I finished reading the speech and knew it was historic, something I've not yet seen in my adult lifetime. Intent to write about it here, I felt it was important to let my initial thoughts simmer a bit. Why? Because I felt the most important thing Sen. Obama did yesterday was enjoin us to think. He held up a mirror to our country—black, white and brown (as he says)—and asked us to look at ourselves. He's demanding more of us all and isn't that what a great leader does?
Never have I heard anything come as close to this authentic a discussion about where we are in our national conversation on race. It was so ground-breakingly honest and heartfelt. He doesn't have all the answers. But he's invited us all to the table. And that's more than anyone has done on this issue since Martin Luther King Jr.
There are people who will question his timing, that his speech was a reactionary move, something he should have done long ago in this campaign. But to get mired in that distracts from what he was trying to say. He told us about himself—who he is as a man and not just what he looks like. That he—like our nation—is more than just a sum of his parts.
The impetus for this speech (full video here), which I suspect given its thoughtfulness, has been in the making for some time, was the hate speech shown endlessly on TV and You Tube of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama and his family are members.
Wright doesn't speak for Obama just as my priest doesn't speak for me. How could a Catholic priest speak for me? His life experience is completely counter to my own. I am a married, mother who has questioned the church at many turns and remains doubtful not of my faith but of the church's role in that faith. My pastor is a fatherless, celibate man who, I'm guessing though I don't know for certain, is quite grounded in his faith not only in Catholicism, but the church's role. We are at opposite ends of the Catholic continuum, and yet I do not leave the church. But he does not—indeed could not—speak of my experience as a Catholic woman.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Sure Obama could've left his church. But then he would be criticized for the doing the politically expedient thing and questioned on that judgment. His commentary goes further to show us how divided we remain.
There is a disconnect—a chasm, as Obama says—between the black church experience and the white church experience. But that is the reflection of a larger chasm of religion in America in which, "the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning."
Obama's speech gives us a context for not only the racial attitudes, but also the generational differences. The attitudes and realities that persist today are grounded in generations of people who have been denied quality education, segregated in housing, worship and opportunity, and subjected to an ongoing cycle of poverty and blight. "What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them," he says
Rather than stop at the black experience, Obama also talks about the "white Americans [who] don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch."
They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. (Bold is mine.)"Opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense." I don't know that I've read a truer statement. I've heard similar words uttered in my reporting on education reform. "In bringing up all kids and providing for all what some have had, inherent in that message is that you're taking something away."
And yet he tells us, we cannot continue to be victims of the past. We can be informed by our past, but we don't have to let that past dictate our future.
Who among us hasn't been around family members who express stereotypes—whether gender, racial or ethnic-based—and not cringed. But as Obama said, do you disown those people whom you love? He separated himself from Wright's hysterical speech while recognizing that the man is still someone who has shaped him in other ways. Some will say he's equivocating. I don't think so. He's walking through the gray matter of race. To me that is a sign of an intelligent mind. To break our racial stalemate we must be willing to come together in ways we never have as a nation, to continue the work of perfecting our union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.His ideas are not pipe dreams, but are based in the reality. We have serious problems in this country that affect us all. Those problems cannot be addressed unless we come together as a nation to improve our lives for all.
"A More Perfect Union" will be required viewing and reading in my household. As I watched it for a second and third time, I envisioned high schools across America playing this speech for all students. Let students see that they don't have to be stuck, that they aren't someone else's problem. They can demand a quality education, they can take responsibility for improving their lives, they deserve safe neighborhoods with places to play, they have a voice and they are free—and, yes, encouraged—to use it. That they can start discussions in their classrooms and in their homes about how to perfect our union.
It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.Word of the day
verisimilitude: state of having the appearance of truth as in art or literature