I’ll add to the huge number of editorials and blogs on Obama’s “big speech on race.” I read the transcript and watched a bit of it, but not without some regret that it had come to this moment. Why did Obama have to give this sort of speech? Who provoked it and why? But it was provoked. No going back from that. And he gave what, to my mind, was a solid and actually quite brave account of his relation to all sorts of pain.
His church was the reason, of course. I’ll admit that I don’t get the whole preacher vibe, whether it is the high energy shouting or the cool, terrifying condemnation. I’ve been to one religious service in my life – and even that one was an accident. So it is pretty foreign territory for me. But that’s cultural difference in my world, even when, in the case of evangelical stuff, it’s a dominant culture and I look like a real outsider. I don’t get it. Most people do. So, I have to learn to see in different ways.
Obama’s minister wasn’t the problem, it was what he said. That’s what we’ll all say and hear, which is probably true. What he said was that Clinton(s) did not have to be subject to racial slurs, that anti-black racism is a terrible thing that still wanders about our social space. And then something about 11 September, which kind of got forgotten. Of course, 11 September has become (or was from the beginning) the blank screen on which everyone projected his or her fantasies (progressive or regressive) about the world: it was the U.S. getting what it deserves (so, civilians are legit targets? ugh), it was about U.S. policy in the Middle East, especially Israel (still looking for the al-Qaeda policy paper to which this refers), murderous and crazy Muslims (everyone is just kooky, so it is time to kill indiscriminately?), and so on. I’m glad that wasn’t the focus of Obama’s response. I feared he, then Clinton and McCain, would start a new struggle for All New Mayor of 9/11.
Yeah, glad it didn’t go that way. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to talk about all those people who died – and so all the sadness that comes with mass death – on that one day.
The way Obama’s speech did go was a thoughtful, uncomplicated speech about the company we keep. About disavowal and history, really, which is to say a realistic and sober assessment of what it means to live in a broken world. After all, no one wants to be judged by the worst of the company one keeps. We all hear stuff from sisters, brothers, spouses, best friends, students we love, and on and on…stuff that makes us roll our eyes, or maybe even confront with critical questions. That’s our world. Purity of principle is an offense to the human condition, in the sense that difference is who and what we are as humans. Uniformity is a lie. Sameness is fascism. That’s all talky and slogan-like, but it is also how we live – no one expects, or even wants, a mirror of one’s own self. Put better, actually, a world of friends-as-mirrors is the narcissism of small children and spoiled political purists.
That’s why the circumstances of this speech had little to do with the question of living in a world of strange, varying individuals, and rather more to do with the anxieties of our painful history. There is an interesting interview, post-speech, with ABC News, where Obama was asked how he would feel if the interviewer (and therefore any random person) went to a white-supremacist church. I found this to be so unspeakably grotesque, to draw Obama’s life into the most vicious and cruel current in European and American life. Comparing Obama to a neo-Nazi? Seriously. That’s what he was saying. Shame on the reporter. But Obama cut him off and it was such an important response: it is not the same to hate the very idea of a black person and to say that there is white racism in the world. If you can’t get that difference, we can’t have a conversation. That’s the ante-in.
And at that moment, Obama was able to say something important: it is not impossible to say “racism.” Or it shouldn’t be. What makes it impossible to say is a misunderstanding of the term, how seeing racism in the world is not the same as being racist. It’s a conceptual mistake, really. Obama just came out and said that. Fabulous. When he said that, my first thought was that he’s too smart to be president. Then again, I could (and want to) be wrong.
In the end, though, this was all initiated by the Clinton campaign. We know that. I think about the difference between Clinton’s “apology” for the race-stuff recently (“if anything was said that was misunderstood, or misconstrued…”) and Obama’s speech calling our attention to the fact that our founding principles are marked with the sin of slavery (yes, a national politician actually said that and it is remarkable). Clinton didn’t mean it. It was the worst apology ever; even she was uncomfortable giving it. Obama, and I really think this, meant what he said. He wanted to say something important to us, to facilitate our thinking about a sin that marks our political and social life – he addressed us as citizens and it was shocking. I don’t think that is easy to say, and Obama was very serious about the company he keeps – a grandmother who makes bigoted remarks, self-destructive aspects of the black community, willful ignorance in the white community. Those are also people who are complex, who often want to be better, but let something about history – the pain, the guilt, the ignorance, the habits – bring them down. The speech was not about making things go away. Anyone who calls out the “magic negro” bullshit again will have to remember this speech. Nothing feel-good about it. The speech was about very real anger and despair, and connecting to how that creates very different worlds of experience. I read the words closely. If taken seriously, it was as good as any essay I’ve read on “how to understand racism and the human condition 101.” I mean that. It was plain and blunt: you have to affirm complexity. And that’s painful. There ain’t no saints in this game.
And then I wondered about that. That is, I wondered about the fact that a black person was being called to raise, then comfort about, the issue of racism. Why wasn’t that Clinton’s charge? Why is the victim summoned as the one to make it go away, or at least assure us that s/he is aware of the path we have to take? What would it mean, in a moment neither crass nor calculating (can we imagine a Clinton acting in any other context?), for a white president or public figure to attempt just that same reckoning? I have a hard time imagining that. That makes me sad.
Keeping company. Maybe Obama is called to this moment because of racism. It is surely something like that, where a person who has been victimized comes to forgive the perpetrators at the perpetrator’s will and command. Yuck. At the same time, though this is certainly something different, Obama is the one in this game who must say yes to all sorts of racism and racism’s pain in order to exist. I can’t help but think of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, where the main character loses her arm transporting back and forth from present to past to present. She loses her arm as a physical mark of what she’s discovered to be her spiritual condition. In order to be who she is, what she is, and where she is, she has to say yes to so much violence (the novel is about time travel, back to the pre-Civil War South). That pain which makes it possible to be who you are…it’s not really a matter of choice, of course. That’s the ruse and difficulty of a sci fi novel. But I think Obama risked his arm. Or, perhaps better, he reminded us that his very existence in this world is constantly in that risky space.
What would it mean for all of us to think about and risk that same loss, saying yes to that pain? I’m not sure. I do think it is something we should all consider. That’s for sure.