Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Content of Our Character: Making The History Of President Obama

We did it. Oh my God, let me help the Bushies pack. I've been saving boxes for them. And once we're done, I'll start saving boxes for Joe the Senator, that skunk of a former Democrat who has succeeded in making himself completely irrelevant. Hope it was worth it, Senator Lieberman: at least you will have two wars and thousands dead to look back on when you are going through your memory books in two years.

I myself feel as though I have just been liberated from a dictatorship: I cried throughout Obama's victory speech last night, overwhelmed with relief, exhaustion and the hope that things would be different soon. And you know, wherever Obama comes down on GLBTQ rights in the end, he won't be out to to get us like the Bushies and their pals in the Heart(less)land were. Things have been so bad -- for example, using hideous, antigay initiatives to get poor, white conservatives to the polls to vote for politicians who were ready to turn the economic screws harder on those same voters -- that I would settle for just being left alone by the state and by the people of this great land. And if Obama can do better than that, well then, Goddess bless him.

In the midst of our long-awaited celebration, may I inject a request that our euphoria not cause us to over-read what has just happened? One of the things that is going to be a little hard to take over the next few days is the ooze of self-congratulation already begun in the media about the sea-change in American race relations, "proven" by the majority of the electorate having chosen an African-American man as president. I needn't remind you that, although put in context it was a resounding victory, many millions of people did not vote for Obama: some of those people will become reconciled to his presidency and many, I suspect, will not.

This means that we need to take with a grain of salt the announcement by pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, that inequality, and the culture of racial meanness that has pervaded politics since Reconstruction, is officially at an end. "And so it came to pass" Friedman writes biblically, "that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States." He continues:

"A civil war that, in many ways, began at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, ended 147 years later via a ballot box in the very same state. For nothing more symbolically illustrated the final chapter of America’s Civil War than the fact that the Commonwealth of Virginia — the state that once exalted slavery and whose secession from the Union in 1861 gave the Confederacy both strategic weight and its commanding general — voted Democratic, thus assuring that Barack Obama would become the 44th president of the United States.

"This moment was necessary, for despite a century of civil rights legislation, judicial interventions and social activism — despite Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King’s I-have-a-dream crusade and the 1964 Civil Rights Act — the Civil War could never truly be said to have ended until America’s white majority actually elected an African-American as president.

"That is what happened Tuesday night and that is why we awake this morning to a different country. The struggle for equal rights is far from over, but we start afresh now from a whole new baseline. Let every child and every citizen and every new immigrant know that from this day forward everything really is possible in America."

After an entire election season of barely talking about race at all, suddenly an Obama victory has unleashed a torrent of reflection on slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. (Um -- does anyone remember what happened to erode black citizenship after the civil rights movement? Like unprecedented rates of incarceration, ending antipoverty programs, and defunding public eduction?) Allusions to the horrors of American racism should probably be dealt with gently by the Obama administration, to be sure. Most white Americans don't really understand them, and they don't understand how they are implicated in inequality. But I am not comfortable with the announcement that Obama's great victory has simply bookended this history, and that we can now start all over. For example, on NPR yesterday, a white construction worker explained that he thought undocumented Mexican workers should be paid as much as he is, and that equal pay for equal work should be guaranteed by law -- but he doesn't want "them" in his union. Why? the reporter asked. Because, Joe the Carpenter explained, he doesn't.

Americans have a great fantasy about starting over. That was, in part, what the original colonial project in the Americas relied on: people who had mucked up their lives in Spain, or France, or England, or Scotland coming to try all over again in a place that they thought -- mistakenly -- was empty. Or Puritans leaving behind a corrupt church to gain God's grace all over again. Think of Lincoln surveying the scorched and tangled ground of Gettysburg battlefield, piles of bodies as yet unburied, and reassuring his audience that this evidence of political catastrophe marked a moment to rebuild American politics. Or think of the Mormons, piling their polygamous families in wagons and leaving their charred homes behind in Illinois, enduring endless hardship to get the shores of the Great Salt Lake, where Brigham Young announced firmly, "This is the place." And think of the Indians who had, in fact, lived in that place, and have been starting over ever since.

