The artist abroad
Cool to be Brown
New York—“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.”
That quote is from the late Louis L’Amour (a writer known for his novels about the American West) and is inscribed on the leather-bound journal that the new first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, gifted her outgoing predecessor, Laura Bush.
It’s an astute observation on the end of an eight-year stint, likely to have grown more and more uncomfortable towards its conclusion at the White House, and the start of a more unfettered life for Mrs. Bush, no longer bound by the protocol demanded by her being married to a head of state.
As for Mr. Bush himself, I’m not sure what he would make of that inscription (surely he would have read it by now) and what sort of beginning he envisions for the future. Upon being welcomed by well-wishers on his return to Texas, Bush said he and his family were glad to be back, and that he promised to stay.
Please do, Mr. Ex-president. Enjoy your ranch, and no longer cast your shadow on the rest of us. And I extend the same sentiment to the ex-vice-president, a man so passionate about public service he believed he had to do it in secret. Now he can team up with Sarah Palin and do some huntin’ and shootin’—as long as they clear out all humans within a fifty-mile radius.
On a larger scale, we can exhale, and even for a short while (god knows we deserve it) bask in contemplation of the rich array of possible beginnings, of renewal after wandering in the wilderness of fear, of hope after surviving the many assaults on democratic ideals. And bask a weary nation and a receptive world did on January 20, when close to two million people thronged Washington to celebrate the first black president in U.S. history and just as importantly its first multicultural chief executive.
Barack Hussein Obama is a man who grew up in Hawai’i and Indonesia, had a Kenyan father, a white, politically progressive mother whose roots can be traced to abolitionists and even the Revolution of 1776, and a half sister, Maya Soetero Ng, (half Indonesian and half American) married to a Chinese-Canadian. His wife, Michelle is descended from slaves, and has a cousin who’s a rabbi.
An improbable family in an improbable place: a scenario most of us couldn’t picture even as recently as a year ago, but one that reflects the growing diversity of this country, where twenty-five percent of white families and about fifty percent of black families have multiracial roots. They are all on the way to being Filipino!
Even more fitting is the fact that the swearing in took place, as it traditionally does, on the steps of the Capitol Building, built largely through the sweat of African slaves, a building that faces a mall where a slave market once stood. No one failed to note the irony and heady symbolism more than the new president, who noted of himself in his inaugural address, that he was “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant” and who “can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
The 44th president also unequivocally repudiated the Orwellian mentality of the 43rd by declaring, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” (Two of his first acts as chief executive have been to order a stop to torture and to shut down Guantánamo in a year’s time.) He also extended conciliatory, and welcome, words to the bête noire of rabid Christians: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The Obama presidency can be seen as the culmination of several factors, from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights movement, from the Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools to Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. But perhaps it owes much more to the countless individuals all across the spectrum of ethnicity who stood up to racism and injustice in their own lives (at times dying for their beliefs), some of whom we know, like Rosa Parks and Carlos Bulosan and Muhammad Ali, but most of whose names we will never learn but are surely inscribed in the hearts of their descendants.
What does the presidency of a black man mean to Filipino-Americans, themselves the beneficiaries of the black struggle? An incisive reflection on precisely this topic was published late last year: Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama’s America. Its author is Benjamin Pimentel, a Filipino journalist (and friend) living in San Francisco and on the staff of The San Francisco Chronicle for many years.
In 2007, he wrote his first novel, Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street (The Guerrillas of Powell Street), dramatizing the plight of Filipino World War II veterans fighting for long-overdue benefits from the US government, adapted last year for the stage. Pimentel also authored UG: An Underground Tale, about the life of the slain anti-Marcos activist Edgar Jopson.
His latest book is an attempt to examine not so much the role the new president might play in relation to the expatriate Filipino community in the States, but the larger issue of how Filipinos deal with race — and the racism that often poisons their approaches to it— as evident in the presidential campaign. He cites examples we are all sadly familiar with, best summarized by the immigrant Filipino father who fervently tells his activist daughter, “You’re not going to marry a black person. Don’t ask me why. Just don’t. They’re up to no good.” But he also cites many instances of Filipinos and Filipino Americans who, in their activism, keep the dream alive of a just and racially integrated society.
Why are so many immigrants anti-black, who, as Pimentel notes, “embrace the views of the dominant white society—including the prejudiced, distorted image of blacks”? He quotes Toni Morrison: “In race talk the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American… A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.”
He moves on to the fractured and ambivalent colonial relationship between Filipinos and the United States, encapsulated in that famous passage from Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (still unequalled in its powerful depiction of racism against immigrant Pinoys): “I came to know that in many ways, it was a crime to be a Filipino in California—I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
He casts an appraising look at how the brutal 1899 Philippine-American War has been glossed over and even held up as a successful paradigm for the immoral war on Iraq. Such willful disinformation isn’t new and reflects the disregard the U.S. has towards its imperialist past, thus blinding itself to its imperialist present. Surprisingly, Pimentel doesn’t discuss the presence of black soldiers in the war and how their presence sparked debates within black communities in the States.
Interwoven with his take on Filipinos and race are recollections of his own journey. These are the most personal and endearing passages in the book. He recounts being a student activist at UP and editor of the UP Collegian; his friendship with the charismatic Lean Alejandro, another progressive young left-wing activist and rising political star assassinated by right-wing thugs in 1986; his experiences as a journalist in Manila and the Bay Area; and being a husband and the father of two young sons.
Wisely, he and his wife Mara decided at the outset that, “Tagalog would be our children’s first language.” Pimentel was being, as he puts it, “practical: I didn’t want my kids to get mad at me.” He has met, as I and other Filipinos here have, so many Filipino-Americans “disappointed, even angry” at their parents for not making them learn a Philippine language, thus shutting them off from their heritage.
Pimentel’s book demonstrates not just the hard work that came before and that lies ahead if we wish to build a color-blind society, but that we can also expect immensely gratifying rewards. The ascension of a man of color to the highest office in the land shows that coming from a culturally and racially mixed background is not only welcome, it’s downright cool.