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By Keguro Macharia


Friday, January 16, 2009.


I sip water from a glass inscribed with Obama's name.


The glass is being sold in sets of four by a Rwandan-born, Kenyan-raised woman who spent her formative years growing up in a refugee camp in Uganda and is now a U.S. citizen. I think her story is even more impressive than Obama's, and want someone to chronicle how "Yes, We Can" articulates her story, perhaps even more eloquently than his.


To write of the African-born presence in the United States, as the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina recently has, is to write an anthology of some of the twentieth century's greatest stories of hope. In Seattle, I met a Somali woman, here with her family, who was so happy to meet a fellow African, and remembered Kenya as a refugee camp, a stop on the way to another life, a possible life. She was not "doing well," as Kenyans would have it, having limited English and a low-paying job, but she could live and imagine a future.


She had lived in an Africa where dreams were luxuries. Now, she spoke of the tomorrow that would be better, the tomorrow that would come, the tomorrow that the U.S. promises. That was eight years ago. I wonder what Obama's inauguration means to her.


At the bus stop, I run into a drunk man from Sri Lanka. He is being put off the bus for being disorderly. He chants, "I come from Sri Lanka. I am Homeless. Who cares about Obama?"


For him, and for many others, the promise of America is not inevitable, and is not bound up to a proper name, or, at least, not to Obama's name. "Bush is good," he tells me.


I am standing next to another African-born woman at the bus stop. We look at each other, smile in shared understanding, shake our heads because, unlike this Asia-born man, we come from the land of Obama. It's a nice conceit.


My Kenyan roommate is from the region of the Lake. Daily she chants, "when my coussin isss president" and trails off. It's a game. She knows Obama has promised nothing, especially not to Kenyans. Yet, the promise of his election speaks to the former refugees, the former political prisoners, the many illegals, the menial workers, those who wake up at two in the morning to be at cleaning jobs at 3am.


Many of these do not belong to the bank of diaspora—the "doing well" Africans with a lot of higher education, those we back home look at with pride, whose names we find listed in obituaries as "Samson of U.S.A." They belong to the other African diaspora, a more contemporary one that, like its sixteenth- through nineteenth-century predecessor, moves in fits and starts, from impossibility to less impossibility.


It is a "Yes, We Can" that has more in common with Harriet Jacobs, who spent seven years hiding in a tiny attic escaping her slave master's unwanted attentions. It is a "Yes, We Can" that does not assume middle-class respectability is inevitable, but that dreams. It is a "Yes, We Can" not of well-meaning liberals, the Whole Foods-Trader Joe-Organic Clothing Wearing—Rooibos Tea drinking crowd.


It is a "Yes, We Can" of those who struggle to make a living and are grateful for their dreams. Of former prisoners and refugees, hardworking U.S. citizens and illegals, of people who sell glasses inscribed with Obama's name, and with each sip from the glass, affirm that the promise of the U.S. belongs to them.


Keguro Macharia is a Kenyan literary critic and academic. He is an Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.  He blogs at Gukira.


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