I listened to Barack Obama's acceptance speech – twice. Live on air, and again last night. One of the pundits commenting right afterward thought it was long. It was longer than might have been expected, at the end taking a historical view, using the story of the life of African American voter, Anne Nixon Cooper of Atlanta, aged one hundred and six, who cast her vote by "touching her finger to a screen," to trace the arc of history (as I think Senator Obama referred to it at one point) and so to show how far the USA had come in the course of her life: to demonstrate in living – as in Miss Cooper's life – historical colour the mantra of his campaign, "Yes we can!"
What I want to talk about in this post is the difference between the pundit's point of view, that a presidential acceptance speech needs to be brief, hit the high points, be done with it, and Mr Obama's choice to extend his comments, and in doing so, to look back over the previous hundred years by way of a story. (I have no doubt the gigantic crowd, hanging on his every word, would have listened to him go on all night.)
The difference turns on several things. One is that we who have had to fight our way forward are continually aware that we live in and by accretion; that today is indissolubly connected to yesterday and tomorrow; that, as I put it in one of my poems, "is hand holding hand that see we/survive these many historical years." (See “Blessed Assurance” in CERTIFIABLE, page 82, ad on this page.) That hand-holding is another image of which I am fond, a cruciform image of community: hands joined together, at present (synchronically), and hands extending backwards – and forwards – through time (diachronically), the two sets of joined hands intersecting at this moment, now. I think we in the African diaspora see ourselves living within that arc of history, forever at the periphrastic moment, always aware of what is about to happen, as we are aware of what has gone before. We cannot have an investment only in the present because it is impossible to understand ourselves that way. (I don't think we are the only people who view ourselves so, but it's us with whom I am presently concerned.)
Some people seem to have difficulty with this idea. I'll give an example. When my husband, Martin, and I were writing CULTURE & CUSTOMS OF JAMAICA (see ad), there came a point at which we had to explain that we could not usefully say anything about the culture or customs, literature, music, arts, language or indeed, geography of the island, without taking a historical view. The editors balked. They wanted us to describe the country as it is, at present – no going back into history. We held firm and they eventually gave in.
A little diversion that may provide some help. My niece, Sweet Caroline, sent me an e-mail yesterday: a photo of a black man in an all black T-shirt with the inscription in bold white caps on the back: "BLACK MAN RUNNING AND IT AIN'T FROM THE POLICE." God’s truth – that picture, colours and all, worth a thousand words! Black man running and he get where he going. And ain’t no black man never get there befo’. So the black man, he get to say his say and he get to talk as long as he want.
No doubt, too, that Mr Obama realized it was a teaching moment. (Black people see their leaders as teachers, perhaps another difference?) He knew, as I'm certain all of the Americans in Grant Park knew, that the night of November 4, 2008 was a time that had not been before and wouldn't be again; that it wasn't just itself, but it stood for far, far more than itself. (I explored this idea in a post on his speech in Berlin that I've just hung up again.) The moment was ephiphanic, and he seized it.
And there is the matter of ritual, which some people appreciate and others less so. A look at the faces of the crowd showed that people understood that they were witnesses, and that what was happening before them said something about themselves and their country, something crucial and good. It was a moment, an event, a circumstance that spoke about the fact of them, as a people, moving to close the gap between a great ideal – "liberty and justice for all" – and a reality that at times in their country’s history could not have been more terrible. They understood the Behold! factor: that what was being shown to them was themselves, made new. And they affirmed it.
It wasn't a moment for a short speech.
And the truth is Barack Obama can make a speech, the tradition out of which he comes being one of, as Roger Abrahams calls it, "the Man of Words and Talking Sweet". It is a tradition of proverbs and stories, aphorisms and memory gems, exhortation and warning. And however much some spoke of it with scorn, sneering as they allowed that Mr Obama could inspire with his words, people's faces plainly said they had been waiting a long time for someone who would talk to them just so – about goodness, and truth, and ideals, and justice, and unity and possibility. About hope.
Their faces said so, and their votes.
I add now my blessings on President-elect Obama and his family, blessings "...pressed down, shaken together, running over,” the blessings of the gospel chronicler, Luke, encapsulating richness in an image straight from the markets and roadsides where people measure out those staffs of life – rice, wheat, corn – and pass them on to their fellowmen so that they too might live. I pray for the Obamas' safety. I pray especially that the Senator's bold hope for his country will prevail and out of it will come new possibilities for all of us. Selah!