Our Man Obama -- The Post-Imperial Presidency

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Jan 14, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- As a refugee from Vietnam, a country colonized by the French and fought over by the Americans and Chinese, and as a reader of the modern novel, I see the rise of Barack Obama as the beginning the end of a 500 year-old colonial curse.

Decades ago, English still unruly on my tongue, I read a spin off of Daniel Defoe's "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe," but I read it not as most of my American peers did. I saw myself, on one level or another, as Friday, his servant.

A British sailor participating in the slave trade, Crusoe was shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela. He was alone for some years but managed with his guns to rescue a native prisoner who was about to be eaten by his captors. He named him Man Friday, taught him English and converted him to Christianity. He taught Friday to call him "master."

James Joyce once noted that Defoe's sailor is the symbol of the imperial conquest, that "he is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."

Likewise, all of those who have been colonized and oppressed in the age of European expansionism are embodied in Friday. Indentured and "saved" by Crusoe, Friday becomes, over the centuries, a political symbol of racial injustice, of victims of colonization and imperialist expansion, of slavery. Friday was African, Native American, Asian, Latin American. And Friday was all the children born from miscegenation.

After all, when he was christened, when he called Crusoe "master," Friday essentially lost his autonomy and his past. When he was taught a new language, Friday lost his bearings and the articulation and the enchantment of his old tongue.

In the aftermath of the age of European conquest many went in search of identity – cultural, national, personal - but the legacy remained largely that of an inferiority complex, a kind of grievance trap nearly impossible for those previously subordinated by the west to escape.

The power structure is often stacked against them. Having been conquered and divided, in the aftermath, the previously colonized people are often ruled by distrust and disorganization. English is the global language of choice. From western style clothing to commerce to political dominance, history seems largely defined by the west. Species long known to natives are constantly "discovered" and given Latin and Greek names. Ancient settlements which had been inhabited for centuries have been destroyed, the ancient temples razed, and renamed with the names of Spaniard saints. Even the cosmos is crowded with Greek and Roman gods.

For a while, as a Vietnamese refugee to America, I grieved. Then I resigned myself to the idea that I was fated to live at the empire's outer edge, living in a world in which Friday's children were destined to play subservient roles and sidekicks. I knew this because I saw it on TV nightly. Friday became Tonto, Mammy, Pocahontas, Kato, and (play it again) Sam. I saw too, the complexity of my own Vietnamese past ignored or, worse yet, simplified and reduced to faceless figures in black pajamas and conical hats, to serve as props or to be gunned down by American GIs, the wielders of history.

Indeed, Defoe's narrative has become institutionalized and, in many ways, it continues to serve as the core premise of western culture. Growing up in it as an outsider, the story I internalized was that the supremacy of Crusoe's children was unquestioned. It wasn't a conscious narrative, but it nevertheless became in time a cynicism, and a given -- that no matter how well you perform and how smart you are, you are not to be in the center, in the place of real power.

Barack Obama inaugurationFive hundred years after European conquest began, the glory of Crusoe continues to play out. "The Swiss Robinson Family," and "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" and dozens more movies were direct spin offs but its mythos provides the backbone for tv shows like Star Trek, where the captain is white and his crew are ethnic and aliens, and contemporary films like Men in Black, Jerry McGuire, Pulp Fiction, and Lethal Weapon, just to name very few. In them the ethnic sidekicks help make the main character who he is, reinforcing his centrality.

The white man leads, the minority character follows - For such is the shape of the culture and the unwritten rule taught subliminally not so long ago, a fiction that practically everyone believed in as fact.

Who knows then when the story began to shift?

Perhaps the resistant narratives were always there all along, existing in pockets in the various regions and with various peoples waiting to form a chorus, waiting for a right conductor to come along, for the right moment to form a new symphony.

It may very well have begun with Frederick Douglass. Lewis Hyde, in his seminal work, "Trickster Makes This World," regards Douglass as a kind of trickster – like Hermes or Loki or Eshu- who learned to reallocate power, a "cunning go-between … thief of reapportionment who quit the periphery and moved to the center." Born a slave in Maryland in 1818 to white father and black mother, he learned the alphabet from his master's wife. He stole books. He learned how to read and write. He taught others. He became an abolitionist, editor, a suffragist, author, and the first African American nominated vice president in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States.

