A metaphorical inaugural of ‘coloured’ fairytalesKamala Harris’ arrival on the scene extends this fairytale to South Asia and the Caribbean.
The inauguration of an American president is usually a benign theatricality for the common people around the world who consume American democracy but do not vote in it. Few inaugurations, however, evoke a profound sense of participation and jubilation. Commemorating Barack Obama’s inaugural in 2008 was certainly a larger-than-life event not only for those physically present in Washington, DC but everyone else who joined the chorus. For the entire global fraternity of people of colour who woke up on November 6, 2008, to witness the major paradigm shift in American biopolitics, that was a finale of sorts of racial justice long due.
Then came the 2017 inaugural, when an Impeach Trump Now website came up—just as the proceedings of the official event unfurled in the American National Mall. Amid the pomp of the change of the guard, many noticed the awkward moment when the new president failed to recognise his wife’s presence as he approached the White House residence to shake hands with his outgoing counterparts.
The Biden inauguration is also a contrast to that of his Republican predecessor in that the racial and gender behaviours are meaningfully switched. Globally, there is as much curiosity for his vice-president as for the president himself. This is where the stuff about current-day fairytales come into play, especially for the people of colour who are the decisive majority, but whose agency continues to be dwarfed by inflated legacies of the white West.
Outside American soil and water, the fairytales have touched everybody, but especially spirited the young: Incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris has sweetly captured the imagination of my little girl as we reached an episode of our bedtime story series I have been conjuring up every night on demand. This is following some 30 snippets of the Maya Angelou series and endless reciting of her Caged Bird poem, leading up to lunchtime debates as to whether a mom, especially a mom during the pandemic lockdown, is a slave; and whether there ever will be a moms’ uprising against their little sweethearts.
It is often the Cinderella-esq glitz which stokes life into mega-events, ranging from street uprisings to state inaugurals. They allow us to insert ourselves into aspirations that should be universal and incessant but are not. It is true that the tale of Cinderella itself is not universal, although Disney has made it into one. This is the point I wish to make about the acquired universality of American presidential inaugurals. Not many of the Japanese or Newa state inaugurals would have captured public imaginations as much as the American ones do, in much the same way Cinderella is readily available as a universal fairytale while Momotarō is only Japanese and Nhemha-taken only Newa.
Only the American media complex has the mechanics of popular culture that can twist and tuck a story to be sold in the monopolised market for global viewership. Take Mulan, take Simba and take Aladdin. Even Hayao Miyazaki’s timeless anime came to the reach of global viewership only through streaming services. Trading dreams seems to have remained the monopoly of the Goliaths.
It is exactly this alchemy between Promethean fire and predatory marketism which makes us rejoice the rare occasions when non-white individuals insert themselves into the glitters of White House galas such as the one we are witnessing today. I watched the Obama inaugural from Freetown in Sierra Leone, an African cosmopolitan coast standing on the legacy of a black uprising in Euro-America. Freetown was built in 1787 by freed black slaves from London, and later joined by Nova Scotian Blacks and Jamaican Maroons who had left the New World after having served the abolitionist side in the American Civil War, but were later disillusioned by white abolitionists claiming to speak for the blacks. Once the beacon of black hope, the city is now a dilapidated faraway zone, but the black man moving into the White House in America reverberated its fairytale history in the Nova Scotian houses still erect in Freetown.
Kamala Harris’ arrival on the scene extends this fairytale to South Asia and the Caribbean, two civilisations wide apart from one another, yet common in contesting the yet-to-be provincialised hegemony of Euro-America. The feminism of this fairytale also oozes in her girl-romance and the way the first Second Gentleman flanks the vice-president—not as a husbanding lord but a loyal friend.
Fairytales are as much about virtues as faces radiating them. What the Biden-Harris victory signifies is the victory of decency over bullying tactics of racism, classism and misogyny. That is what brings emotions to this victory, especially for those whose skin colours stand out against the backdrop of the whiteness of the House they are watching. Before Kamala Harris swept through the screens, from Alaska to the Amazon, it would have been difficult to watch a brown little girl straight in her eye and tell her that her birth doesn’t sabotage her potential.
Out of the huts of history’s shame, I rise
Up from a past, that’s rooted in pain, I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave.
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
A whole range of women are cheering for Kamala, knowing that the words of Maya Angelou will ring a tinge truer as she becomes the first American vice-president of colour. The message from the US capital has never been more metaphorical. Kamala, a former attorney general of California and US senator, is just a carrier of that metaphor, and the next four years will judge how she carried that poetic duty alongside the legal whose texts she is set to read out on this American inauguration day.