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First Things

“First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things,” declared Frederick Douglass on April 14, 1876, in Washington D. C., in the most extraordinary public address ever delivered by an African American to that date.  Extraordinary for its  argument and its audience.  Douglass gave the dedication speech at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial, the statue of a standing Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation in hand, breaking the chains of a kneeling slave.  Attending the event were President Ulysses S. Grant, members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the president’s cabinet.  No black orator had ever addressed such an official assembly. If elected President, Barack Obama will be the second African American to address such a powerful audience on inauguration day.

Douglass struck chords of civil religion, referring to the “majestic dome of the Capitol,” and the sacred “heights of Arlington” cemetery. It was in this oration that Douglass famously called his white fellow citizens Lincoln’s “children,” but he and his fellow blacks “only his stepchildren.”  One hundred and thirty-two years later we can still debate the meaning of those familial metaphors. 

As we contemplate the “first” of Barack Obama achieving the presidency of the United States, we should brace ourselves with a long view of our history.  We should take deep breaths and imagine the long prelude of the thousands murdered for trying to vote during Reconstruction, the thousands lynched because of the poisonous fears of white supremacy. And we should remember the millions denied life chances during the prolonged night of Jim Crow.  Only then can we help Senator Obama feel the weight of responsibility in becoming America’s ultimate “first thing.”  Such remembrance is both burden and inspiration.

If elected, Obama will have too many pressing issues to face to bask in mists of sentiment.  But every American, whether they choose to or not, owns this heritage of slavery and racism that forces us to contemplate such first things.  Whether they are the white “real Americans” in Sarah Palin’s small towns, or the rest of the equally real people in pluralistic and cosmopolitan cities, we all breathe in this past.

In order to keep perspective, we might reflect on two expressions of the condition of American race relations nearly a century apart, one from W. E. B. Du Bois’s masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and the other from Obama himself in his speech on race of March 18, 2008.

In Souls, Du Bois asks his readers to see race relations at the turn of the twentieth century in the South through “two figures” who typified the legacies of slavery and the Civil War:

The one a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a… ruined form, with hate in his eyes; -- and the other a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife, -- aye,too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world….

Without a pause, Du Bois pressed the issue;  “These were the saddest sights of that woeful day, and no man clasped the hands of these passing figures of the present-past; but hating they went to their long home, and hating their children’s children live today.” 

At the end of his speech on race Obama tells a story.  The organizer of his primary campaign in Florence, South Carolina was a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia.  Ashley had grown up in poverty, her mother had contracted cancer when the girl was but nine years old, and she had survived on mustard and relish sandwiches while her mother lost her job and health insurance.  At a campaign gathering, Ashley went around the room and asked all attending why they were there.  Most mentioned a specific issue that especially animated their self-interest. Finally the ritual reached an elderly black man who had sat silently until asked why he was there.  His answer was simple:  “I am here because of Ashley.”  As Obama admits, “by itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough.  It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.  But it is where we start.”

Obama’s two figures - the young white southern woman, born well after the sixties and who in her impoverished background should have become a Republican resenting blacks in the South, and the old black man who could not vote until after 1965 in South Carolina - reverse Du Bois’s earlier harrowing image of the old white man and old black woman.  Obama shows us an alternative to the “children’s children” of Du Bois’s story.  A new start?  This election will test more than the changing metaphors of our racial condition.  But “first things” are the stuff of real hope, and they can be grasped only through the long history that gives them meaning. 

This election will severely test how much Americans grasp the past they are being asked to overcome.  If we are ever to build a society where no one must play the role of political “stepchild,” it will demand the informed courage of millions of Ashley Baias and her cousins of many hues.  History is never over.

Related Links

  • Thomas Mallon: Abraham Lincoln and the politics of memory