You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.
The man’s voice boomed out from the tiny TV screen on the shelf above the bar in Kenya where racks of bottles and glasses sat protected behind thick metal bars. His speech was as strong and unyielding as those cold steel bars, the voice resonant, deep, and powerful, like a rich promise of hope.
In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and in big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans, and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.
In the crowd behind the tall, copper-skinned man who was speaking, I could see a bunch of mostly white people—mzungus as we call them in Kenya—smiling and cheering ecstatically, and waving blue placards with the man’s name on them, or red ones emblazoned with the slogan Stand for Change.
We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.
This was the voice of a man who in the winter of 2008 had the promise of becoming the next U.S. president. But more than that, perhaps, this was the voice of a man who might truly make history by becoming the first black president of America. But to Kenyans like us, this was first and foremost the voice of a man who was Africa’s lost son, for as far as we were concerned, he was half-Kenyan and hailed from one of the foremost tribes in our country—the Luo.
The time has come for a president who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face, who will listen to you and learn from you, even when we disagree, who won’t just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know.
Unlike every other black Kenyan in that bar, I had a unique and special reason for listening to those words. For the man delivering this extraordinarily rousing speech was my half brother, a brother by blood, but one that I had barely known.
This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long…. This was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicism, the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up. This was the moment.
From the wild cheering of the crowd, and his repeated appeals to them personally—“You said… You heard… You called…”—I felt as if the people of America knew this man far better than I, and felt a more personal connection to him, and yet he and I shared the same father. We had lived two separate lives, a world apart, yet in a sense we were joined forever by birth. And that was the strangest thing of all for me; that was both the closeness and the gulf between us.
Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope.
I glanced around the sparse bar, with its plain and yellowing walls. A bare concrete balcony looked out over the noisy, chaotic streets of the ghetto. Old men and young clustered around the chipped Formica tabletops, gazing at that screen and listening with something like rapture. Not a soul in that bar cared much for Kenyan politics, which seemed forever mired in corruption. But in this man—in their lost African son—Kenyans saw their own promise of hope and change that might somehow shine a light into the dark heart of Africa.
For many months, we’ve been teased, even derided for talking about hope. But we always knew that hope is not blind optimism…. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.
Hope. He used that word a lot, did my big brother in America. Yet for so many years hope had been an alien concept to me. During my darkest, lost years the very concept of hope had been closed to me. It was only relatively recently that I had learned again what it meant to know and to feel the true spirit of hope.
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause.
After living a life of relative privilege, I had crashed and burned in my teens, and I had lost all hope. I had migrated from the plush Nairobi suburbs to a life with the city’s street kids, and from there I had been sucked into the wild chaos of the ghetto. I had lost myself in drink and drugs, and I had become a gun-toting gangster, caught in a life of violence and crime.
Hope—hope is what led me here today. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas, and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.
At the mention of our country the crowd in the bar jumped to its feet, cheering wildly. What would the drinkers think, I wondered, were they to realize that Barack Obama’s half brother sat in their very midst—George Obama, an unremarkable resident of the Huruma slum.
Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be…
While he was striving to become president of the United States, I was a slum-dwelling ex-prisoner and ex-gangster. And with each day that my big brother’s fame and status grew, I knew deep within myself that my anonymity couldn’t last. In a day, a week, a month, whatever, someone would inevitably make the connection—we shared the same father, but had different mothers—and venture into the closed and dangerous world of the slums to track me down.
We are the United States of America. And in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again.
Sure enough, the journalists and reporters came into my ghetto homeland in droves. Having my long-lost brother win the American presidency would prove both a blessing and a curse.
Not even he could erase the darkness and the shame in my past. Only I might do that, by helping build for the people of my slum homeland a better and a brighter future. And one step at a time I reckoned we were getting there.
© 2010 George Obama and Damien Lewis