Public Comment

Commentary: A More Perfect Perspective

By Marvin Chachere
Tuesday April 15, 2008

No matter how you look at it, Barak Obama’s March 18 speech on race was a Category 5 news event; it did for political reporting what Katrina did for disaster reporting. It lacked the ugly pictures but it generated a comparable multitude of comments buoyed by passion and collectively covering every conceivable aspect, from the super-sublime to the hyper-ridiculous. On the left it was rated breathtaking, historic, momentous, from the center it was deemed provocative, memorable, moving and conservatives tagged it hypocritical, duplicitous, deceptive. Titled “A More Perfect Union,” the speech arrived in the aftermath of a hurricane of publicity about the passionate preachments of a man of God, Obama’s pastor, but the devastation that came later was entirely an act of man, as was Katrina’s.  

I read the text the day after Obama delivered it. I have since read or viewed several dozen reports and commentaries in print and on TV but to my surprise none noticed the simple fact that Obama himself was not the subject of his speech and he was not talking directly about race. (Disclosure: As best I can tell I am one-sixteenth African which does not make me an Obama fan perhaps because up to now I have managed to ignore everything in this obscenely elongated presidential campaign.) 

Reading the speech left me impressed. A few days later a friend forwarded the YouTube video of the speech and I was startled and excited seeing and listening to Obama’s mastery of rhetoric and oratory. Since then, provoked by afore mentioned Katrina-like coverage, I’ve examined what he said more closely. 

The manner of his opening words suggested to me that, although he was dead serious, he would rather not have been obliged to speak on the subject of race. I think that’s why he started by restating his reason for entering the campaign which was “…to continue the long march [toward] a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous nation.” Then, acknowledging the extraordinary intelligence and the astounding ignorance of Americans, he proceeded to cite the need for unity and justice using the best available evidence, himself. Thus, he saw in himself the personification of America’s yearning to be united, just, equal, free and prosperous. 

That he was not talking about race was implied by a self-revelatory statement that came a little later: “I have brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents…” In other words, he is less a black American than a representative American. “…and for as long as I live I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” In other words, his story is America’s story. 

It took a little over 37 minutes, applauses included, for Barak Obama to scan centuries of North American history, highlight certain socio-economic hurts and make his points. To extract deeper meaning from oratorical flourishes, one must disregard the worn out language of journalists and pundits: It’s time to close the racial divide, time for a national conversation on race, etc. Instead, review the historical context of Obama’s subject and place his points in perspective. 

Imagine a tapestry representing three millennia of western history in which is interwoven throughout a thread showing a few haves exploiting masses of have-nots: slaves preparing dinner parties so their Greek masters could engage in all-night philosophical disputations (symposia), Greeks in turn being enslaved by Romans, indigenous American tribes enslaving individuals from other indigenous tribes, Africans bartering for Africans to be shipped across the Atlantic where they are unloaded and sold as chattel to European colonizers.  

From this perspective, the American portion of the larger historical tapestry shows its original sin, legalized injustice and the unfulfilled promise of equality. Briefly stated, an America in which one class has more (today by a factor greater than ten) is neither just nor united. 

From the perspective of his African-American persona Obama observed in detail how “…black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations”. He then stepped into the persona of his white heritage and acknowledged that black anger was met by well-founded white resentment. Oscillating between the black and the white perspectives he moved to a position above the racially dividing crevasse. 

We can accept the political landscape: let racism distract us and halt our advance toward a more perfect and more just union. Or we can with an all-out effort move to provide for our common needs; this time, we need a united effort.  

We can accept current economic policy that “…favors the few over the many…” Or we can work together to create government policies freed from corporate control and unshackled by lobbyists and special interests. 

In the end Obama’s speech may or may not help him achieve his goal; it has, nevertheless, helped reshape the political landscape; it replaces the old story with a new one, his. 


Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.