Barack Obama’s post-race politics, Part II

(Part I is here)

So how does Barack Obama articulate a post-race politics in a nation–in a hemisphere–whose history has been shaped by racial tension literally since before Columbus? Here in the speech Obama gave at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, he reframes the theme of race in this country in such a way that no one can be excluded from that history by talking about it, and our nation, in theological terms:

By his own accounts, [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task – the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation’s original sin.

Those last 12 words, as I noted back in November, so simply and directly and eloquently encapsulate the history of race relations in this country from Jamestown to the present that I literally had to stop reading to catch my breath and wipe a few tears from my eyes. But what really caught my attention is that, in his theological figuring of racial injustice in the political/cultural/historical context of a nation, all are complicit, all equally tainted, all equally punished–because all have transgressed (though, to be sure, in different senses). This sort of language doesn’t emerge from focus-group testing but from deep conviction in the truth of those words. That fact makes them all the more audacious, all the more thrilling that a politician–any politician–would bare his convictions in such a way.

[Aside: compare to this language, from Hillary Clinton’s speech in Selma on the same day Obama delivered the one to be discussed later:

“I come to share the memories of a troubled past and a hope for a better tomorrow. Our future matters, and it is up to us to take it back, put it into our hands, start marching toward a better tomorrow.”

While I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, it’s not as though her language exactly resounds in the memory, much less seek to engage us intellectually, as Obama’s does.]

That trope of “original sin” unites blacks and whites in our common inheritance as Americans, compelling us to work out our national and cultural “salvation” together, bearing equal individual and collective responsibility for that working-out. Framed in this way, then, race, as traditionally talked about in this country, isn’t an issue. The question of Obama’s blackness becomes moot.

Or ideally, it should. Continue reading

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Barack Obama’s post-race politics, Part I

(Originally posted at Blog Meridian–hence some of the internal links taking you there.)

“Old man, . . . have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?” –William Faulkner, “Delta Autumn”

Readers of this blog know that I have come to admire Barack Obama and that the speech he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial back in November (linked to above) sealed the deal for me. I’m not alone in that admiration, I know; what I strongly suspect, though, is that many people, even those who admire him, misunderstand him at a very fundamental level, while, ironically, those who are uncertain of him understand him better. Or, perhaps that’s unfair. It might be more accurate to say that we understand him at a subconscious level but find it difficult to articulate just what we’re responding to in him. So, I’d like to help out some by noting my sense of why Obama so commands our attention and, for many, embodies our hopes for the sort of politics our nation deserves and needs.
Continue reading