Its been a tough time for me, trying to keep up-to-date with all the happenings around the world. These days with the workload on my plate, I hardly even have time to read the local newspapers, which, if you know me, is something I try to do everyday… at least!
Anyway, yesterday I got a chance to read November 10th’s Trinidad Guardian, where I happened upon this article by local Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Henry Charles. Fr. Charles graduated from law school a few years ago, and he usually puts an interesting, well researched and written spin on the news of the day.
Last Monday’s column was no different. I’ve copied it here for you to read. If you click on that last hyperlink, you’ll be taken directly to it. As per usual, I’ve tried to illustrate the column with appropriate images and hyperlinks.
A Lincoln Moment
by Fr Henry Charles.
It may be just coincidence that President-elect Barack Obama represented the state of Illinois, the same state as that of Abraham Lincoln, but no politician, black or white, in living memory resembles the great American president as much as he.
During the campaign his opponents strove to make his gift of oratory a liability. Hillary Clinton remarked at one point that while she and John McCain brought experience and achievement to the table, Obama brought a speech.
This denigration of speeches was mind-boggling, when one recalled even such a figure as John Kennedy, but most especially when the giant called Lincoln came to mind. Most people who can recall Lincoln’s Gettysburg address or the second inaugural know little of his programmes or policies, but none can quote either locution without experiencing an immediate elevation of the heart and mind.
Obama may have won the presidency through a disciplined campaign and a comprehensive ground strategy, but in my estimation he won it especially though his words.
Lincoln had other speeches, lesser known but no less significant, which addressed divisions as grave as those inherited by Obama—a fact he himself recalled on his victory night. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said, quoting Lincoln at the close of his first inaugural. “We must not be enemies.”
“Though passion may have strained,” Lincoln went on, “it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The immediate context of this appeal was a divided society in the wake of a bloody civil war, but the sentiments speak, as Obama saw, as much to divisions in contemporary America (and we can add) as to many other societies around the globe, including ours. “The better angels of our nature.”
Politicians rarely summon us to the transformation implied in that vision. We are more used to divisions being solidified and exploited. We have become used to having enemies. It is something the global community, and not America alone, is summoned to go beyond. This is surely one of the principal challenges laid down by Obama. Admiration alone is not enough.
McCain attempted to define Obama as a radical in the last days of the campaign, and in a sense he was right. In fact, Obama proposes a change far more radical than McCain and his most diehard supporters could imagine: a transformation. The politics of Obama is the politics of faith in the prospect of democratic renewal; in the dream that divided peoples could unite around common purposes and lower partisan barriers to make possible dramatic shifts in the way a society relates to itself and the world.
The anticipation of a differently-united diverse society was most evident in the character of the celebration that greeted the closing of the polls in California. The power of the moment was something everyone felt, not African-Americans alone. Who would ever have thought to see a day in America when white people would cry with joy over the elevation of a black man? It was a moment of astonishment and vertigo.
For African-Americans though, as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post reminded, the moment was also personal. Obama is not a president for black Americans but for all Americans. And yet it would be historical myopia of the worst sort not to see in him a miraculous culmination of black hope.
What would Frederick Douglass, WEB De Bois, Booker T Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr have said, Henry Louis Gates asked, “if they could know what our people had at long last achieved (after) all those slights and rebuffs and recriminations, all those rapes and murders, lynchings and assassinations, all those Jim Crow laws and protest marches, those snarling dogs and bone-breaking water hoses, all those beatings and all those killings, all of those collective dreams deferred…all the unbearable pain of all those tragedies?”
Obama’s victory is not redemption for all this history. It is rather the symbolic culmination of the centuries-long struggle for freedom, the grand achievement of a great collective dream.
People now quote a saying of Robert Kennedy’s that there would be a black president by 2000. According to Gates, the award for prescience goes to Jacob K Javits, a liberal Republican senator from New York. In an essay entitled “Integration from the top down” (with the subtitle “The ultimate colour line”), printed in Esquire magazine in 1958, Javits wrote:
“What manner of man will this be, this possible Negro presidential candidate of 2000? Undoubtedly, he will be well-educated. He will be well-travelled and have a keen grasp of his country’s role in the world and its relationships. He will be a dedicated internationalist with working comprehension of the intricacies of foreign aid, technical assistance and reciprocal trade…Assuredly, though, despite his other characteristics, he will have developed the fortitude to withstand the vicious smear attacks that came his way as he fought to the top in government and politics…”
In the same essay Javits predicted the ascendancy of the first black senator (Edward Brooke in Massachusetts since 1966) and the first Supreme Court Justice (the great Thurgood Marshall in 1967).
This was very keen prescience. When we consider Obama’s many-sided, extraordinary gifts, it’s remarkable how accurately Javits hypothetically drew his background and character.
Obama’s presidency will not wield magic. The number of teenage pregnancies will not diminish overnight, nor will the levels of drug addiction in the black community. His achievement will not make black children learn to read and write as if their lives depended on it, though already not a few of them have drawn great inspiration in the moment.
One thing is unquestionable. A barrier has been crossed, an iron ceiling shattered. A man whose cultural and genetic heritage is so secure, he can transcend it, has become the leader of the free world. His victory means not just another “morning in America.” In the words of the black spiritual, it’s one “great getting’ up morning.”