22 de Marzo, 2008
The Speech — Dual Consciousness on the Presidential Stagewww.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 ]