The Genius of America


I can’t stop staring at this photo gallery of the US Presidents. There is something about seeing Obama’s face juxtaposed with these other figures, all white, all men. Some of these faces are so iconic – Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – we meet them every day on our currency, our government seals and documents, our history books. What does it mean to see Obama here? And know that he is now forever a part of our collective American story? What I see is a new confidence in the ideals of this country, a cautious optimisim that goes deeper than the unconvincing platitudes with which we once soothed ourselves or the unrealized anthems we once repeated without thought.

For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

President-Elect Barack Obama

Quite a few blogs and viral emails are circulating with quotes from Langston Hughes in honor of Obama’s tremendous victory. Hughes’s soaring poetics are a fitting way to commemorate the moment, but I think of James Baldwin, who was also quite eloquent in his fierce criticism and love for our nation.

In a 1963 letter to his nephew, Baldwin wrote:

Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moved out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. You, don’t be afraid.

I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers – your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

What a passage. If only Baldwin were alive today to see all that has happened. What would he think of Obama, his nephew in spirit? …to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.

Nevertheless, to guard against the sluggishness of too much self-congratulation, I am also convinced that our unofficial TBoH poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, is needed now. To keep us alert and mindful, to nudge us forward with a dogged, unremitting hopefulness, we should consider the words of “kitchenette building” (1945). We should take only a moment to wonder, but never cease to act, think, and grow for the better. “We wonder! But not well! Not for a minute!”

If you are as restless as I am, you may be interested in visiting Obama’s new website, WWW.CHANGE.GOV. It is still under construction, but appears to strive for the same spirit of openness and accessibility that distinguished his campaign. Let us celebrate, then, by reaffirming our commitment to change and finding new ways to serve. As “heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations,” Obama will need all the help he can get.


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3 responses to this post.

  1. It’s very exciting that African American men finally broke through the glass ceiling.

    I can’t wait for women to break through the glass ceiling too.


  2. I couldn’t agree more. Orlando Patterson has an Op-Ed in this morning’s NYT that includes this provocative passage:

    Black achievement has always presaged female advancement, not always from the noblest of motives: if blacks could vote, enjoy protection from discrimination and run for office, so should women. Hillary Clinton’s forceful campaign, however important, pales in comparison with this historic American tendency in explaining why a female president is now a near certainty and not long off.


  3. […] of well-meaning voices will tell us in the days to come that Barack Obama’s presidential victory, while historic and worthy of praise, means that the work of racial justice and equality “has […]


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