereotypes and misinformation that it has prevented our nation from developing a full appreciation of the challenges facing the continent. Our cultural dissonance and emotional detachment from Africa also weighs heavily upon our foreign policy posture. The continent, despite vastly different circumstances among individual nations, is simply cast aside as a “problem” to be dealt with at arm’s length.
We often forget that many of these nations are still in their infancies as democracies. Americans mistakenly use our nation, a mature democracy despite its flaws, as the benchmark by which to judge countries in Africa. That mistake leads to unrealistic expectations. Though none of us were present when the United States was just four decades old, there is enough evidence abound to show that at the time this nation’s systems and practices left much to be desired, not to mention a tendency toward violence. If given similar considerations, many of the African nations that are so often condemned in the West may too develop fully and contribute much to the world community. However, in order for that to happen, the United States must engage in an honest and reciprocal relationship with nations below the Sahara.
While President Clinton’s trip to Africa was hailed, and President George W. Bush’s travel to the continent significant for his near apology for slavery, neither of those presidential excursions can match the significance of the first Black President’s journey to the ancestral home of many Black Americans. President Obama should make an official state visit to sub-Sahara Africa a priority. The significance of a Black President of the United States stepping foot on the soil of the Motherland cannot be overstated. Of course, Mr. Obama already has a deep personal connection due to his Kenyan roots and his paternal grandmother’s residence in that country. As powerful, as the personal ties may be, however, the symbolism of a Black President sitting with Black leaders of African nations is that much more powerful. For the first time, these nations may not have to justify their desire for consideration by the United States. If this President can own up to our nation’s missteps with Europe, he can certainly speak honestly about our failure to engage Africa in a respectful and honest manner.
This is not to say that the continent does not have its problems. Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Zimbabwe, or even South Africa; there are certainly a host of issues that must be dealt with on the continent. It is clear that one of the vestiges of colonialism is corrupt political leadership and before true change can take place on the continent some “leaders” must be removed; preferably by democratic elections, judicial decree or force, if necessary. Human rights violations in Africa are real and we should not allow our cultural connection to blind us to that reality. Still, the promise of Africa is great and its potential is limitless if the international community would stop treating it as a weigh station to be exploited for its rich natural resources. In that vein, it is high time that a sub-Saharan nation be given a seat at the table in the United Nations Security Council.
For Black Americans, a trip by this President to Africa will be confirmation that the cultural ties that bind us to the continent are recognized by Mr. Obama. The belief among many Blacks, including those that fervently support him, and that is “accepted,” is that the President must distance himself from our community in order to be seen as race-neutral by whites. A trip to Africa by Mr. Obama would go a long way toward reassuring Blacks that our ancestral home will be accorded the same respect as Europe and Asia.
For a President that has vowed a politics of “change,” no greater example in our foreign policy would be an enlightened attitude toward Africa.