It's a myth, for sure. And yet, Americans do start over. Again and again. We fling history to the winds, we change our names, we change our genders, we change our noses and tummies, we change our wives, we change our vinyl siding. It is an indisputable feature of how Americans, and people who have longed to be Americans, understand the promise of this country. So it's wrong that we can just start over as if the long history of American crimes against black people never happened, but if we exercise some caution, it can be right too. After a Republican reign that has been a catastrophe, in which bad things happened one after another, each thing more incredible -- and predictable -- than the last, the nation has been liberated once again. This time we will be freed by a mixed race man, his father an immigrant, who will be the first black president -- not just in the history of the United States -- of the Western industrialized world.

But after the euphoria passes, let's get to work, shall we? Let's figure out what starting over really means and what it is going to take, on the streets and in the classrooms. Listening to John McCain's supporters boo and catcall the next President of the United States last night (something he and Sarah Palin taught them to do, just like Elizabeth Dole authorized that awful Jesse Helms-ian ad against Kay Hagen that will stain her otherwise good name forever) reminds me of the meanness that has been unleashed by the McCain/Palin campaign, a meanness that has lurked under the surface of every major Republican policy, and every major political season, since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. There's lots of work to do, but repairing our political culture is at the top of the list.

Oh -- and if you are a soldier in Iraq? Keep your head down and your vest buttoned tightly, friend. You're coming home.

For good post-election activities, click here for Barack's pre-inaugural reading list , compiled by Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Education. Your Radical is featured, as is her Zenith colleague Elvin Lim.


AcadeMama said...

Beautiful post. My historian husband specializes in Civil War & Reconstruction, and he echoed much of what you said here. I empathize with the job that historians, especially those who focus on race relations in American, face in the classrooms. I didn't really have the words last night to articulate precisely the source of my relief, but you nailed it: like being liberated from a dictatorship.

Here's to learning lessons and following Obama's lead in listening closely to those with whom we disagree.

Anonymous said...

My hope is that it may start a slightly more nuanced conversation about class, economics, and education in this country, and how they intersect with race but are not the same thing. That seems to be something that we, as a nation, don't really get, and class is something of a dirty word here, but maybe a more complex discussion will help us implement policies that don't spur large chunks of the electorate to vote against their own self-interest out of spite.

Also, thank you, Tenured Radical, for helping me keep my sanity during this grueling election.

Anonymous said...

"Oh -- and if you are a soldier in Iraq? Keep your head down and your vest buttoned tightly, friend. You're coming home."

I wouldn't count on it. I predict that one year from today there will still be more than 100,000 American troops in Iraq, and there will be more troops in Afghanistan than there are today.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Radical. (Long time lurker delurking here.) There seems to be a meme developing that because enough white people voted for Obama, racism in the US is over. Can we talk a bit about structural inequality, please?? Racism is not just about hating ...

Anonymous said...

as proof racism endures, a woman knocked me down yesterday at the coffee line and intentionally stepped on my purchases and said, while smilingly out to the watching patrons, "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there." And yet, I still believe today is a different day than the one where black children, children of color, were told there are some ceilings we dare not crack.

on a different note - when I went to bed Prop 8 and Prop 2 were passing and that does not bode well for the perception of GLBTQ citizenship in this nation.

pietro said...

for what its worth, isnt it important for self-styled "progressives" to finally demolish the illusion of "hope," and actually start pulling obama in the direction of the left? Can we simply take it for granted that a mythological candidate will save the day?

Susan said...

Yes. I am a little tired of the self-congratulation. And of course, when I think of the Augean stables Obama has inherited, my heart sinks. In a little sermon to my students this morning (having had a lot of trouble concentrating on preparing a class last night) I said that one of the things they could do as students was begin to discover their gifts & talents, and think about how to use them to solve our many problems...

