About that “African Saying” on which Cory Booker Built his DNC Speech?

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New Jersey Senator, Cory Booker, quoted from African literature in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, PA, July 25. Democratic National Convention

New Jersey Senator, Cory Booker, quoted from African literature in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, PA, July 25.

On the idea of being each others’ keeper, which many democrats talked about during the  Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, PA this leads me to Cory Booker. The senator from New Jersey has received lots of praise after he spoke so eloquently during the event.

He is often considered a star in the Democratic Party. He was a contender to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate, according to The Washington Post.

As I was looking for things that would connect the dots between America and the rest of the world in the parade of speeches, Booker sealed the deal.

So, let’s forget about First Lady, Michelle Obama for a moment. I think Booker impressed me, like he did for so many others, more than anyone else. Let me share my reasons why.

He spoke with a zest and finesse that I have never seen before. He talked about love, what binds us all together.

“In this city, our founders put forth a Declaration of Independence, but also made a historic declaration of interdependence. They knew that if this country was to survive, we had to make an unusual and extraordinary commitment to one another,” Booker said about Philadelphia, known as the “city of brotherly love.”

Booker said all these things with an incredible, soothing, toothy smile on his face. Sitting in my living room, I felt the love come through the TV screen. How I wish that’s how the world actually worked, I quipped.

More importantly, Booker played the role of a quintessential optimist and globalist as he made an idealistic and practical presentation of the world we live in today. Don’t be deceived by the Trump rhetoric is what he was saying, essentially.

To cast the worldview of the Booker speech in a nutshell, the senator, while dwelling on words imbued with metaphors, took a deep dive into an African proverb with more meaning than there is space for explanation in this blog post.

“This understanding of love is embodied in the African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” This is one reason I’m so motivated in this election,” Booker quoted from African literature.

The exact origin of the saying and its sources are difficult to attribute.  This may be the reason he himself simply referred to it as an “African saying,” further obscuring its source. I’ve seen some criticism from those who think Booker fed into the stereotype of the African continent being looked upon as a country as opposed to a continent.

I believe that is an important point. But lets consider the basis of the argument he was trying to make with the dramatic speech, as some have described it.

To unravel the meaning behind the saying, I consulted professor Kenneth Usongo, a native of Cameroon, who teaches American and World Literature at Texas College in Tyler, Texas. Usongo traced the origin to the N’gambai people in West Africa. The culture and traditions cut across several countries, including parts of Chad and Gambia.

He said the reference more specifically alluded to the fact that “you can’t accomplish much alone, but, as a group, you can achieve much more, or even the impossible.”

So what was the point in using this particular African saying.  What did Booker imply by “going fast” and “going alone?” Because proverbs are ‘the palm oil with which words are eaten’ as Chinua Achebe famously said, lets break this down.

To transplant this into the context of current U.S. politics, Usongo believes what Booker did was a subtle indictment of the dictatorial tendencies Trump has been accused of harboring. To the same extent, he says both Clinton and U.S. President, Barack Obama, castigated Trump for his “he alone” approach to fixing America’s problems.

Throughout the event we heard multiple references to the phrase “it takes a village,” especially from Clinton, as well as first lady, Michelle Obama. Usongo cautioned not to dismiss the first lady’s speech; instead to find a connection between it and Bookers’ statements.

Just before Booker uttered the African saying, he used words on and about love, inclusiveness, building bridges, interdependence, togetherness, patriotism, worth, understanding, commitment, and juxtaposed the settings of “a just society” with so-called “rugged individualism.”

“I respect and value the ideals of rugged individualism and self-reliance. But rugged individualism didn’t defeat the British, it didn’t get us to the moon, build our nation’s highways, or map the human genome. We did that together,” Booker said.

It seems to me Booker was making a larger point about the sociological makeup of today’s globalized world and not just from a political stance represented in Trump, whom he lambasted for a moment.

Beyond the oceans, skies, seas, and international boundaries which separate America from the world, these relationships, the bonds that exist with peoples around the world, live on.

Towards the end, Booker quickly returned to words bordering on gratitude, blessings, kindness, decency. All these qualities encapsulated the central theme of his speech, which I thought was about leadership. He even quoted from Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, which I had never read. So I went looking for it.

The 1978 poem has as its backdrop, the struggles of black people in America. More than history, the poem takes a hopeful, forward-looking and triumphant perspective on life in the U.S. after years of bitterness between whites and blacks. It is what it is; the story of America, which the first lady characterized as “the story of generations of Americans who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, and the sting of segregation.”

But what does this mean for the 2016 election? Leaders don’t demean others to get ahead. That may be the case in the U.S. today, but it is not real leadership.

Throughout the democratic convention we saw this theme harped upon, again and again.

Booker said the African saying was one of his favorites. But why this particular saying from the African continent to make his point?  Why didn’t he pick another American writer to illustrate his point?

I’ve been wondering ever since the July 25 speech.

When you read the great works of Achebe, and other African writers, the question of leadership often comes up. Often projected in a protagonist who falls from grace and is redeemed in the end, you get to know that leadership is learned and not earned. In the African context, it is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes fettered by the influences of the Western world. You can call these influences–bribery and corruption in a capitalist world.

In other words, you may get there fast by going alone, but in the end, getting there ahead of everyone else, does not justify the means.

In the African village setting, where communal living is a part of the culture, this makes sense. Everyone is your brother, sister or cousin. The practice of benevolence is common. You live and eat together, sometimes from the same bowl, regardless of status.

There is also an abundant desire to do good, through kindness, to others. Good deeds don’t have to be manufactured, like tolerance, to fit the circumstances.  The very idea of tolerance, perhaps, through conflict resolution and mediation, is anathema to love and kindness. You don’t mediate love and kindness to others. It is born out of the abundance of the heart.

Most of the speeches at the conventions were your typical speech. They were what we’ve come to expect from the average citizen and politicians alike. However, Booker’s speech was unconventional in many ways. It may have sounded Utopian, but it was real and it was superior.

Why so? He talked not so much about what he thought Americans could do in a country where there are challenges between the races, and people needed to be tolerant of each other. Rather, Booker thought Americans should “love each other” because it is simply the right thing to do.

Love, especially, as contrasted with tolerance, is difficult. It’s a difficult thing to do because love involves giving up something in exchange for another. It’s built on permanence.

Tolerance on the other hand, is temporary. How long can we tolerate something? Not very long.

Yes, the world is a dangerous place. Yes, we need to do certain things to make the world better. But yes, America won’t and can’t bury its head in the sands because of ISIS, ZIKA, Ebola or Chicken Gunya. The U.S. can’t afford to do stupid things like banning Muslims from entering the country, or fermenting hatred to win an election.

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