Saturday, November 8, 2008

President Obama: the Long View and the Periphrastic Moment

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!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Barack Obama in Berlin (Originally posted July 28, 2008)

So the Democratic candidate for President of the USA, Senator Barack Obama, attracts a crowd of 200,000 people in Berlin, the largest one so far in his campaign. There is so much to say about the Senator, the manner and message of the man, the mere fact that he is the Democratic candidate – so much to say about the deep irony of his drawing his biggest crowd in Germany, of all countries. So just a couple of comments here. To begin with, having been in the USA during Civil Rights, I honestly never thought I would live to see the day. That it has indeed come says a great deal for the American people, in particular for young people in the United States. Among many other things, it says that far from being turned off, disillusioned, blasé, consumed only with celebrating themselves on Facebook and MySpace, they are alert, aware and prepared to respond to an inclusive message, a message that empowers them and advances nation building as a common cause. Whatever one's political persuasion, Senator Obama must be given credit for articulating such a view and persuading people that he means what he says. Of course, what lends credibility to his message is the fact of who he is, the fact that his life is witness to the "Yes-We-Can-ability" to which he now calls his country. Anyone who was there back then is bound to appreciate the awesomeness, the enormity of the now. What Barack Obama stands for is a great deal more than can be communicated by the simple statement that he is the first black man to run for president of the USA – as astounding a fact as that may be – even as the crowd in Berlin listening to him speak is a great deal more than a large gathering of white people in a European city listening to a black man who may well be the next leader of the most powerful country in the world. The bleakest moments in human history and our power to transform them are alive inside this man, and brood inside that crowd. And lastly – for now, for there's a great deal more to be said – the World, the one that begged America not to go to war in Iraq, the one that is frightened about whether we have so ruined the planet that it's about to heave us off its back the way a dog shakes off water, the World that's scared that it may shortly be ravaged by disease at the same time that it is bereft of resources, that World is desperate to find someone who is prepared to give it hope, to tell it that there's a way out. So mock the Senator, call him the Messiah, if you will, but know the times are critical, and admire him for having the courage to want to step into the breach.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

President Obama?

I was touched by the fact that Senator Obama's grandma voted – voted, then died. There's a woman who knows about being a good citizen! It's a lesson, really, about what we are called to do. Couldn't she hang on one more day? Maybe it wasn't so important. Maybe when she saw her grandson about the present business of his life, she felt she could give herself a pat on the back, say to herself, "I tried my best, and he hasn't let me down!" and, having made sure to vote, pushed on to some real R&R.

I've had a Joe the Plumber Day! Like him, I'm unlicensed to do the things I've been doing, but, as my Ma would say, "Necessity is the mother of invention." I'm about to go look how things are coming in the land beneath us on the map, but I wanted to share some things I've found in my little campaign to help Catholics and Evangelicals (strange bedfellows, what?) see that it's perfectly alright to vote for Obama. I found some eye-openers.

Here's a quote from a Catholic man planning to vote for Barack Obama: "Before abortion was an issue for people, the plight of the african-american was an issue. That issue has never totally been resolved, largely because radical reconstruction in the post civil war era was highjacked by scared white people who didn't like the fact that African-americans were threatening to take the majority away from the whites in southern states... The civil right's movement brought us a little bit closer to equal rights, but not quite all the way. As this issue has been one for longer than the woe v. wade issue has been in existence, I'm voting to settle the problem which has been in longer need of correction." (I've quoted him verbatim...)

I find "Woe vs Wade" a poignant slip of the fingers. ('Roe' had been raped. One needs real courage to carry a baby conceived after a rape, though I have known one woman who did it. She has a fine daughter, who now has a daughter of her own.)

I find it revealing that the voter sees casting his vote for Obama as a way of settling "the problem which has been in longer need of correction." I'm very interested in any comments on his point of view.

And now to see the future...