Oh, and since my word verification is "mention", I was going to mention that unfortunately California passed prop 8. Indeed, exit polling suggested that black voters overwhelmingly supported it. Which goes to show that the issues of prejudice are very very complicated. And I don't think one person can fix them. On the Friedman column, my thought was "Oh, and it only started with the Civil War?" But I do love that he speaks in paragraphs, that he assumes we know history, and that he thinks that history matters.

Anonymous said...

thank you, thank you for this post. as a recent alum of zenith, it is refreshing to hear someone echo my heart plummeted this morning when i saw the front page headline of the NYTimes- advertising the end of the racial divide- and yet was hard-pressed to find someone around who understood where i was coming from. your analysis is a crucial one at this time...thanks for keeping at it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Why aren't you teaching at Oberlin?

Anonymous said...

"Indeed, exit polling suggested that black voters overwhelmingly supported it."

and yet it would not have been on the verge of passing without the multi-billion dollar campaign by the Mormons - who did not allow black people into their church until very recently - nor the votes of other racial groups, including white people.

It saddens me beyond measure that even on this day, we are still playing divide and conquer (and still defining GLBTQ as white) So no TR I suppose there is no reason to hope amongst liberals afterall.

anti-gay marriage measures in AZ and FL also passed as did a measure barring the queer community from adopting children in Nebraska.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, tell me again, what is Obama's position on gay marriage? And don't you feel even a little regret/alarm at the fate of Proposition 8? I know you academics love irony -- don't you think it is somewhat ironic that prop 8 probably would have failed except for overwhelming support for it by black voters who came out to vote for Obama? I know you don't live in California, but even so...

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Jack:

Obama's position on gay marriage is utterly equivocal -- and more or less uninformed.

And re. African-Americans voting overwhelmingly against it, I think that opponents of gay marriage have been quite effective in arguing to black audiences that the comparisons between black civil rights and gay civil rights are wrong (true) and offensive to blacks (this would be homophobic.) So I don't find it ironic, but I do find it sad.

That said, without all those white people who voted for prop 8 it wouldn't have passed -- and although the percentage of white voters was substantially lower, there were substantially more of them in raw numbers.

But gay marriage isn't my litmus test, because I don't believe anyone's access to economic rights and full citizenship should have to hinge on being married. But yes, it is sad for the folks in California -- and yes, the constant desire of the right to marginalize queer people is just hateful.


Debrah said...

I must admit that the TR often has a provocative blog......(now that the topic of the Duke Lacrosse Hoax is no longer on the agenda).


Indeed, this has been a campaign for the ages.

It is hoped that this change will truly be something we can believe in and not just political platitude.

I simply must mention again that KC Johnson.....after all was a fervent supporter of Barack Obama right from the start.

He didn't waste his efforts on Hillary Clinton (or worse!) John-Boy Edwards during those long primaries.

It's been in the news this week that KC was suggested for Secretary of Education in the new Obama administration.

Now that would be a very positive change for this country and the academy!

Anonymous said...

Jack - you can find many of Obama's policies on GLBTQ issues on my blog here:

I documented both negative and positive issues there. (I also have a post recapping the LOGO Forum, but b/c LOGO chose to ask mostly questions about "homophobia in the black community" instead of the same set of policy questions it asked the rest of the democratic hopefuls that post isn't very helpful in nailing down his policies. The good thing about Obama's LOGO interview is that he pointed out there is diversity in the black community just like everywhere else and that he was unwilling to play oppression olympics nor vilify any one group in the struggle for equality that we are all in.)

While he does not support gay marriage, many of his other policies were some of the most progressive put forward, outside of Kucinich, by the Democrats during the primaries. Yet there was a perception that he was some how worse than other candidates presumable for the same racial narratives being put forward in this discussion.

You can also find an outline of his policies on his website.

Anonymous said...

There's a thoughtful piece by Judith Butler called "Uncritical Exuberance?" posted at or just Google it. (I'd provide the whole URL but don't know how to do so properly. Sorry.)

Debrah said...

This must be it.

Hmmm......not celebrating?

Anonymous said...

here's the full URL (but the citation is missing, so there is no direct link back to Butler):

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