Win or lose, whatever happens next, Barack Obama is now established as oneof those rare, courageous teachers who leads the country onto newground. He has given us a way to talk about race and our otherdifferences with the clarity and honesty that politics does not normallytolerate. Whether this hurts or helps his presidential prospects is notyet clear, but he has done this for us and it will change the country,whatever the costs to him.
His words should discourage the media frenzy of fear-driven gotcha. His speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday may also make the Clintons re-think their unsubtle exploitation of racial tension. But nobody knows the depth or strength of thecommonplace fears streaming through the underground of public feelings.No one can be sure of what people will hear in Obama’s confidentembrace, beckoning Americans in all their differences, leaving out noone, to a better understanding of themselves.
The essence of the blues, as I learned to understand, is what BarackObama accomplished in that speech–the beautiful and hopeful wrapped inpain and sacrifice, the despairing truths about the black experience inAmerica that mysteriously exalt the human spirit when we hear the music.We don’t need to understand why or define the meaning. In this case,Obama himself is the expression of what we are feeling. His speech willlive on as a complex, exalting memory, whatever happens, because what hesaid about us is true.
Remember, this is a very shrewd politician, not just highly intelligentand worldly, but wise about himself. He must have understood fully thenature of what he was doing in this speech because all of his life hehas coped successfully with the dangerous cross-currents of race. Inthat speech, Obama was taking all the risks onto himself, going where noone had dared to go before in politics with awareness he mightpersonally pay a price. That is what leaders do, isn’t it?
First, Barack Obama did not speak to Americans as though we arechildren. His discussion assumed that people could relate to asophisticated explication of the American experience. He did notrepackage the realities of race into uplifting myths. Above all, he didnot leave anyone out of this generous approach, not his whitegrandmother for her folk fears of black strangers, not the cruelnarrative of the African-American struggle, not the white working classwhose immigrant stories have their own legacy of suffering andresentment. Nor would he renounce his friend and mentor Jeremiah Wright, the minister who expresses deeply felt anger and disappointment at the Americanstory.
If you understand the risks Obama undertook, you can see the beauty andpain in what he did. He could not back away from the risks withoutbetraying himself and all those people who are part of him. On the otherhand, he was putting at risk his own great promise as a politician. Inpsychological terms, what’s extraordinary is his refusal to split offhimself and his own experience from those others. So he embraced them,knowing the risks. Then he tells us–audaciously–that we are capableof doing the same. Yet most of us do the opposite in everyday life,defining ourselves in contrast to the others we are not, idealizing ourown selves by demonizing the others. Obama knows all this. He stillinsists we can do it. He has seen it happen in life.
Could Obama be right about Americans? The proposition itself isthrilling to hear. We feel ennobled by his hopeful account of who weare, but also a little scared. Obama didn’t let anyone off the hook. Hethrew the choice back at the people. But what if he is wrong? We arescared to find out. His hopefulness makes us feel nervous for him.
Obama sounds like cool blues. The calmness of style, the strength of hisself-confidence, pull us through the nervousness. If people have theopportunity to hear him in full and think about it, they will recognizethe strength it took for him to open his arms this way, casting asideall defenses and evasions. With the hope and everything else he standsfor, this guy is one very strong character.
Obama is the new politics, I believe, whatever happens this year. Hisway of talking and thinking will shape the future because I think he hasgot it right about the country.