2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

The Obama version of 'we shall overcome'


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Before he did it last week in Philadelphia, no one could have imagined that Barack Obama would sing the blues so powerfully. With the same soul power that bluesman Albert King once described, Obama brought the grits. He revealed an inner music of spirituality, of confrontation, a statement of aching tragic depth and resilient affirmation.

The greatest thing that black people have offered the world is further proof that people do not have to be turned into swine by their most merciless troubles. On the other hand, black people also have proven that even some of those whom you love the most for their humanity are so blinded by the strife of the past that they cannot fully live in a present so remarkably different.

When the specter of his pastor was first raised, Obama had tried to compress that last fact by smiling and saying that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was like an uncle who said things with which you did not always agree. That was neither fully the truth nor why Wright was disinvited from Obama's announcement of his candidacy.
As we all now know, Wright is capable of "going off," and Obama did not need that so easily misunderstood -- or misused! -- element revealed at the beginning of the campaign. I assume that Obama believed, with good luck, he would have built up a strong-enough presence to handle the reiteration of the Wright problem with absolute honesty when the Republican attack dogs began to howl for his head.
Obama was shocking the country and the pundits when he began to win in states like Iowa and Idaho, and seemed to have slipped the noose of race that Bill Clinton tried to put around his neck after South Carolina. Clinton spoke like the veteran boxer who expected to easily vanquish a young challenger but resorts to hitting below the belt upon realizing that he's in for a real fight.

Race didn't stick at that point. Too smart not to know that it was coming, Obama began to ready himself. A highly civilized and sophisticated man, Obama started to ponder, to plan and to shape a speech that would explain what those on the conservative right did not want explained; they wanted to find the place on him where a mortal wound could be struck. They gloated that he could run but he could not hide. They would get him with YouTube.

Not quite. They actually handed Obama the best defense weapon, and it was all that he needed because his intent was not to supply a bunch of slogans but to deliver a vision grand enough to address the tragic valleys and the optimistic accomplishments made both difficult and possible by the thoroughness of our American humanity. So he spoke for 40 minutes and said it all.

Nearly 3 million downloaded that speech because Obama has made Americans interested in ideas, in nuance and in the purely human realities we all understand quite well, however much we may pretend that nothing of the sort has ever crossed our minds or the minds of our dearest friends. We all have people close to us whom we respect in every human way but find quite foolish on a select body of important subjects.

I doubt there are Americans who do not know a Jeremiah Wright, a person for whom they feel great fondness but who also makes them cringe. That fact alone shapes much of our racial trouble, as do the many ways that it reappears in one context after another, and with one ethnic group after another, all distinctions included.

The greatness of our country is that those of us who are not afraid of each other now outnumber those who are.

Still, pain and trouble will never abandon us, and the irrational will always nip at our heels. But in Philadelphia, across the street from where the Constitution was hammered out and prepared for future generations to make better by improvising upon its fundamental principles, Barack Obama made it palpably clear that, as the song goes, we shall overcome.

Stanley Crouch is a columnist for the New York Daily News; crouch.stanley@gmail.com.

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