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passing the baton

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As an Australian-born Black British citizen, the issue of institutional racism in the ‘new world’ has been ever constant in my life, and my work. The long history of discrimination and violence by white English police officers  against Black Britons both within, and outside of, the police force has long been documented. Images of police brutality during the 1958 Notting Hill riots, and the 1981 Brixton riots continue to chill my blood to this day.

More recently, the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, resulted in the Macpherson Report, which found that the British Police Force was institutionally racist: no surprise to the Black British community, but a frank and apologetic public admission which surprised many.

Many Black Britons wondered, in the lead-up to Obama’s visit to the United Kingdom last week, whether race issues such as this would be on the Agenda at Number 10. Last year, in an article for Crikey.com, I argued that the issue of Obama being a ‘first generation’ American on the African side of his family was mysteriously absent from world commentary, particularly given the increasing levels of migration of Africans to the ‘new world’ over the last five years:

Barack Obama’s presidential win was triumph for America, because they rose above prejudice; for African Americans, who’d waited so long to see that day; for Kenya, which declared a national holiday, because the country is his father’s birthplace; for Indonesia, where the young boy grew up. But when Western leaders broadcast their congratulatory messages, lauding America for making history, they carefully ignored the most profound of victories. Obama will not just be the first black president of the United States of America, he will be the first black president of any Western country, and on his father’s side at least, the ‘black’ side, he did it in one generation.

Surely somebody had to mention this. But no, the Western world would have us believe that Obama’s victory, the possibilities his journey holds, was an American thing. After all, there’s no place on earth is as red-neckedly prejudiced as the United States of America. Would the world have us believe that whole communities of broken, embittered and angry African descendants, are not as far flung as Preston, Canada; Brixton, England; Noble Park, Melbourne; Blacktown, Sydney, where the struggle of all blacks was waiting to be acknowledged. Where we were crammed into lounge-rooms holding our breath, crowded around barbecues with butterflies in our stomachs, screaming from the roof-tops with joy.

With numbers of African Australians arriving every day – migrants and asylum seekers on the run from countries ruined by the systematic underdevelopment, global apathy and post-colonial corruption that is the hundreds-year legacy of slavery, would King-quoting Prime Minister Rudd the prefer us not to wonder whether this feat might be capable of occurring anywhere but in America?

Newspapers across Australia failed to cover, or even mention, the euphoria of African Australians – both those who have arrived directly from the continent, and those of African descent like myself, who have travelled four or five continents over hundreds of years to arrive here. Australia failed to engage us, failed to notice us, failed to acknowledge the significance of Obama’s first generation miracle in a country where, just last year, the Federal Minister for Immigration in the Howard government publicly proclaimed “I have been concerned that some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope and therefore it makes sense to …slow down the rate of intake from countries such as Sudan.”

Minutes after America’s 44th president elect gave his stirring victory speech, I received a text message from my sister in Finsbury Park, London. It read “Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children could fly.” It was a chain message. I sent it on.

And indeed since last year, talk has been rife in the Black British community about whether the Obama miracle is possible in Her Majesty’s garden.

I am not one for tears, but I cried when I saw the above picture. I like to believe the photograph is of President Barack Obama, passing the baton

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

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