Speaking in Philadelphia this morning, Barack Obama transformed the boiling controversy over Jeremiah Wright's excerpted speeches, those anguished and angry rebukes against a nation the minister appeared to paint as institutionally racist, into a call for America to confront the complexities of its historical and social cleavages. In this speech, Obama masterfully sidestepped insinuations against his integrity by forcing his critics to question their own.
The speech arose from the surprisingly fast-growing furor that followed YouTube-distributed snippets of Wright's impassioned oratory, most notably his call for God to "damn America" for its many injustices. Somewhat clumsily before the speech, Obama refuted those words, suggesting that he was surprised to hear them uttered by the minister who had wed him to his spouse, Michelle, and baptized his two children. Many members of the African-American community reacted with anger, accusing Obama of selling out his spiritual guide to placate the fears of so-called White America. Anticipating this speech, media prognosticators termed the moment a must-win challenge for a candidate who seems nearly impervious to losing the delegate count. Despite his success to this point, Obama had to do well.
At first, following a somewhat predictable development of the theme that America, like its citizens and candidates, is imperfect though perfectible, Obama tackled the issue directly, leaving no doubt that he rejects Wright's harsh words. His vigor suggested to me that Obama was replaying Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah Moment," professing mortification before sacrificing a symbolic evil from the body politic (while ensuring his own political survival). Instead, however, Obama would sacrifice a beloved and respected spiritual adviser, not some third-rate rapper. I must say that I was not impressed.
Then Obama pivoted the conversation, reframing the debate to reaffirm his allegiance to the man, Jeremiah Wright, even as the candidate professed not to share his former pastor's range of anger. Wright's condemnations of institutional racism, hardly without some merit, cannot be viewed in isolation from the minister's generation-long work on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, his undeniable affirmation of what is good about America, Obama said. Wright reflects the complexities of the black experience: the humor, the horror, the anger and the hope. Wright is an American, imperfect but striving, just as much as Obama's grandmother, he said, the woman who lovingly raised a black child even while occasionally uttering racist stereotypes. Obama could no more jettison his spiritual father than he could his maternal grandmother. And those who would seek advantage from this debate for political ends represent, he claimed, the kinds of race-mongering that continue to dog the country.
Obama affirmed that racial injustice does fester in the nation. And unmistakably, persons of color have born its brunt. Yet he added that all Americans suffer from deep wounds, that hunger is no respecter of persons. Perhaps in a subtle appeal to supporters of John Edwards, Obama reminded his audience that plenty of factory and mill workers have good reason to glare with anger as their jobs are shipped overseas, and they can hardly be blamed when they wonder how some folks manage to get ahead, particularly when some are presumed, rightly or wrongly, to benefit from favoritism based on race. Their rage is real and worthy of consideration, just as much as the vitriol heard in many places of worship around the nation. We cannot fear to engage in difficult dialogues of race and class, even though we must dig beneath painful sores to do so.
My memory does not serve to follow every thread of the speech; I heard it early this morning and promptly got on my bus for work. But I remember two things. First was Obama's conclusion, the story of the young white girl named Ashley who explained that she'd joined the senator's campaign in a desire to ensure that other children would not have to convince their parents that they crave only mustard and relish sandwiches rather than contribute to their families' economic struggles, as she did when her mother was ill and uninsured. Obama's telling of that narrative began by drawing attention to Ashley and her heartrending story. And then he switched attention to an elderly black man in the room who, when asked why he'd joined the Obama campaign, answered, "I'm here because of Ashley." That turn from the personal to the interpersonal is why Barack Obama represents something meaningful in American politics.
The second thing I remember, though, is entirely personal. Leaving my house after the speech, I arrived early enough to stand near the front of the line of folks waiting to board the Highway 17 bus. I chose to get to the station 20 minutes before departure so that I could have a sure chance of snagging one of the few seats remaining on what has become a frequently overloaded route. Boarding the bus, I was grateful to sit near a woman in the first row, even though she looked askance at my desire to occupy a seat where her bag had been strategically placed. Sure enough, many folks who arrived after me were forced to stand. Given that I sacrificed my time to get onto the bus early, I felt right with the universe - until at the last minute, late for our departure, an elderly woman run up to the bus, dragging a heavy suitcase behind her. The rules of courtesy, both posted and commonly understood, required that someone give up her or his seat to this woman. I sighed with barely quiet resignation, knowing that person would be me. Yet before I could stand, a person behind me offered his seat. I settled back into my hard-won privilege as we left the station for the last stop.
I hardly noticed that the final stop was occupied by one more elderly passenger. He boarded and asked the driver, "standing room only?" The driver replied in the affirmative. The man asked in a louder voice, "even for seniors?" Only then I noticed that he was looking directly at me. I was, to put it bluntly, pissed. Twenty minutes of standing at a bus station were wasted. I knew I had to abandon my seat. He offered thanks, but I was having none of it. I said what was polite, but I felt bitterness in my heart. A young college student offered her seat to me, but I knew I could not take it. I sat on the floor, placing my laptop on my knees and hoping that no one would spill their coffee this morning. I was angry. And then I was embarrassed. The Obama speech, which I so admired, was really about how we are all each other's brothers' and sisters' keepers, that we must decide in spirit - more than in law - to care for each other before we can proceed along the path to national reconciliation. I appreciated the speech on a rhetorical level, and I marveled at his astute turning of a political conundrum into a sharp elbow against his opponent. But I still have yet to fully digest the meaning of those words.
The reason why Obama's Philadelphia oration is a great speech is more than his ability to engage fully, honestly, and courageously with the racial divides that split us still. No, the reason why this speech matters is that it challenges us all to live up to our more perfect selves.
Read the entire speech, available from The New York Times.
See the video:
Follow-up: Some Responses to Obama's Speech