Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The speech.

In a comment on my post on Wright, Stuff Daddy wrote:

"With out a doubt, I think it's the most important speech on race given by a public mainstream figure in my entire lifetime.

I am with him now more than ever. He is extraordinary.."

This is exactly how I feel.

I do not remember, in my lifetime, anyone saying anything like this, in this way, to a national audience. Even though he is not saying anything new, because he is saying it publicly, because America is listening to him, I feel like it's the first time in my life that any of it is being said outside of communities of color. And because of that, I want to focus on what I think is the importance of what he said to White people.

Much of what he talked about is stuff that White people don't generally hear, partly because, as Obama says, we are still a segregated nation (he's pointing to churches and the difference in what is said in Black and White churches; my pointing is more general). Many Whites simply have not heard this stuff before. And many others who have heard some of the anger Obama speaks of have been afraid or offended and thus haven't actually listened to what was being said. To hear it translated in so gentle a way, as an invitation to join with him, with all Americans, is a gift - and it is a gift to be able to translate it so skillfully.

I really do believe that we who live in America are not speaking the same language, even when we're speaking English. Whites hear Black anger at the persistent impact of racism as "reverse racism," hateful, and threatening. Repeatedly, when I read the words of people of color, I read "they don't listen to us." And when I read Whites' words, I read, "I can't listen to what they're saying because it makes me feel bad / offends me."

Obama's speech bridged this gap. He offered Whites a hand in clambering over this barrier between races. He made White people's love for racist relatives understandable, acceptable, simply part of the complexity of being human. And in offering that image of his White grandmother, he also explained clearly the complicated nature of love and loyalty and his connection to Rev. Wright.

He also reminded us, but without pointing fingers, that many people do, in fact, have serious disagreements with our "pastors, priests, or rabbis." How many Whites who themselves do not think of homosexuality as a sin nevertheless remain in congregations where the pastor condemns it? How many remain in congregations where the pastor, and perhaps other congregants, actively work to prevent gay people from having civil rights? How many Whites disagree with their priests on issues of abortion and birth control, yet stay to hear violent language about those who support reproductive freedom for women?

And so, Obama, by talking about race in very deliberate - and generous - ways, I think, managed to transcend it. He is still a Black man, and we White folks are still White. But in talking about race in this way, he elevated the discussion beyond the too-simple ways in which we generally talk about race. He talked honestly, out loud, about things White and Black people are sometimes afraid to say. He made it ok to talk about these things, and he made it ok that we are all stumbling around trying to figure out how in the hell we can talk to each other. He gave us a way to talk to each other - in the tradition of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Barbara Smith, who have always spoken generously (if firmly) to White allies, he focused us on listening to other's stories and lending a hand to other's struggles. With this speech, he taught Whites the first lesson in how to be allies, and he did so without triggering White guilt. He made it ok to focus on the shared work at hand, on our unity rather than our differences, and so we begin to move beyond race as a barrier and into a new conversation.

And, what the hell, this already the sappiest post I've written in a long time - let me echo Michelle Obama and just say that, for the first time in a long time, I feel deeply proud to be an American.

(For some other responses to Obama's speech, check this out. I've been linking to Bfp a lot lately, and for good reason. If you aren't reading her regularly, you should be.)


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Daisy said...

Awesome post!

I hope others heard his speech the way you did, PF. :)

CrackerLilo said...

I have to say, I think he made the best lemonade he could out of that big sack of lemons. And I'd love to hear many other (white!)preachers get called to account for their sermons the way Wright was--let's hear more about John Hagee, for instance.

I kept thinking of my kid brother in all this. My father passed when he was only a month old; my brother keeps a picture of him on his mirror, sort of to compare and contrast, and he looked at every man with the questions, "Is this what being a man is like? Will I be good at it?" I suppose that what Obama had to deal with is something like that, only with lots of extra layers because he was black in a white family. He had to ask, "Is this what being a *black* man is like?" He needed his elders.

I think also of the shock I felt when I read a T-shirt on a black man: "No, white lady, I don't want your purse." I thought at first that I didn't think that. Then I realized that other white ladies had. Then I realized how stiff my posture was and how tightly I held my purse to myself...

I think, if nothing else, that Obama's candidacy is helping America to think seriously about race for the first time in decades, and that is a wonderful thing.