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22 de Marzo, 2008

The Speech — Dual Consciousness on the Presidential Stage

Categorized under Kai Chang | Tags: , ,

[Kai Chang is a guest blogger at The Unapologetic Mexican, and regularly blogs at www.zuky.net.]

At its core, Tuesday's speech amounted to a groundbreaking big-stage exposition of dual consciousness that I regard as the most sophisticated and important piece of mainstream political oratory and speech-writing of my adult life.

No, it did not entirely satisfy me as an anti-racist. The speech contained several elements that I found somewhat troubling or perhaps less than honest. But this was not an anti-racist speech. This was a campaign speech by a popular national politician who stands a mere two electoral steps away from the US presidency, whose candidacy has come under threat of fatal derailment by white fear of "black rage". Context matters, and just as one must grasp the socio-cultural context of Jeremiah Wright's words in order to understand and appreciate them, so one must grasp the context in which Barack Obama took the podium on Tuesday morning in order to appreciate what he was trying to do and say.

Obama was not trying to dissect, deconstruct, or even confrontationally criticize the white racism which has so animated and shaped this nation's history and which continues to cast heavy shadows across much of our society's daily life. He did invoke the "original sin of slavery" and the struggles of the abolitionist and civil rights movements; he did frame racism in institutional rather than interpersonal terms; but this was not the center of his message. Rather, it seems to me that he was trying to advance racial dialogue, one modest yet pivotal step, by using his own life story as a window into dual consciousness. By outlining and juxtaposing features and pitfalls of both the black experience and the white lens, Obama appeared to be trying to nudge these perceptual prisms just a little bit closer to one another, toward a mutual recognition encapsulated at the end of the speech by an anecdote about a young white woman and an elderly black man connecting as human beings at a meeting on the campaign trail.

Now, you won't be surprised to hear that I still see an asymmetrical equation. On the one hand, we have marginalized black perspectives with legitimate grievances grounded in documented history and measurable injustice; on the other hand, dominant megaphone-wielding white perspectives steeped in denial and dismissal of the empirical impact of racism on present-day inequality. Perhaps Obama's cautiously-delineated positioning between these centers of gravity is itself a meta-symbol of where the needle currently falls on the dial of socio-political power. In any case, he described in non-judgmental terms the bitterness, resentment, and conflict emanating from these respective viewpoints as inescapable features of today's political landscape. Right or wrong, these are real forces at play. It was as though Obama sought to suddenly turn on the lights in a crowded darkened room and force us all to see each other eye to eye for one blinking moment. That's a feat that no policy paper, legislation, or executive order can accomplish.

It was a speech that he probably knew all along he'd have to deliver at some point. After all, it would be impossible for US society to elect an African American president without first directly addressing unresolved issues of race and making some sort of breakthrough on this front. Obama seized the moment with a steady hand and a gutsy sense of timing, not only to defend his candidacy, but to use this unprecedented platform to elevate mainstream racial discourse. He spoke over the heads of the pundits and shills and other self-humiliating peddlers of pap. He spoke directly to citizens who remain capable of conducting thoughtful, responsible discussion on complex, delicate, deeply-felt matters. He spoke as though his audience were grown-up and intelligent. And he spoke with an unaffected, unpretentious solemnity suggesting that the substance of this speech was and is larger than any one candidacy or election. What began as a challenge to Obama's campaign became a challenge to America. He seemed to be essentially saying: I have built my career and my candidacy as a unifying public figure with one foot on each side of the racial divide; yet at the end of the day I am a black man in America, with unshakable ties to the black community; and if our society is not ready to deal with that, then let's end this charade and admit that we have not come nearly as far as many proclaim; however, if we are ready to take another step on the long march toward freedom, then let's move forward together.

So let's see how far we've come. It doesn't matter if fake-news bobble-heads don't get it. It doesn't matter what pollsters say. What matters is that Obama stepped up in the midst of crisis and gave us a moment which will shine in history as a political milestone; a moment in which it somehow seemed possible, if only for a flashing instant, that centuries of heartbreak and blood and cruelty and division might someday be healed by the quest for social justice and subsumed by our common humanity. Whatever happens in this topsy-turvy silly-season election, it was a moment that just might have made it all worthwhile.

[ Cross-posted at Zuky ]

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Comentarios (8)

Rafael Author Profile Page dijo:


If its starts a dialog, a worthwhile one this time around, then it did more than it could ever be asked for.

nezua Author Profile Page dijo:


and it has started a dialogue, rafa. in easter sermons around the country, in every day conversations, on the Daily Show! it was really an amazing speech, and the ripples are encouraging to watch from most quarters. of course the o'reilly section of the nation will never be happy unless they are the ones who get to frame any discussions on race. and others are made uncomfortable by hearing a black man speak so comfortably about america's troubled past. but many are very encouraged by it, and that is good to see. i wonder how it all will play out.

great post, bro.

RC dijo:


I think he had to set all of the dials just exactly right as he is running for President. If it was Tim Wise giving that speech the Noise Machine would have amped up some heavy feedback. I don't watch or listen to media, so perhaps they DID amp up anyway.
Readers of Nez, Field Negro, Kai, and hundreds of other blogs that get into the down and dirty will find the speech tame, but relatively, it was groundbreaking.
It will be a pleasure to hear more and deeper speeches of this sort after he takes office.
Let the media have a meltdown. It's long past time they did. Let them wear themselves out on dizzy commentary directed at the inconsequential idiotic concerns they present as essential. After a time the public will tire of the stupidity and learn to ignore the media demagoguery.
I hope that happens. I am preparing now for the first meaningful Presidential event we have ever had in PR in June.
Obama's other speeches last week were also of great interest. Those who claim there is no policy statement missed those.

kyledeb dijo:


The speech certainly was a milestone in the U.S.'s history of racism. The most remarkable thing about it though isn't only that people are talking but the type of people that are talking.

Chris Wallace went on Fox News and derided his fellow anchors from Fox and Friends for Obama bashing and picking at a comment he made on a radio show after he made this speech describing his grandmother as a "typical white person".

Mike Huckabee praised the speech and while he didn't defended Rev. Wright's comments he suggested that we understand the black experience, and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC agreed with him.

It's like for the first time the things I've wanted white people to do and say are happening because of that speech. White people, and not just the far lefties like me, seem ready to start making an effort to understand what the black experience is like, and that was all made possible through Obama's lense and speech.

Really incredible, and I'm glad you wrote on it Kai.

nezua Author Profile Page dijo:


agreed!!! even the daily show tried it out. its wild to watch!! i'm going to post something soon (maybe, jeez i have no time) on some youtubes i found of similar things on CNN! its so funkadelic.

Kai Chang Author Profile Page dijo:


Rafael, Nez, Kyle, thanks for the good words!

Yeah, Obama did something pretty cool with that speech: he got people thinking. He kinda helped folks (those willing to listen) take a fresh look at race in our society, maybe even rethink a few things. It's a start.

nezua Author Profile Page dijo:


many moments i feel awed by the discussions popping up. and then sometimes i worry, too.

Rafael Author Profile Page dijo:


The thing is, that for all the uproar about Rev. Wright's words and Black Liberation Theology (calling it above all else...racist), the more I read about it and listen to the sermon, the more it makes sense. And I realized (once again) thats there a lot of folks out there (I'm looking at you Paddy Buchanan) that don't like their sacred cows slaughtered and their eyes open. The challenge remains.

And Kai...don't mention it.