21 January 2009

Just Americans

I was struck by one portion of President Obama's Inaugural Address that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere that did something that seems to me important, deliberate and profound:
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.

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.
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.

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.


Harry Eagar said...

Well, Obama's ancestor did choose to come here on his own. So, in street cred terms, he ain't got no bizness speaking for the other African-Americans.

Just sayin'.

I disagree that we weren't a nation that took short-cuts. That's all we did. He should read what the English said about our railroads.

Brit said...

What's the truth got to do with it? The story is all that matters.

That's another striking thing about the speech - he gave very few opportunities for black Americans to whoop. The tone is one of grim determination.

Anonymous said...

Geez, he's already been in power a whole day and he hasn't made any fatal blunders yet. This is going to be tricky.

Anybody got a lead on impeachment grounds so far?

Susan's Husband said...

"Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton".

Hey Skipper said...


Interesting observation.

However, how many people really think of the American experience in terms of immigration?

My mother was born in England, and was brought over here by her parents in 1936 -- her father was way ahead of the curve on the Hitler thing.

My father's grandparents came here from Germany; his mother grew up speaking German.

My wife's parents on both sides are only one generation deep here.

However, neither my wife or I give the immigration experience a second thought: it is a foreign shore to us.

There is a more accurate conclusion to be drawn here: the personal qualities of those who chose to give up everything and come to the US are different in a non-random way from those who stayed behind.

Making the US the world's first eugenics experiment.

erp said...

Skipper, exactly right on the eugenics part. We not got only got the best and brightest, but even more important, we got the most adventurous and self-confident.

That's why American ingenuity is real.

Brit said...

The nations, no-o-o-o-ot so blest as thee,
Must i-i-i-i-in their turn, to ty-y--yrants fall,
Must in, must in, must in their turn, to ty-y-rants fall,
While thou shalt flourish, shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and e-e-e-e-nvy of them all.

Rule Britannia!
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Rule Britannia!
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.