Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama World

It's heading into Friday morning here and I'm still a little gobsmacked by Barack Hussein Obama's win.

I shared Tuesday night's television in the company of friends and got home late. I was curious about local tallies and went online--the race I was interested in wasn't called until hours later, at about 4 AM. Clearly going online was a bit obsessive. But when I turned on my computer there was an Instant Message from a friend in Kampala thanking me for voting and leaving the message "Yes we can!." And another friend from Uganda got online and excitedly joined in celebrating the victory. And it all made me very happy.

Something about Obama's win is there's a explicit command directed at me and others:
Stand up and do something useful!
It's not simply statement: "A change is gonna come!" rather it's a challenge: "What change will you make?" The latter is exciting, but requires some lifting.

Yesterday and today I've been reading reactions online. There sure are some smart people out there. I like smart people very much, but find them intimidating. There's some truth to the intimidating part--to make timid--but there's also some truth to a different response to smart people and that's inspiring--to stimulate action. So I've read some great posts, and feel a bit intimidated that I could say anything as good. Still it does seem worthwhile to say I'm inspired by Obama.

By an odd quirk of common usage the adjective "eloquent" when applied to a black person in America is often loaded with a quality of damning by faint praise. The broad brush attack on Obama was built on top of this subtlety: "Oh sure he can talk real pretty, but who really is Barack Obama?" Obama's words have moved me throughout the campaign. Picking out highlights in my mind I thought about the Speech in Philadelphia, A More Perfect Union, but in fact I was hooked on his speeches even earlier. I am reminded right now of blogging about will. i. am.'s Barack Obama music video and a comment left by The 27th Comrade which read in part:
I can't help seeing how nearly Stalinist America is. Kids wake up to recite old speeches, be told they live in the Greatest Country in the World, that their Freedom is better than anything, that they should be Lucky to be Americans ...
Do you spot any difference between that and George Orwell's 1984? Any whatsoever?
I got pointed to a great essay today by Rob McDougall via zunguzungu. McDougall's post is here. McDougall is a Canadian historian who teaches US History to Canadian students. His observations about the election are so smart the essay is worth reading entirely. Something he said put into perspective the songs, poetry and music that's been running through my head the last couple of days. And really it goes to the point The 27th Comrade makes, in a more gentle way:
Being a Canadian living in America, Bercovitch said, was like being Sancho Panza in a nation of Don Quixotes. There was a secret everybody knew but him, a music everybody else but him could hear. Remember, Sancho Panza is Quixote's pragmatic sidekick. Sancho knows that Quixote is delusional and deranged--where Quixote sees dragons, Sancho sees only windmills--but he comes to envy his master's world of enchantment.
I do hear the music and they are American songs. McDougall's observation helps me to understand how sometimes absurd it all must sound to outside ears. I'm very fond of the fact that McDougall tries to help his students make some sense of it:
But I like my students to at least try to hear the music. To imagine themselves Americans for a day. To contemplate the possibility that words like "all men are created equal" might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.
McDougall surmises that our American capacity to suspend disbelief is not a bug but a feature.
Anyway, I guess I must be a lost cause. Revoke my Canadian citizenship. Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.
It's been a happy thing to read posts on the election from people outside the USA which say in so many words that they too "heard America singing."

As usual I've blathered on too long already, and I have a final point in mind. Before I go on to that I better mention the picture, an album cover from the 1970's and a song you can listen to at Youtube. I put it up because I thought I was going to riff off another of my favorite posts of the last couple of days by numerian at The Agonist. Instead, I'll just link to that. It's about this peculiar American music we hear too.

The final point is the posts that impressed me today were of the sort that we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There's a reason bloggers so often link to What Digby says. What Digby says in that piece is if we want President Obama to make effect important change, we'll have to make him do it. We've got to make it work. Chris Clarke makes a similar point in his essay On centrism. Stirling Newberry raises the flag in his post For Equal Marriage. In fact, Digby, Clarke, Newberry and many others have been saying as much for years. But for a person like me, slow and a little lazy, the American music that McDougall spoke about is ringing loud in my ears now.

Along the election trail Barack Obama told the story of an encounter with a council woman in Greenwood, South Carolina named Edith Childs. I've listened to his account several times and if you can view videos you can watch and hear him tell the story here. I don't get tired hearing the story. A big part of it for me is Obama's description of Edith Childs, with her "big hat, looks like she's coming from church." It's a sort of image etched on my brain, so that even while I have no idea what Mrs. Childs looks like, I picture her from that description. Edith Childs it turns out is famous for her chant: "Fired up!" and everybody says Fired Up! then she calls out "Ready to go!" and everybody sings out "Ready to go!" Obama speaks of that encounter and how it moved him:
One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state then it can change a nation and if it can change a nation it can change a world."
My task, the task for all of us, is to find our voice and use it.


Daisy said...

The stuff about Barack being "eloquent" reminds me of the weird shit I grew up with: yes ___(fill in the blank___ can sing, but can they READ MUSIC/SING OPERA/SING ACCORDING TO THE PROGRAM? Blah blah blah. This was how whites (okay, my father, to be specific) would trash the musical talent of blacks. They're good enough, but it's like an "untamed" goodness, they can't "conform to the rules" of music, too much uncontrolled melisma, yada yada.

Well, Barack can jam AND he can read music, sing opera and knows all the notes, ha ha ha. (Yes, I wish my father was here to choke on this.) He isn't just riffing, he KNOWS what he is talking about, so there! Melisma BE DAMNED!

It's a great day, huh? :)

John Powers said...

Daisy, I still am a bit horrified that anyone reads any of my posts. Well, not exactly, I thank you very much for reading and commenting.

Yeah, what you said about that "eloquent" stuff. The other side of that "untamed" coin is the weird jealousy: "Negroes have more fun" and all the sexual prowess stuff.

When I think back on my interactions with black friends over the years, sometimes I cringe.

I know that nothing is really hunky dory now on the racial front in the USA. Still, I do think that many young people today have a space to engage with others without quite so much baggage.

I do think that Obama's presidency will be successful. Nothing will be quite the same again.

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