I had dinner with my parents, my sister and her wife Friday night. The topic of conversation, as I suspect it was around many family dinner tables, was the Iowa caucuses, the first step in the almost interminable process of selecting US presidential candidates.
I was thrilled that Obama was able to beat out presumtive front-runner Hillary Clinton and wondered aloud whether the victory of an African-American candidate in lily-white Iowa meant that the US had made major progress against pervasive racism. (I’m far from the only one to ask this question.)
My sister-in-law wasn’t buying it. An African-American woman in a same-sex marriage, she encounters lots more prejudice and racism in daily life than I do. (Yes, even in liberal, gay-friendly Massachusetts, where we all live.) As she talked about her sense that Obama can’t win primaries in the South, I found myself thinking of a blogpost I’d read earlier that day.
Lower Manhattanite, writing on the Group News Blog, offered his visceral reaction to Obama’s victory in Iowa – the profound fear that the Senator would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
Mom was all of 21 when Malcolm was killed uptown. She and my dad knew him well. This was resonating deeply in her, and I could hear the upset in her voice. We lived around the corner on 115th Street from the Mosque they fire-bombed in “retaliation” the next day. Ascendant Black men at rostrums was going to hit my mom funny no matter what. And she was not wrong for the trepidation she felt.
“Are any Black people watching this tonight just enjoying the history of all this? Or are they all as nervous as we are?”, I asked her.
I don’t know if you’ll ever really understand it and why it comes so quickly to the fore for Black folks. I guess, you need only to look at not distant, but recent American history and how deadly cruel it has been to Black people on the cusp of busting a door wide open. In my lifetime, Malcolm X was cut down. Medgar Evers was blown away. Martin Luther King’s flame was sniper’s bullet snuffed. Never mind all the back-room, black-bag shit the U.S. government ran on folks who stood tough locally like Chicago’s Fred Hampton and others.
We have developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to the repeated sight of our best and brightest being blown away like so many dandelion bits in the wind.
And so we talked for a while about how much harder it is to be hopeful about racism in America when you’re not white. And my sister talked about the strength of Huckabee as a candidate and her fear that an evangelical candidate might be unstoppable in a national election.
And I realized that we were talking about tribalism.
My Kenyan friends, both home and abroad, have been highly critical of Northern media’s coverage of the political violence in Kenya. Friends are upset that the situation is immediately compared to the genocide in Rwanda. And they’re frustrated that coverage often falls into an African news trap – “Oh well, it’s all about ancient tribal hatred – nothing we can do about it.”
My friend Binyavanga Wainaina has an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, titled “No Country for Old Hatreds“, which does an excellent job of combatting that narrative. He points out that Kenya has a much more coherent national identity than many African nations, and that ethnic politics have lost out to pan-ethnic movements in the past. He notes, “Mr. Odinga and President Kibaki are not really ethnic leaders, but in the days since the disputed election they have stoked tribal paranoia and used it to cement electoral loyalty.”
In other words, the crisis in Kenya is not about Kikuyu versus Luo – thought some of the resulting violence may be. It’s about a leader who’s failed to implement the changes he’s promised and his desire to keep power, and the attempts of an opposition leader to build the narrative of a people’s revolution and gain international support. And both sides are taking advantage of one of the oldest possible narratives: tribe.
Tribe is a narrative that makes intuitive sense to people. Birds of a feather do flock together, in a phenomenon that social scientists call “homophily“. It makes sense that tribes tend to vote together as well. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Kenya is likely to survive this crisis, and it will survive for reasons that Bankelele suggested in a post a few days ago:
– Neighbors talking to one another about maintaining their many years of peace
– Neighbors setting up watch out groups and liaising with the local police
– Neighbors taking in and sheltering friends, relative and strangers
– Police officers talking down residents this morning who had hoped to march to Uhuru Park.
– Local leaders and MP’s talking to their constituents – preaching non violence.
– Neighbors standing together and ignoring the sparks from outsiders
It’s too easy to dismiss African political stories as the legacy of tribalism. Assuming that people will behave a certain way because of ancient hatreds, of in- and out-groups denies people political agency.
Kinda like my family and I were doing the other night as we talked about the Iowa caucuses.
Kenya can survive what it’s facing now by rejecting the simple narrative of tribe amd seizing the moment. Binyavanga argues, “The moment is now to make a solid thing called Kenya.” Maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for America to seize that moment, too.