In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.The prototypical American experience is the immigrant experience. We take pride and draw strength from the fact that our fathers and mothers chose to endure unimaginable hardships, including permanent separation from everything and everyone they knew, to come to the United States and build a better life for their children. But if that is the prototypical American experience, it is not the experience of black Americans who did not choose, but were torn from their families and sold across the sea to lives spent as property and with their own children considered to be the property of others.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
Of course, if the prototypical American experience is one thing, and the prototypical African-American experience is fundamentally different, then what does that say about the position of African-Americans in America?
It seems to me that in the passage I quoted above, what President Obama is trying to do -- and what only President Obama can do -- is to normalize the black experience as part of the American experience. Whether they chose to do so, the slaves toiled for us. President Obama refers elsewhere in his speech to "our ancestors" and I think that this is part of the same effort.
When people convert to Judaism, it is said that it is as if they are descended from all the Jews who have come before them; they are the inheritors of Israel. American is, of course, the new Israel and we need to recognize, as President Obama wishes us to recognize, that it is as if we are all the inheritors of our American past. We are all the heirs of the slaves and we are all the heirs of the masters. In this way, at least, Obama's inaugural address captures the essence of Lincoln.