Wednesday, 5 November 2008

No doubt a great deal of the world is writing, reading and thinking about the same thing this morning, and I apologise for suffering from a crisis of originality. But there was something undeniably seismic about the moment when he walked on stage, the crowd whipping itself into a frenzy, arms and flags moving like waves across a stormy lake of heads, a few moments after victory had been confirmed. Watching on television, there was a sense the world was transforming, the old guard being removed, everything becoming better and more hopeful. Optimism crackled in the air. The shiver of history was so tangible, so electric, that for a moment I imagined the worst – a single bullet, perhaps two, crackling through the cheers, a bloody stain on his white shirt, burly security men running across the stage towards his inert body, wearing sunglasses and yelling into headsets. Hope replaced by humanity’s worst nightmare. I prayed it would not happen, and it did not, and history was allowed to run its path – though of course had the alternative happened, then that too would have been history, only history of a darker kind. And whatever happens now I feel privileged to have seen it, to have been close to it. For there is no doubt now that it has become history. And so I can say, hand on heart, that I will never forget the day, a few short weeks ago, when Fernando Bezzera Coelho was elected the new president of Santa Cruz Futebol Clube.

Ho ho ho. But there is not much that anyone can say about Barack Obama that has not already been said, or that will soon be said. I can only look at it from a Brazilian angle, and while for many years now Brazilians have mocked the USA’s descent into idiocy and thuggery under George Dubya, if the USA this morning is a mirror held up to Brazil, it is an ugly reflection that stares back. Obama does not change everything, of course, and no doubt there are still a great many racists lurking across North America, but thinking about all this today it strikes me that it is unimaginable that a black man might soon be president of Brazil. Brazilians like to say their country is not racially divided, but is instead divided by social class. This seems to me a piss poor excuse for anything, not to mention being patently untrue (it is really both racially and socially divided). A few weeks ago, in one of Recife’s more affluent bairros, seven out of eight white people I was with (the people in Brazil’s more affluent bairros are usually white) told me they would not date a black person. One of the girls, an impeccably dressed law student, told me, um, maybe it's better now, because black people have less diseases today, but said she still wouldn’t want a black boyfriend. She offered a gleaming smile throughout this elegant discourse. At the private English schools I know in Recife there are no black students. Or maybe there are one or two. But at the public hospitals and the welfare centres, or in other words wherever the poor must congregate, everyone is black or brown. Brazil is a complicated racial mix, for there are three (or more) skin colours, and people sometimes even change their opinion as to what colour they are. But Brazil is so far behind acceptable levels in terms of equality, social or racial, that a great number of the country’s upper middle classes and upper classes still object to President Lula on the basis of his social background and lack of formal education (though they will express this opinion in different ways).

For me, it remains a modern day miracle that someone who grew up in the dirt poor interior of Pernambuco, and then selling oranges in the back streets of Sao Paulo, someone who has 28 brothers and sisters, someone who does not reek of coronelismo and did not go to university, someone who is not especially white, or at least is not white in that European way so esteemed by Brazilian prejudice, someone who is not six foot tall and not the grandson of an ACM or another of the country’s elite political families, is today the president. To be all of the above and black, however, and to be President of Brazil, would probably be an achievement beyond even Lula.

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