BERLIN – When Barack Obama triumphantly came to this city 10 months ago – his selection as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate all but certain – Kevin Booker, like African American expatriates in many other parts of Europe, swelled with pride.
Obama’s speech from the base of the city’ historic Victory Column to more than 200,000 people, and the looming possibility that he would be the United States’ first black president, cast a new light on the country Booker left 16 years ago.
But Obama’s ultimate victory and the generally good reviews he’s gotten for his first 100 days in office are not enough to get him to move back home, Booker told me.
“Yes, it’s a new day, a remarkable thing has happened, but I don’t think America has changed that much for the average black – not enough for me to give up my good life here,” said Booker, a singer, actor and producer.
For many people in America, Obama’s election ushered in a post-racial era that was expected to push race to the back burner of our national consciousness. But for a lot of blacks who moved abroad in search of a better life – and found it – going back to the land of their birth is a chance they’re unwilling to take.
“The ability to be an American first and then a black woman,” keeps Connie Jackson in London nearly seven years after she moved to England where she works as a management consultant. “I’m hoping against hope that Obama will bring back ‘smart’ and help expand the country’s perspective and understanding of the world,” said Jackson, who gave Obama the maximum financial contribution in his primary and general election campaigns.
Ricki Stevenson hopes Obama can changed America too. She moved to Paris 12 years ago, trading a career as a broadcast journalist for a job as a tour company operator. Her Black Paris Tours takes visitors to many of the places where some of the city’s most famous black expatriates lived, worked and played. Disillusioned with life in the United States during the Jim Crow era, people like singer Josephine and writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin made their home in the City of Lights.
Stevenson went to Paris to see more of the world and stayed because it offered her a better life – and an escape from America’s racial problems. But Obama’s election to the nation’s highest office isn’t enough to get her to return to the United States for more than a visit.
“I don’t like the violence in America. I love the safety here. And until Obama does something about gun violence in the U.S., I would rather be here,” said Stevenson, an active member of Democrats Abroad, who actively campaigned for Obama.
To be sure, the America that put a black man in the Oval Office is marked different from the country blacks fled before Nov. 4, 2008. It is more accepting of the Harvard-educated Obama, than it was for more than half a century of W.E.B. DuBois, the first black to earn a doctorate degree from that prestigious school.
DuBois – who also studied at Berlin’s Humboldt University – was a “race man” who correctly predicted that “the color-line” would be America’s biggest problem in the 20th century. Obama, it is thought by many of his white supporters, transcends race.
But many of Obama’s black supporters on this side of the Atlantic, while overjoyed by his election, believe there is much more than America must do to become a better place for them.