Two things struck me in recent campaign commentary and “controversy.” They say a lot about how, even at a moment when we are witnessing an unthinkable, the pain of the past seems to fog our vision. Yes, I’m talking about how it is entirely possible that we will have a black president. I wonder if we’ve even begun to register how the once unthinkable is almost mundanely becoming, well, thinkable (don’t we expect a bigger soundtrack?). The moment it becomes so momentous, however, that moment is being sunk by how painful the history that makes it “a moment” actually is…
First, and I’ll go backwards in dates and ideologies, there is this “flap” over Michelle Obama’s comment that Barack Obama’s campaign has made her truly proud of her country for the first time. To that, as CNN.com briefly recounts here, Cindy McCain emphasized her pride in country, love of this and that, all to create an alleged contrast to Michelle Obama. Shame on her, of course, for such pandering and low-brow stuff. Pathetic, really. But at that moment, McCain takes advantage of her whiteness in a way no one will really name: she doesn’t have to take on the pain of the past as part of her identity. She can hide from it, see only the pleasures of freedom and the like, and thereby create the crucial distance from, in this case, black people’s experience of a very different side of that same history.
That same history. And that’s what I find so difficult to swallow about this “flap.” Michelle Obama said something really important, that this moment matters at a deep, trans-historical level, not just in terms of a particular 4 to 8 year plan for this particular presidential candidate. That something about us as a people is at stake, and that so far something quite surprising and good is showing up all over the place. I mean, really, it was just so easy to say six months ago…America ain’t ready for a black president. Cynicism is satisfying. In saying that, we (by which I mean white people, but others might fold into this as well) say “most people aren’t as morally good as I am, aren’t as enlightened and eager to be better people as I am,” and so on. Convenient. And then the unexpected happens, at which point we have to say “you know what? I was wrong. Maybe more people are or want to be better than I anticipated…” But who likes to say that. Even when it’s glaringly obvious.
A blog from Mother Jones, a magazine with which I’ve long had a love-hate relationship, takes a very different position, and one equal to Cindy McCain’s in the flee from the pain of history. Whereas McCain cloaks herself in amoral whiteness (which I’d say is really immoral whiteness, that is, the unwillingness to share the pain of history), the MJ blogger Jonathan Stein rehearses a now familiar trope: Barack Obama has a “messiah complex.” I was hoping the blog was just a parody. It’s not. It’s just that bad. The crucial claim is this:
This is our moment to do what? To march? To organize? No. To vote for Obama. As if simply by voting for one man, we make a mark upon this country as indelibly as those who fought the Nazis or sat at lunch counters.
But the easiness of Obama’s movement isn’t what bothers me most. I am profoundly troubled that any candidate would chart the course of American history as follows (and I’m rearranging Obama’s history here to make it more chronological):
American Revolutionaries -> Manifest Destiny -> Slaves/Abolitionists -> Suffragettes -> the Labor Movement -> the Greatest Generation -> the Civil Rights Movement -> Himself.
What I find so interesting about this derisive tone is that it accomplishes, by tone alone, its aim: dismissal of the idea that Obama is the culmination of so many of these struggles. But, seriously, is it really just that absurd, that Obama is the next chapter of those struggles? Or is it just so obviously true that something else is at stake in that derisive tone? I mean, let’s be real: he’s black, he might be president, the civil rights movement fought for equal access to voting (amongst other things), and now the black vote is undergirding a black candidate’s ascension to the most prestigious (and maybe most powerful) political office in the country. How is this not an end of a certain era, or at least the possible end? Factually, of course, it is the end. Stein is just plain wrong. Obama is a messiah. That’s what a messiah does, after all. S/he ends an era, a history. Putting a halo on ol’ Barack is a way of avoiding the real meaning of messianic acts.
But the blogger taps into the other side of not reckoning with the pain of history. It’s easy to see that Cindy McCain keeps blind of it. Stein does the same thing, though, insofar as he doesn’t see how pain always calls for redemption. Sometimes that’s an empty and tragic hope, like Reconstruction’s craziness and disastrous violence. Or maybe plays out in theological terms, as one sees in so many spirituals. But in this case, it is all very concrete and democratic. The point of from slavery to freedom is to be free in the fullest sense. Free means being able to vote. That ain’t enough, so it also means representation. Representation, however, needs to go all the way, and that means the president.
In that very sense, and it is an exceptionally important sense, Obama as president is the end of a lot of history. No one thinks poverty, racism, and the like – all those things that beleaguer black life in institutional and day-to-day life – go away just like that with an Obama presidency. Of course not. What fool would advance that idea? Please show me. That said, representation is no small thing. Were it a small thing, so much blood seeking it and denying it would never have been spilled.
If we take the pain of history seriously, then we share that pain. None of us are spared that pain. It’s in our skin as citizens. At the same time, with that pain comes the meaning of redemption: desire for hope, desire for the end of hopelessness. In that register, hope isn’t an empty feeling or a good rhetorical turn of phrase. It is actually the name for that pleasure that accompanies the pain of being-historical: someday, yes, this will all be over.