"Your election will not only transform America, it can
transform the world. Your message of change will ignite hope and action in people of many countries who might still be
passive in the face of inadequacies and injustice."
Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda,
in a letter to Barack Obama, Nov. 5, 2008
MOUNT OBAMA NATIONAL PARK, Antigua and Barbuda - Although it stands just 1,327 feet above the azure ocean, we could see all of Antigua from the crown of this newly renamed summit.
The sky already was veiled by a faint scrim of satin sunshine and dust, but we could still trace the perimeter of this 108-square-mile island named by Columbus in 1493.
On clear days, I was told, I could also spot other islands on the northeast corner of the chain of pearls that studs the Caribbean Sea: Montserrat, Redonda, Nevis, and Guadeloupe. In fact, from this vantage point and with a little awareness, it is possible to appreciate Antigua's past, understand its present, and imagine a future.
It was Aug. 5, the morning after Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer formally proclaimed that Boggy Peak - the highest point in this island nation - was now Mount Obama National Park. My wife, Sari, and I were among the first to climb this rocky crest.
Until the new site is developed, however, permission and guidance are required to climb to the top. Even with both, start as early in the day as possible because of the afternoon heat.
We met our guide, Kim Derrick of the Environmental Awareness Group of Antigua and Barbuda, at the entrance gate shortly before 8 a.m. We were joined by Brian Cooper, also an EAG-Antigua volunteer, and Eric Brown, a neighbor of Derrick's.
Following the red and blue ribbons tied to trees, we picked our way along the edge of a deepening ravine that splits the wilderness forest of candlewood, Spanish oak, mahogany, mango, fig, fern, and the vines of myriad hanging species. It took us two sweaty hours to climb the steep, lightly marked trail to the old telecommunications tower at the summit.
In another sense, this journey was centuries in the making.
It is always a notable event when a politician from one nation is moved to confer such a tangible honor on a living politician from another country. Skeptics might suspect a public relations ploy, but the fact that Spencer announced his vision the morning after the U.S. presidential election suggests more heartfelt motives.
"This great political achievement by Barack Obama resonated with me in a way that I felt compelled to do something symbolic and inspiring," Spencer explained in his dedication remarks to the audience of several hundred dignitaries and guests, including U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.) and actresses Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Angela Bassett.
"As an emancipated people linked to our common ancestral heritage and a history of dehumanizing enslavement, we need to at all times celebrate our heroes and leaders who through their actions inspire us to do great and noble things," Spencer said with emotion.
Judging by the numerous Obama street signs, bumper stickers, salsa bottles, and other evidence of affection we saw across the island, Spencer is not alone in his sentiment.
The official remarks were followed by a program of poems and dance, including a poignant performance by the recently crowned monarch of Antigua's 2009 calypso competition, Trevor "Zacari" King, who sang his "It Was for You Barack."
"His song wasn't just about Barack Obama," Bassett said. "It's about the history of black people around the world and the struggle and sacrifices that have been done so that he could rise to the position that he is in today."
Then a monument was unveiled. Crafted from blocks of stone cut by African slaves for the naval base England established on Antigua in 1725, its plaque reads: "Mount Obama, named in honor of the historical election on Nov. 4, 2008, of Barack Hussein Obama, the first black president of the United States of America, as a symbol of excellence, triumph, hope and dignity for all people."
In the wake of Spencer's November announcement, Antigua's contentious two-party government agreed to the change, and an appropriate date for the renaming was selected: Aug. 4, Obama's 48th birthday. No matter that the date also happened to be the climax of Antigua's vibrant, colorful, raucous weeklong Carnival celebrations.
Rather than the quasi-religious pre-Lenten festivities held elsewhere, Carnival on Antigua is a midsummer celebration of freedom held yearly since 1957 around the first Saturday in August. The holiday commemorates the emancipation of slaves in England's colonies in 1834.
Carnival is more or less a continuous calypso celebration that unfolds over four nights and five days on the streets of St. John's, the capital and primary city. Like Carnivals elsewhere, it's a time of exuberant abandon and group expression, but it is held in the heat of summer and observed with amazing fervor, estimable stamina, and nonstop steel-drum music.
The selection of Boggy Peak to honor Obama also has historic relevance. Documents indicate that in 1647, its forested ridgeline provided refuge for several dozen slaves fleeing a revolt on the island's sugar plantations. English militia eventually stormed their palisaded camp, and the leaders were hauled off and burned alive. But there is little tangible evidence of the events.
U.S. Navy construction crews that gouged an access road up the seaward side of the slope in 1945 and erected a telecommunications tower on the peak gave no thought to preserving historical artifacts. An exploration into the area's history is only one part of the still-emerging plan for this nascent national park.
As early visions of Mount Obama took shape, the goal has blossomed into the creation of a full-fledged Caribbean national park.
Maybe one day, that nearly obsolete communications tower at the peak of Mount Obama could be transformed into a dramatic observation platform.