Thanks to Ed Sohn who helped me wordsmith this piece to get it right for AsianWeek. Thanks also to Julie Park and Jimmy McGee for their late night read-through. And although I know they accepted it, I haven’t seen the article on their website yet. but I’ll update when they get their new website clicking on all cylinders. In the meantime, you get the “uncut” version here first. Enjoy.
Congratulations, Asian America, on the new president! You worked hard, listened and voted. But is Obama the answer to your prayers?
For African Americans, Obama is an answer to decades of prayers, not cheap “please-don’t-let-the-Republicans-win-again” kind of prayers, but prayers borne of the civil rights movement, prayers that asked for a glimpse of what King saw from the mountaintop. While these answered prayers have little to do with Obama’s politics, they have everything to do with how the dreams of a people are formed and brought to fruition. And although Asian Americans celebrate this election by virtue of the fact that we also know what it means to be marginalized, our celebration lacks the same sense of prayer, hope and gravitas of our African American brothers and sisters.
Obama’s victory is significant, and observably so: people danced in the streets from Harlem, New York to Kogelo, Western Kenya. But while Obama’s election provides hope for people of diverse heritages, Obama’s place in African American history is not my story. It’s not as if we voted for an Asian American and the streets of San Francisco and Beijing are dancing. It’s even harder to envision vibrant Asian American communities raising up and celebrating a uniquely Asian American president.
Two things are critical and indivisible in my eyes for the formation of Obama: his sense of racial identity and history, and his faith. Every time he mentions the word “struggle” and “change,” I hear echoes of the civil rights movement. In every concern expressed about lost jobs and the working class, I hear stories from the south side of Chicago. When I listen to his speeches, I hear the cadence of black Baptist preaching. And in the background, I hear the influence of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It was Wright who showed the Ivy League product the needs of a community and the “audacity of hope.” It is from the church that Obama inherits the language of the Hebrew prophets and the rhetoric of hope coming from the Apostle Paul’s epistles. Obama’s compassion for the poor and marginalized, his sensitivity for the immigrant, and his willingness to sit down with the enemy reveals the best of his racial and spiritual heritage.
Obama’s foundation in these race and faith traditions inspired many beyond racial and religious lines to elect Barack Hussein Obama president. This phenomenon begs a host of questions for an Asian American community if we are to raise up one of our own to serve the nation someday: what race and faith traditions would come together to form an Asian American president that resonates with the entire nation? As for the community itself, can we gather in solidarity to be a people who have not forgotten where we come from? Will our religious leaders instill in us a sense of prayer and hope for the poor among us and the immigrant yet to come?
Do we believe that one day change can come through us?