I tend not to be very good at instant analysis, so you’ll forgive a 24 hour delay in posting a few thoughts on Barack Obama’s remarkable speech on race. I agree with Ezra Klein, that the speech’s unique force (I, like a lot of people I know, found myself crying at points) derives from its sheer honesty.
It felt like Obama was transgressing the norms of campaign discourse during the speech by directly discussing the narrative of the campaign itself. When he spoke about speculation that white men would vote for John McCain, I sucked in my breath, feeling as he was violating some sacred taboo. A presidential campaign is theater, and the conventions of that theater is that you suspend disbelief, stick to the script and don’t break the fourth wall. But in discussing the role that race plays in his candidacy, it was almost as if in the second act an actor just stopped reciting his lines, walked to the stage’s edge and talked to the audience about his life. The subversive nature of this rejection of convention is part of what made the speech so gripping to me, and so powerful. It was risky, and made him vulnerable, but his very ability to note the stage and lights that surrounded him, the rituals of the theatre, the clips playing on the news and the exit poll archeology that searches for racial divides, imbued him with wisdom. It made him seem as if he truly has perspective on the surreal craziness that is a presidential campaign. And it displayed to me what is his most appealing character trait: an ability to step outside of one’s own vantage point while remaining moored to a set of certain core principles.
As he walked through the history racial resentment as seen from both sides of the black/white divide, I was reminded of the mythical Greek figure of Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes. After coming upon snakes copulating, Tiresias was transformed into a woman, and spent seven years in a woman’s body before coming once again upon snakes mid-coitus and being transformed back into a man. When Hera and Zeus were arguing about the question on whether the man or woman derives greater pleasure from sex, they sought out Tiresias to resolve the debate. Tiresias, much to Hera’s displeasure, answered that it was women, and was struck blind by Hera in a fit of rage. To compensate him for his loss of sight, though, Zeus bestowed the gift of prophecy upon him.
Barack Obama seemed to me, yesterday to be an American Tiresias. His exotic name, alien upbringing and skin could be, in the context of American politics, as crippling as Tiresias’ blindness. But ultimately it is that same background, the subjective experience of life in white and black America that is the source of his prophetic power. When summoned as it was yesterday, it is something to behold.