Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Traveling in the shadow of Barack Obama

                                                   My colleague and I had just had our last coffee at this cafe in 
                                                   Luang Prabang in northern Laos.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — From every angle, Angkor Wat, the world’s largest Hindu temple ruins complex, sits resplendent, three miles north of this modern-day tourist mecca.

Our tour guide, a man who smiled easily, told us that King Suryavarman II built it in the early 12th century. At various times over the centuries, the structure has welcomed practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism.

On the day my delegation and I were there earlier this year, young boy Buddhist monks in training, adorned in brilliant orange robes, walked the grounds and posed for pictures.

A short distance away in the commercial district, people of all ages were selling T-shirts, shot glasses and original oil paintings sported the majestic crownlike shape of Angkor Wat, the fitting national symbol of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Two young girls ran up to me and screamed, “Obama! Obama! Obama! Would you buy these bracelets for your Michelle?” They were so cute and their poverty so acute that it was hard to not buy something. I bought an armload of souvenirs back from the place. I also brought back something else, an altered consciousness as a black traveler.

Although Barack Obama had been President of the United States for almost four years by then, I was more than 8,800 miles away before I realized the global impact of his election on me and those like me, black men who travel. I’ve have people move their hands as if bouncing a basketball and screaming “Michael Jordan!” Or start spitting out Snoop Dogg’s latest rap lyrics, as if I should know them. I always groaned at these reductionist versions of what other people around the world expect of a black man.

I was having lunch with a college French professor in the beautiful northern Laotian town of Luang Prabang, when I noticed the server staring at me. As a dedicated traveler, I’m forced to notice these things, but I said nothing to my colleague.

When I got up to go the restroom, he walked over her and asked, “Excuse me. Is he a famous US movie star?” I look nothing like a movie star, Michael Jordan or Barack Obama especially. I’d like to think I’m fiercely individualist and can do things my own way, despite the impressions or expectations of others.

But media images blasted around the globe via movies, television and news reports have cemented what a black man should be doing or who he is. I thought I was immune to the thoughts of others. I am not. I try to ignore the vitriol that partisan politics spews out on both sides about candidates.

It’s hard to not take offense when they’re talking about my black president. I just can’t ignore it. I’ve had this gloomy sensation for months that Obama would not be re-elected in part because he’s black.

For months, I had been texting all my friends that we needed to start practicing the idea of “the Romney administration” and saying “President Mitt Romney.” People would text me back saying I was crazy or negative.  I thought I was just being realistic. After all, I didn’t think Obama would win the first time. Okay, the first time was a fluke. This time, he’s out. On a subconscious level, I was afraid of what it meant for all black people globally. Still not good enough.

When I went to sleep on election night a few days ago, The New York Times had Romney ahead of Obama by ten electoral votes. I drifted off with an awful feeling, not just that the Republicans would win but we’d have a global thumbs down on the value of a black man. I woke up at 3 a.m. and saw that Obama had been re-elected.

The little girls’ questions to me is proof that the archetype for what it means to be a black man in America has greatly expanded in our consciousness and around the world. No longer are we black men just rappers, athletes, movie stars or criminals.

Thank you, Mr. Obama, for helping with the shift.