But what did Douglass actually steal? The language of the masters. Eloquence. He mastered it. He spoke up. He thereby crossed the color lines, the demarcations which he was not supposed to cross. He wrote autobiographies – "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," "My Bondage and My Freedom" and "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" - and, according to Hyde, his stories challenged and broke "the rule of silence and contest the white world' fiction about slavery," and his articulation in turn liberated him and others.

For this is the way the new power lies: Those who once dwelled at the margins of the Commonwealth have appropriated the language of their colonial masters and used it with great degree of articulation as they inch toward the center, crossing all kinds of demarcations, dispelling the old myth. If Crusoe contends that he still is the lead actor, Friday is far from being content to playing subservient and sidekick any longer.

That old superior-inferior fiction is further supplanted and eroded by the way history flows. The America that received my family and me in the mid 70s, for instance, was an America that did not possibly fathom the coming of a Pacific Century. The rise of the Far East, its cultural and economic influences lapping now at the American shores seem to have taken everyone by surprise. Like sidewalk stalls hawking bitter melons and bokchoy and lemongrass on the streets here in San Francisco, private passions, too, are spilling out with candor onto the public place. Indian writers – Rushdie, Arundathi Roy, Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga- becoming winners of most prestigious literary award in the English language, the Booker Prize. Sushi is being sold in high school cafeteria. HMOs now offering acupuncture. And Feng Shui and yoga becoming household words.

All the while mass movements from South to the North irrevocably changed the North: Salsa vies with ketchup as the top sauce; Tango, Latin jazz, Jamaican Reggae to Mexican Hip Hop liven up American dance floors; Spanish becoming increasingly popular; and so on. If those in America still think globalization as a one-way trip, that it is simply the Americanization of the rest, they should seriously think again. The Easternization and Latinization of America are at full tilt.

It was Defoe's conceit in his novel – published in 1719 and considered by many as the first novel written in English- that the 'savage' can only be redeemed by assimilation into Crusoe's culture and religion. It was beyond his power of imagination, however, to see how much Friday, in time, could radically change Crusoe, and that the world of Crusoe's is forever altered for having absorbed Friday.

Many centuries later, on that fateful Tuesday in November 4, 2008, Friday spoke up loud and clear and eloquently, and declared himself an equal, and the whole world danced. He tells us to dare to dream big, even this once considered impossible dream: Son of Africa becomes the new patriarch of America.

Obama ColonialismThe old curse ends. Some internalized threshold for previously subjugated people is breached. To live in America fully these days is to learn to see the world with its many dimensions simultaneously, and where others hear a cacophony, the new resident of the cosmopolitan frontier discerns a new symphony. His talent is the ability to overcome paralysis of the many conflicting selves by finding and inventing new connections between them. He holds opposed ideas in his head without going crazy. He knows now it's within his powers to articulate and reshape his new world, regardless the color of his skin, and to play central character of the script of his own making.

NAM writer Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

More by Andrew Lam:

In Search of an Hermes’ Belt

Letter From Athens: Greek Tragedies & the News Media in the Age of Twitter

A Vietnamese Journey Toward the American Dream

Obamamania Conquers the World

Related Articles:

Immigrants Denied Counsel in Removal Proceedings

Hope Defines Black Outlook at Dawn of 2009

Debunking the Myth that Latinos Elected Obama

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User Comments

TL on Jan 15, 2009 at 13:48:29 said:

Barack Obama's election is a historic milestone for America. The challenges facing our nation are daunting. The new president needs our help. His inauguration is a clarion call for us to participate in grassroots politics where "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is tested and refined.

Initially impressed by Barack Obama's keen intellect and unique career preparations, I was finally "sold" on his candidacy when I caught glimpse of Michelle Obama's speech at Villanova University on C-Span. She was talking about a gifted man from a special family who shared life experiences not unlike ours. In talking straight to us throughout the campaign, Barack Obama gained our trust and earned our vote.

Barack Obama's compelling life story, of a young man from Kenya and a single mom from the Kansan heartland, is rooted in deep-seated yearnings embodied in the "American dream". In his story, we see how America's founding spirit demands constant renewal and perfecting for her to remain that hopeful beacon seen far beyond her shores.

