President Obama’s Civics Lesson at Town Hall Meeting in London

On April 23, 2016, President Barack Obama addressed a town-hall meeting of 500 young Leaders of the United Kingdom at London’s Lindley Hall. [1] Below are photographs of Obama and of some of the young leaders at the meeting.

Obana UK more

London crowd

 

 

 

 

Here is Obama’s civics lesson that is directly relevant to U.S. citizens

Post-World War II World

The U.S. and Great Britain “ultimately made up [over the American Revolutionary War] and ended up spilling blood on the battlefield together [in World War II], side-by-side, against fascism and against tyranny, for freedom and for democracy.  And from the ashes of war, we led the charge to create the institutions and initiatives that sustain a prosperous peace — NATO; Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, the EU.  The joint efforts and sacrifices of previous generations of Americans and Brits are a big part of why we’ve known decades of relative peace and prosperity in Europe, and that, in turn, has helped to spread peace and prosperity around the world.“

“And think about how extraordinary that is.  For more than 1,000 years, this continent was darkened by war and violence.  It was taken for granted.  It was assumed that that was the fate of man.  Now, that’s not to say that your generation has had it easy.  Both here and in the United States, your generation has grown up at a time of breathtaking change.”

“You’ve come of age through 9/11 and 7/7 [the date of the 2005 terror attacks on a London bus and Underground trains].  You’ve had friends go off to war.  You’ve seen families endure recession.  The challenges of our time — economic inequality and climate change, terrorism and migration all these things are real.  And in an age of instant information, where TV and Twitter can feed us a steady stream of bad news, I know that it can sometimes seem like the order that we’ve created is fragile, maybe even crumbling, maybe the center cannot hold. And we see new calls for isolationism or xenophobia.  We see those who would call for rolling back the rights of people; people hunkering down in their own point of view and unwilling to engage in a democratic debate.  And those impulses I think we can understand.  They are reactions to changing times and uncertainty. “

“I implore you to reject those calls to pull back.  I’m here to ask you to reject the notion that we’re gripped by forces that we can’t control.  And I want you to take a longer and more optimistic view of history and the part that you can play in it. I ask you to embrace the view of one of my predecessors, President John F. Kennedy, who once said:  “Our problems are man-made.  Therefore, they can be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.”

The “world, for all of its travails, for all of its challenges, has never been healthier, better educated, wealthier, more tolerant, less violent, more attentive to the rights of all people than it is today. “

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have big problems.  That’s not a cause for complacency, but it is a cause for optimism.  You are standing in a moment where your capacity to shape this world is unmatched.  What an incredible privilege that is.”

Reject “pessimism and cynicism; know that progress is possible, that our problems can be solved.  Progress requires the harder path of breaking down barriers, and building bridges, and standing up for the values of tolerance and diversity that our nations have worked and sacrificed to secure and defend.  Progress is not inevitable, and it requires struggle and perseverance and discipline and faith.”

“Fighting for change that you may not live to see, but that your children will live to see.  That’s what this is all about. . . . Whether in the Cold War or world war, movements for economic or social justice, efforts to combat climate change — our best impulses have always been to leave a better world for the next generation.”

Historical Perspective

Abolitionists “in the 1700s . . . were fighting against slavery, and for a hundred years built a movement that eventually led to a civil war, and the amendments to our Constitution that ended slavery and called for equal protection under the law.  It then took another hundred years for those rights that had been enshrined in the Constitution to actually be affirmed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And then it’s taken another 50 years to try to make sure that those rights are realized.  And they’re still not fully realized. There’s still discrimination in aspects of American life, even with a black President.”

This history means “that if any of you begin to work on an issue that you care deeply about, don’t be disappointed if a year out, things haven’t been completely solved.  Don’t give up and succumb to cynicism if, after five years, poverty has not been eradicated, and prejudice is still out there somewhere, and we haven’t resolved all of the steps we need to take to reverse climate change. “

“Dr. [Martin Luther] King [,Jr.] said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’  And it doesn’t bend on its own.  It bends because we pull it in that direction.  But it requires a series of generations working and building off of what the previous one has done. “  (Emphasis added.)

Passion To Highlight Societal Problems

“As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems.”

 Need To Have a Strategy for Change and Compromise

But “once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.  And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position.”

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.  You, then, have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.

And too often what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem, but then people feel so passionately and are so invested in the purity of their position that they never take that next step and say, okay, well, now I got to sit down and try to actually get something done..”

Everyone has “to be principled, you have to have a North Star, a moral compass. There should be a [good] reason for you getting involved in social issues. . . . But you have to recognize that, particularly in pluralistic societies and democratic governments like we have in the United States and the UK, there are people who disagree with us.  They have different perspectives.  They come from different points of view.  And they’re not bad people just because they disagree with us.  They may, in fact, assert that they’ve got similar principles to ours, but they just disagree with us on the means to vindicate those principles.”

Compromise “does not mean surrendering what you believe, it just means that you are recognizing the truth, the fact that these other people who disagree with you or this other political party, or this other nation — that they have dignity too, that they have worth as well, and you have to hear them and see them.”

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Obama in Town Hall with Young Leaders of the UK (April 23, 2016); Gani, Barack Obama tells young people that progress is possible, Guardian (April 23, 2016); Hayden, Obama’s ‘Town Hall’ Meeting with British Youth Covered Gender Rights, Islamophobia, and Leadership, Vice News (April 23, 2016).

Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel

A prior post summarized Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes while another post provided a brief look at the relevant historical background of the novel–the fate of the Black British Loyalists in the American colonies during and after the American Revolutionary War.

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

Now we examine Hill’s own reflections about his novel and how his biography has influenced this novel and his other books. [1]

He first heard about the historical Book of Negroes in 1980 when he read The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, a scholarly book by Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker.

Hill immediately knew from reading the Walker book that one day he would write the fictional story of a woman who had to have her name entered into the Book of Negroes.  But it took at least 15 years before he felt he was ready to tackle such a large project. In 2002 when he began to research and write the novel, he examined for the first time reproductions of the actual Book of Negroes. Another topic of his research was the activities of the British abolitionists. The size of this project is indicated by the five years it took to research and write the novel.

His greatest surprise from his research was discovering that among the Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792 were some who had been born in Africa and thus were returning home. This back-to-Africa exodus took place 30 years before American slaves went to Africa to found Liberia and more than a century before Jamaican Marcus Garvey urged blacks in the Diaspora to return to the motherland.

From the moment of his conception of the novel, Hill said, it was a woman’s story. As a writer, he locates stories in the lives of the people who have the most to lose, and Aminata as a mother had the most to lose.

A constant question for him in all of his writing, he said, was how does someone survive horrible events in life. Every book or story requires an overarching theme, which for him is what does the main protagonist want. For Aminata in The Book of Negroes it is “I want to go home to Africa.”

Lawrence Hill’s parents — a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated  to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, D.C.in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

Born in Canada in 1957, Hill was raised in a predominantly white Toronto suburb. He has a B.A. in economics from Laval University in Quebec City and an M.S. in writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although Hill always wanted to be a creative writer, he immediately recognized that he needed to have some kind of gainful employment to support himself financially as he was starting his writing career. These sidelines, he acknowledges, helped his creative writing.

He spent three years as a journalist with Toronto’s The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press and learned how to write quickly on short deadlines and to recognize that his words could be changed by editors. He then spent a year in Spain writing short stories, but realized that his quickly written letters from Spain to friends were more lively and better written. For the next 15 years he was a free-lance speech writer for Canadian politicians and in the process learned how to write for different voices.

Hill’s international travels have also influenced his writing, especially his volunteer trips to West Africa. While in Mali, for example, he met a midwife by the name of “Aminata,” which he used as the name of the main character in The Book of Negroes.

Now Hill is an accomplished and recognized author. In addition to The Book of Negroes, he has published two other novels, a memoir, three other non-fiction books and the script for a film.

He is a member of the Council of Patrons of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Hill has received the Diamond Jubilee Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, the Medal of Distinction from Huron University College, the Freedom To Read Award from the Writers Union of Canada, the Award of Excellence from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Rev. John C. Holland Award of Merit from the Hamilton Black History Committee. Hill also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

This coming fall Hill will be Canada’s Massey Lecturer and has said the lecture’s theme will be “how beliefs, traditions, rituals, phobias, and obsessions about blood influence how we see ourselves individually and societally.”

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[1] This post is based primarily upon materials on Hill’s own website and his recent remarks at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference.

The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

As mentioned in a prior post, the amazing saga of the Black Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War is not widely known. Helping to make it better known is the novel, The Book of Negroes, by Canadian novelist, Lawrence Hill.

the-book-of-negroes1

The novel takes the form of a memoir written in the early 19th century by a West African woman, Aminata Diallo.

She starts with her mid-18th century abduction as an 11-year-old girl from her West African village and being forced to walk for months to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. There she is put on a slave ship that takes her to South Carolina, where she begins a new life as a slave.

Aminata is intelligent and as a slave learns midwifery skills and how to read and write. Nevertheless, her life as a slave is not easy.

Book of Negroes (page)
Book of Negroes (page)

Her story begins to intersect with that of the Black Loyalists near the end of the American Revolutionary War when she goes to New York City. Because she is literate, she is hired by the British to prepare the Book of Negroes, which provides identifying information for Black Loyalists to be evacuated from the City to go to Nova Scotia for a new and promised better life as free people. In Hill’s words, it was like a group passport or visa. Aminata is one of those so evacuated.

Life in Nova Scotia, however, is not as easy or as great as the British had promised, as demonstrated in the historical record and in the novel, for Aminata and the other Black Loyalists.

Eventually some of the Black Loyalists leave Nova Scotia to go to Sierra Leone in western Africa, as documented in the historical record. In the novel, Aminata is one of those Black Loyalists returning to Africa.

Aminata’s fictional life, however, also includes a trip to London, where she is used in the early 19th century by the British abolitionists to support their arguments for ending the slave trade. To her consternation, abolition of slavery itself is not part of the abolitionists’ agenda.

Guides for the novel for teachers and readers are available on Hill’s website.The novel is now being made into a TV series.

The novel won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. The book was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright LEGACY Award and long-listed for both the Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award.

When my best friend from college who lives in Toronto gave me a copy of this novel several years ago, I had never heard of it and was startled by the title, “The Book of Negroes.” Was this some racist tract? I wondered, but my friend quickly disabused me of that notion.

I found it hard to believe that any male writer, much less an assumed white man, could write so beautifully and convincingly in the first person of an African woman. It was only much later that I discovered that Hill is biracial and that his personal history coupled with his writing skills clearly helped him to write this wonderful book.

A subsequent post will explore Hill’s comments about the novel and his biography.