Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech + Poetic Clichés

I listened to Barack Obama's Jeremiah Wright and race speech today, first on the radio and then, switching rooms, on TV. I was astonished. First because he had to deliver such a speech in the first place, and second because of how remarkable it was, on so many levels. Most remarkable to me was the quality of mind it reflected; rather than taking the easy path of poll-driven, platitudinous drivel, of phrases calculated to placate and pacify (which in fact was the speech's ostensible aim), he managed to discuss the Wright affair, the Black church, and black anger, with great honesty and candor while also justifying why he had held the minister in such high regard in the first place. He then wove into this a discussion of race and racism from various sides of the racial line, historicizing it, personalizing it, criticizing how it has played and continues to play out on the American stage, acknowledging not only black people's but whites' grievances, and contextualizing it within the a politics and public discourse that have shifted somewhat with the times, but which have also often failed us, all of us.

Along the way he managed, as he has done so often, to weave a narrative that was compelling, at times riveting, while also underlining that, against the smearmongers, his Christian faith is truly one of his foundations. Like one of his idols, Abraham Lincoln, he managed yet again to demonstration a grasp of rhetoric--and its power--that seems almost from another time. He even briefly quoted one of the greatest American writers, William Faulkner, who also remains, as any student of American literature knows, one of the most important chroniclers of race and racism as they unfold within a historical dynamic. Certainly Faulkner, who publicly professed ignorance at times on racial issues but in his fiction and private life showed nuance, would have grasped what Obama was arguing so cogently, with such nuance, even if it was immediately clear that many in the TV punditocracy (punditocrisy?) seemed to miss completely.

As I said before, Obama had to go this route, because of the caricature of Wright and black liberation theology that has been circulating, because of the dimness of chatter that has infected the airwaves, because of the stakes he faces if he wants to continue towards the nomination; but with this speech, he has demonstrated that necessity is truly the mother of invention, and has revealed one of the reasons he ought to be compared to John F. Kennedy, which I've often thought a bit ridiculous. Yes, there is his youth, his intellect, his beauty, his credentials, his coolness, which functions as a kind of glamor and nobility, and there is, at the same time, the thin resumé and some callowness and egotism (but who would ever run for president and want to win were she or he not an egotist to some extent?--and we certainly do not want another James Buchanan, ever), but unlike Kennedy, he was not born to great wealth, pedigree or expectations. What this speech, and his willingness to deliver it, his skill at doing so, the passion in it, represented is what I mentioned second, a quality of mind that is very, very high, certainly in the same league with Kennedy, perhaps surpassing him. I don't know if it will save Obama's candidacy; those who would find a reason not to vote for him now have one, if they didn't already, and as I saw tonight on the monitors at my gym, CNN is still flaying the Wright outtakes and pumping its pundits as if Obama had not said a word today.

But whatever happens, Obama did himself and the country a great service today. I only hope he has an opportunity to do so again, and, fanciful as I know it is, that the country--at least more of us--can take up the challenges his speeches laid bare.

And now, some quotes:

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.


In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.


This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation - the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

So we'll see....


Waldo Jaquith (great name for a poet--though he is not one) of the Virginia Quarterly Review intended to write a blog post about how poets using what he suggests are clichéed terms were not likely to get published in the journal, but when he checked the journal's pages, he found the opposite to be true. His chart, which I reproduce here:

submitted published
water 19.9% 24.8%
death 14.1% 15.2%
blood 11.7% 13.8%
stone 11.1% 16.0%
bone 9.1% 7.8%
poetry 7.6% 10.3%
heart 7.5% 6.7%
fish 7.0% 5.3%
birth 5.5% 7.4%
darkness3.9% 17.0%
rust 3.3% 2.5%
cat 2.3% 2.8%

There there are the 10 most common titles of submissions; percentage of inappropriate submissions; rate and number of international submissions; and the "angry letter" from rejected poets/artistes.

So now you know. I'm not sure if the following doggerel will fly, but maybe I should try it.


Water is the death
of stone,
the rust-darkness
of cat bone,
fish birth of blood's
most ancient tones,
our heads, our
hearts: poetry.

(Hmm, it scans! 5 points if you describe the meter.)


  1. I am, for the record, not a poet, if one excludes the angsty lines I produced on looseleaf in 10th grade and carried around in my back pocket in case I should suddenly need to appear artsy in front of some hot girl.

    For that matter, if "Waldo Jaquith" is a great name for anything, I'm yet to discover it, Waldo Emerson be damned. :)

  2. Okay, Waldo, I'll change the attribution. Should I try editor? Or blogger? Analyst? A great piece, though!

  3. meter: irregular. (how handy that is!) My untrained ear.

    I kept thinking of Langston Hughes, actually, during parts of the speech. "Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," with its closing paragraphs on being beautiful and ugly, lovable and not. I suspect we will all find intertextual echoes there (though an article in PMLA tells me not to conflate intertextuality with echoes/allusions).cowbc

  4. I think I like the title of non-poet that you've created for me. In this context, what I am seems less important than what I'm not. :)