American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
Nov. 10, 2008
DEAR ANDREW: THERE'S THIS GUY NAMED OBAMA
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- After hosting my own election night party I awoke with a slight hangover, vaguely recalling this dream that a black guy had been elected President of the United States of America.
Then I switched on Voice of America news and realized it was not a dream, and realized among others that I never said good-bye to Andrew Goodman when we hurriedly threw our stuff together to leave the room we shared with two other summer camp workers at Camp Kitattinny in Dingman's Ferry, Pa., which was really in Layton, N.J.
How could I know that a few months later Andrew would be murdered with two other civil rights workers in Mississippi and dumped in a mucky clay grave. Who knew?
There is so much I want to say, so little I can say.
In the international spirit of spirits on election night we settled into the tony lounge at the English-owned Bristol Hotel because it was one of the few public rooms not closed by Flag Day in Panama. Knowing that a Barack Obama victory would have international repercussions, I started the evening with Canadian whisky, moving on to French cognac, and then finishing with by then pre-dawn Nicaraguan dark rum.
About 20 American health care professionals who worked with a missionary group wandered in to watch the results. I had spread the word where I'd be hanging out and for the doctors and nurses working with clinics in poor Panama neighborhoods the clean bathroom, fresh linen towels, and quiet Bella Vista neighborhood street were welcome relief.
My first clue that stereotypes are, well, stereotypical, was after listening to pockets of conversations about the sanctity of life; role of the church in society, family values and structures, and the morass of health care in the United States, a uniform cheer went up when the networks awarded an Obama victory to Michigan from where many of the visitors hailed.
Earlier in the day the exclusive, member-segregated Union Club (which allows black, mixed-race, indigenous, Jewish, and other "guests" who would be denied actual membership) hosted a room filled with multi-culturalism gone wild. Sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in celebration of Panama's 105th Independence Day, Lions, Rotarians, Kiwanians, Soroptomists and others gathered to pledge continued work for the poor.
One speaker as if mocking defeated GOP candidate John McCain's recent mantra of Sen. Obama wanting to "spread" wealth and "give away money belonging to rich people" reminded the audience that "even a small country is judged by how we treat the least among us. How we care for abandoned kids and uncared for elderly." It was the Panamanian equivalent of "a rising tide raises all ships."
The speaker was millionaire Panamanian Sen. Felipe Ariel Rodriguez who made his money in the auto parts business. He has refused urgings to run for president because he can't decide which political party is less corrupt, and after the hoopla of being named legislative "ombudsman" of the cleptocracy if former Pres. Mireya Moscoso he quit in disgust when it turned out Her Shoppingness only wanted to use his trusted name to lend righteousness to her cash "disappearances" and state visits to the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton, Fla.
The listeners above age 50 were white and mostly male. The listeners under 50 were black and brown and had Chinese and Hispanic surnames, and were women club presidents and board members in significant numbers.
The tall black priest who gave the invocation, Father Oscar Martin, could have been right out of an Obama playbook. The Spanish flowed like poetry and in the room, in the moment, in the frozen humid tropical time it defied precise English translation. But it included an inner glow and eye contact with every one of the 50 or 60 civic leaders, and the slow prayer: "Lord. For many of us let your Son Jesus be the rich coffee of our high lands whose aroma and strength flavors a people. And, Lord, let the people of all religions, and cultures, and histories who fled so much oppression elsewhere to settle here, be the cream which blends the coffee into a magnificent texture."
On local radio today the news "readers" bantered ad lib comments in between the reaction of world leaders to the Barack Obama's victory. Comments included:
"It might be that the United States which was born in an age of slavery, and institutionalized racism, for the first time has stood tall as the leader of nations, for all people, of all origins."
"It would be hard for some child anywhere in Asia, or Africa, or Latin America to feel that there is something they could not achieve because of their skin color or family background, when you think of who was just elected in the most powerful country."
"World leaders really want North American to lead. The U.S. and Canada, but mostly the U.S. and to show lots of experts were wrong, and change is possible,"
"Fidel Castro of Cuba issued a comment which was positive about Obama, and it was the usual stuff, but it sort of has some resonance in the defeat of John McCain and a signal that a string of years which seemed to relish the 'politics of war' could be behind us."
It was 1976 on a muddy country road in a trailer park near Havana, Florida which is pronounced Hay'-vah-ner and was about four years before I ever set foot in the other Havana, the one in Cuba.
Near the Leon Co.-Gadsden Co. line was in one of the most concentrated "Black Belts" and poverty belts of the Old South, and the Williams family was preparing the Independence Day goat roast. The day before we had taken a truck up to Thomasville, Ga., to their longtime butcher to pick up the dressed-out "half goat" ready for the spit and hot coals of the front yard.
My dad was visiting from New York, and we were incidentally the only white folks there, but we were with family nonetheless. This was my American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees organizing "family" and three generations of the Williams family were centers of influence and respect on both the campuses of huge Florida State University and historically black "FAMU" Florida A&M University.
As day faded to evening, and goat barbeque, baked beans, cole slaw, sweet potato pie, and 'nilla bread puddin' was washed down by Old Milwaukee and later hot coffee and "sweet tea" we talked of where we were and why we were.
"Good Ole Boy rednecks' like Jim Cushing had slapped aside their "upbringin'" and led other rural whites to integrated union organizational meetings, and Sunday covered dish rallies in small wooden black churches with names like "Missionary Baptist," or "Ethiopian Ezekial," or "Mount Zion Tabernacle" and moved pockets of the Deep South ever so slowly into the "New South" which in many ways eclipsed the pseudo-liberal rhetoric of New York or Philly.
A black president of a local union would be a great thing.
A black president of the United States was never mentioned.
It was 3PM on an October afternoon. The Bums of Brooklyn were facing the mighty New York Yankees. It was the sports version of David v. Goliath and as usual Goliath would win. The dad in the waiting room two blocks from Ebbets Field was listening to the game on radio because the New York Daily Mirror had promised a then-huge $100 U.S. Savings Bond to any baby born in Brooklyn, during the deciding game of the World Series, if and only if the Dodgers won the game and the Series.
It was Jackie Robinson's first season as the first African-American officially allowed to play in Major League Baseball.
Someone smacked me on the butt and I was born.
Third out, Dodgers lost, no Savings Bond.
The United States of America at times is a very, very, very strange and wonderful place.