My family were political refugees from Vietnam when we arrived in America in1962 in a plane filled with refugees from Eastern Europe. My parents' hard work and sacrifice inspired me to study hard and serve others. In my high school in a small Michigan town, I became the senior class valedictorian. In college, I was a volunteer in Gene McCarthy's presidential campaign. I became a civil engineer working on transportation and infrastructure projects. I founded my own engineering consulting business where I trained youths for leadership positions and inspired them to serve community. I helped Southeast Asian refugees in settlement in America. I provided policy input to the Bush and Clinton White House on U.S.-Vietnam relations. I cared for my mother before she died of pancreatic cancer, and helped my wife win her fight against breast cancer. I was occupied with family and work responsibilities. But as I ached at the increasingly dire state of the nation and the world that we are leaving future generations, I resolved to get involved in 2008.

With MoveOn, I helped to get out the vote. I assisted Asian-Americans for Obama in translating campaign messages into Vietnamese. There was a wait of several weeks after November 4 before I was declared winner of a pool among global relatives for having gotten right Barack Obama's winning number of electoral votes and popular vote percentage. The pool winnings of $200 were sent to needy family members in Vietnam.

Many in our nation have heightened expectations as Barack Obama becomes president. However, as a 58-year old American still working hard to make ends meet for my family, I know inequality bred from unchecked greed will not evaporate in a year or even a presidential term. Real meaningful changes will require vigilance and unending struggle. But finally, we have someone in the White House who understands that struggle. In the past, I experienced days when the body is weak and the spirit is low. But in 2008 as change seemed more palpable each passing day, I found comfort and inspiration in Barack Obama's steadfastness. His populist message recalls for me Hubert Humphrey's rallying cry, one which held special promise for me since I was a young immigrant—"Remember, in every 'American' are the words 'I Can!'"

Yes We Can! God bless our president, and grant him wisdom and strength. God Bless America!

ACW on Jan 15, 2009 at 11:08:56 said:

Andrew, I think you have brought some great arguments to light. I especially enjoyed how you chose to trace the rise of diverse cultural influence, and the examples you use are great. However, just because we gain a more hybridized culture does not mean that power structures and representation fundamentally change (my interest lies at local levels in particular), and I'm sure you're aware of that. My only concern with the notion of post-imperial is that it obscures how much work still needs to be done, the larger and deeper shifts in consciousness still in motion, at times tenuous (take Proposition 8 for example).

Also, I just wanted to share a great resource to further explore the Friday/Crusoe relationship in a modern era and that's Derek Walcott's play "Pantomime".

Finally I have to point out that patriarchy and imperialism go hand in hand in my mind. I am definitely not looking for Obama to be my new patriarch; there is plenty of gender oppression in the world already.

Duc on Jan 14, 2009 at 18:21:45 said:

Vietnamese people support John McCain because he fights for freedom! And what is this "colonialism" you're talking about? Obviously, America brings freedom and civilization to the world! And in America Asians are the Model Minority, because they don't break the law and actually learn English, just like the white people! Unlike some "other" minorities ...

LC on Jan 14, 2009 at 13:23:51 said:

reminded me of a poem that i can't seem to find in its entirety on the
web. it is called the discourse on the logic of language by a fierce
west indian poet named marlene nourbese philip. it is so brilliant. i
wish i could find the whole thing for u. anyway, here is just a piece,
the beginning, i believe:

I have no mother


no mother to tongue

no tongue to mother

to mother



I must therefore be tongue




damn dumb

KD on Jan 14, 2009 at 13:20:52 said:

What a wonderful article. I was for Obama all the way, not because of his policies but simply for the fact that he is black. By the way, did you know that the screenplay for the movie Hancock was written by a Vietnamese (Vincent Vo...I think), and in it Will Smith plays the lead action hero, which goes to show that your theory is dead on.

NW on Jan 14, 2009 at 08:54:19 said:

Bravo, Andrew for your eloquence of thoughts and feelings. I can think of numerous friends who I know would benefit from this; if they start sensing subtle cultural putdowns and strive for more equality in their relationships. I shall not argue with them anymore but simply give them a copy of your article and move on!




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