By Jonathan Tilove
March 19, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s speech on race was entitled “A More Perfect Union.” But it might have been called “Waking From the Dream.”
With it, Obama dashed the fancy that 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., America, in an act of timely wish-fulfillment, might elect a black man president while skipping lightly over questions of race.
But more than that, Obama was both true to himself — ending a self-imposed silence on matters central to who he is — and true to the deeper meaning of King.
Come the April 4 anniversary of King’s death, it will now be far harder to be satisfied with platitudes. Very much in the spirit of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech — and unlike the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that made the Illinois senator’s reputation — Obama’s words this week were less an idealized paean to America’s aspirations and more a gritty accounting of its real history, its present quagmire, and the long slog ahead.
“This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate that we’ve been stuck in for years,” he said. “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”
Gone in that instant was the Barack Obama who would “transcend race.”
The candidate who spoke in Philadelphia was not standing above or beyond race in America, but knee-deep in the thick of it. Here was the son of an African father and white mother who grew up straddling both worlds. Here was someone who knew what black people said when white people aren’t around, and what white people said when black people aren’t around.
This was a return to the Barack Obama who wrote “Dreams From My Father,” first published in 1995. For many who read it, the memoir about sorting out his own identity established the honest intelligence and enormous potential of its author.
This was the Barack Obama who wrote how, as a young man, “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.”
This was a man who could understand why his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, in his fulminating about white America, seemed so angry, and why Geraldine Ferraro, in her grousing about Obama benefiting from his race, seemed so sour. The man who loves his white grandmother and she him, notwithstanding her occasional “racial or ethnic stereotype that,” Obama said, “made me cringe.”
This was a man frankly confronting the human lapses that consign Americans to their racial corners — without disowning anyone.
Whether the speech increases the likelihood of his election or destroys those chances won’t be known for weeks and months.
For weeks and months, Obama has walked on eggshells on race. Carried by the enormous enthusiasm — first of white voters, then black voters, then struggling to keep one without losing the other — the campaign and its candidate have seemed bound by the common calculus that any direct talk might be ruinous.
When videos began to circulate the vitriolic sermons of the Rev. Wright, recently retired pastor of Obama’s church in Chicago, Obama first tried to skate by — denouncing the statements while claiming he hadn’t been in church when the most inflammatory words were delivered.
That only fueled the firestorm, and, on Tuesday, his candidacy in danger of imploding, Obama threw caution to the wind.
“I think he realized this may be the end of his chances because he spoke to something we cannot speak of in this country and he did so with really, really honest rhetoric. What he did was courageous,” said Mark Lawrence McPhail, an expert on the rhetoric of race at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“It was heartfelt and it was sincere, and that was something I felt was missing from just about everything I’d seen up until now that seemed very much motivated by the self-interest and opportunism, by American politics.”
McPhail, who is black, often collaborates with David Frank, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who is white — most recently on a study of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which they called “Waking From the Dream.”
Both likened Obama’ speech to King’s 1963 oration.
Frank said that like King in ’63, Obama “gave America a history lesson on the legacy of slavery and segregation and he did that by juxtaposing black trauma and white trauma and he did that so well, and so nicely. I’m astonished by this address.”
McPhail agreed: “It’s like the Dream speech in that it addresses very real, concrete aspects of this country’s racial history.”
As McPhail and Frank make plain in their analysis, the popular memory of the 1963 March on Washington — and of King’s legacy altogether — celebrates the inspiring peroration that ends the Dream speech.
But the body of King’s address was a recapitulation of how, for African-Americans, the “promissory note” of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — the guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — comes back “marked ‘insufficient funds.”’
Speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial “five score years” after the Emancipation Proclamation,” King declared that they gathered at “this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
“This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality,” King said.
But even as he warned white Americans of the rising tide of black anger, he cautioned, “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
On Tuesday, Obama’s tone and substance were much more akin to King’s in 1963 than to his own before the Democratic National Convention in Boston four years ago.
Frank and McPhail earlier collaborated on an analysis of the 2004 speech. While Frank admired the “audacious hope” of Obama’s call to reconciliation, McPhail saw the speech as flattering American vanity. He shuddered at Obama’s romanticizing historical reality when he referred to “the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs.”
But in Philadelphia, McPhail said, Obama wasn’t trading in flattery or easy outs.
“It wasn’t about transcendence, it was about transformation. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s going to hurt. But it’s good medicine.
“This,” said McPhail, “was the wake-up call from the dream.”