Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics in America will stand for some time as the gold standard for oratory, eloquence, intelligence, compassion, content, national conscience, deftness, subtlety and nuance.
I was on the verge of writing about the credibility problems of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to explain why his are the more serious, possibly even fatal. I was tempted to write about the United States quagmire in Iraq to mark the fifth anniversary of an ill-advised and even more ill-executed war. But then, as luck would have it, because of flight delays, I returned after three in the morning on Tuesday and was thus at home later in the morning when Mr. Obama gave his speech on race and politics in America. So I watched it live. The other two topics can wait.
The speech came from and spoke to the heart. It was brutally, searingly honest. Nothing he said or could have said will appease the detractors and the nay-sayers. But their nitpicking, sniping and petty carping will diminish them and betray their smallness of spirit. To anyone who views the video or even reads the transcript and is not moved: tell me, what will move you?
It was historical. Mr. Obama managed to weave the story of America into his campaign narrative: “seared into my genetic makeup.” He identified himself as the product of a union between a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, and his wife as “a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” He traced the roots of America’s racial problem to the original sin of slavery but pointed simultaneously to the civil rights protections embedded in the U.S. Constitution as the salvation. He is the first politician since the American Civil War to recognise how deeply embedded slavery and race have been in the Constitution. Neither excusing nor endorsing black anger and bitterness, he planted it firmly in the broad sweep of American history that includes slavery, humiliation and impoverishment of the African-Americans’ soul and spirit as much as life opportunities. Who else would have had the audacity to connect the history of slavery to the enduring reality of black suffering in 21st century America?
It was historic. As Harvard don Orlando Patterson put it, it will “go down as one of the great, magnificent and moving speeches in the American political tradition.” By the end of the day and throughout the next day everybody, but everybody, was talking about “the speech.” The Internet chatter was full of it. People were openly confessing to having been stunned by the power and majesty of the speech and reduced to tears. There could scarcely have been a major newspaper that did not carry an editorial on it. Most typically published an opinion article as well. The rave reviews and rapturous responses suggest that it could form an integral element in the iconic speeches that define American political history. Some called it the Gettysburg address of the modern era. That may be hyperbole, although, if Mr. Obama does become President, it will be looked back on with awe and wonder as a historical signpost. Others likened it to some of the defining speeches by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King. Even if Mr. Obama fails to win the presidency or secure the nomination, the speech will rank as “a teachable moment” and “an extraordinary moment of truth-telling” (The Washington Post), a record of “Mr. Obama’s profile in courage” (The New York Times), and “Obama’s Lincoln moment” (Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times).
It was courageous, as powerful and frank as the typical politician’s mea culpa is weak and calculating. Almost everyone expected the standard safe ploy by politicians caught in embarrassing contradictions, gaffes and worse: denounce, distance, cast adrift and move on with a fervent prayer that a media fixated on the scandal of the day will switch to the next day’s hot gossip and voters will forget. Faced with a crisis that threatens to terminate their campaigns, politicians clarify, obfuscate, bluster, denigrate and diminish as the time-honoured strategy for disposing of an inconvenient truth. Instead, forced almost to wrestle in the mud of race-baiting gutter politics, Mr. Obama elevated the discourse and soared high into exalted heights, daring his fellow-Americans to follow him there. He forced Americans to confront painful historical memories and uncomfortable contemporary realities. Where experience points to voters rewarding simplicity over complexity, he asked listeners to ponder on and accept nuance. He could have protected his candidacy by denouncing and discarding his pastor of 20 years who had presided over his marriage and baptised his children. Instead, he chose to protect the honour and defend the integrity of the caricatured pastor while denouncing the politics of divisive hate preached in many of his sermons.
It was personal, hauntingly so. He pointed out the error of his pastor’s politics by noting that one of the pastor’s own flock was even now a viable presidential candidate. He weaved the narrative of the nation’s past and future into the story of the lanky kid with the funny name and the kinky hair. While forcefully repudiating his personal pastor’s incendiary rhetoric and racist rants, he placed them in the context of a larger historical and broader black experience, as well as racist beliefs spewed by white commentators. He stoutly refused to disown the pastor and held up a mirror to blacks and whites alike on their sins and failure to accept their individual share of responsibility for the collective malaise. His pastor and church, he said, were as much part of his identity as was his white grandmother who raised him, cherished him and loved him as much as anything else she loved, yet sometimes expressed opinions that made him cringe. He celebrated his affection for those nearest and dearest while cocooning their destructive political beliefs and stereotypes.
It was electrifying. As is by now universally acknowledged, Mr. Obama is an exceptionally gifted orator, no doubt inheriting the tradition of great oratory from his African ancestors. This was a speech he wrote himself, Lincoln-like in tone and gravitas. Yet the lilting cadences and lyrical delivery were missing in action. Mr. Obama was uncharacteristically stiff and formal. Even the numerous spontaneous outbreaks of applause from the small invitation-only audience were tolerated rather than warmly appreciated by an impatient speaker intent on getting his message across.
It was redemptive. Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, out of a nation forged in the crucible of racial conflict, Mr. Obama offers the former oppressors reconciliation, not revenge. He challenged Americans to understand and embrace “the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.” The Washington Post published a photograph of Marty Nesbitt, an Obama supporter, tearing up during the speech. It is a classic picture, capturing the generations of pain but also the yearning for hope and the promise of a better future. Fittingly and deliberately, Mr. Obama used critical metaphors and imagery from Christianity. Instead of a call to rage and violence bred by frustration, he used it as a springboard for reconciliation and “a more perfect union,” the title of his speech. He asked whites to understand black anger rooted in centuries of real discrimination and oppression and blacks to grasp white fears based in social dislocation in a profoundly alienating world. He asked all Americans to join him in challenging entrenched divisions and put their faith in the fundamental decency and goodness of fellow-citizens.
It was presidential. He treated the national audience as adults, not adolescents. Denouncing the treatment of race as a spectacle or as fodder for the nightly news, he invited Americans into an intimate and sober conversation on the role of race in modern American society. He set himself aside from his competitors in this campaign and distinguished himself from all other candidates and Presidents in recent memory. As one commentator in blogsville remarked, “This is who he is; this is why he is running for President; this is why I will vote for him.”
Has he lanced the boil of racial (not racist) backlash? Probably not. But the unanswered questions and contradictions, not all trivial, are a subject for another essay, another day. For the present, let us give Mr. Obama his due. If handling a crisis is the measure of a man, Mr. Obama triumphed as no other contemporary politician could have done. On this, the most daunting of challenges he has faced in the primary season so far, he kept his cool, held his calm, demonstrated grace under pressure and showed poise on the most unforgiving of public stages. He challenged Americans to join him in the journey to keep perfecting the union and left unspoken the question: Does America deserve Mr. Obama?
The speech will stand for some time as the gold standard for oratory, eloquence, elegance, intelligence, compassion, content, national conscience, deftness, subtlety and nuance. He made his supporters proud: no citizen can ask for more from a nation’s leader-in-waiting.
(Ramesh Thakur is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.)