For me, frankly, seeing a black man pledge “to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend” our Constitution of the United States in which our ancestors were defined as three-fifths of a man was one of the most profoundly moving moments in my life, testifying as it did to how far we—as a people, as a nation—had come since that dreadful compromise was hammered out at our expense in the summer of 1787.
Though there were fewer applause lines than I anticipated, I cheered as loudly as anyone else in the audience at the speech’s conclusion, deeply moved, as all were, by what I had just seen and heard—even if I was not precisely certain what I had just seen and heard.
I held in my ambivalence about the speech until Tuesday night, when I ran into my dear friend, Cornel West, whom I consider to be an interpretive genius. I decided to do a reality check, as I often do, with the man whose courage in speaking the truth to power is absolutely second to none. “I know what you are saying,” Cornel told me in a kindly voice, when I mentioned that the speech left me a bit wanting. “But it’s all there, in the speech. You have to read it.” And reading it I realized, as usual, that Cornel was right.
This was not a speech for the ages, as was, say, the second inaugural, although parts of it hold up well and will long be quoted, as I was reminded on the way to National Airport this morning, listening to excerpts being played on the Tom Joyner Show.
Some passages resonate as much as a good black preacher’s sermon delivered before an all-black audience. For instance, “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath” or “our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
There were poignant nods to Lincoln such as “men and women obscure in their labor” who “toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, enduring the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.” I also was moved by Maureen Dowd’s favorite passage, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
My favorite passage, I realize in retrospect was, “the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
Yes, Cornel was right. There was plenty of grand significance. And as I reviewed the speech, Obama’s rhetorical strategy clearly revealed itself, a strategy brilliantly calibrated between progressive chords and conservative ones, revealing him to be the president of all the people, words designed to show that, as he put it, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
President Obama’s audience was not primarily about me and the brothers and sisters sitting around me, eagerly awaiting that Holy Ghost moment in every good black sermon when we could all stand up and feel that our ancestors’ sacrifices had at last been redeemed. His primary audience was those powers that seek to disrupt our nation’s place in the world: “For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Barack Hussein Obama was declaring, in this rhetorical nod to President Kennedy, that the torch had passed, and it had passed to him, a black man. And that for all that his election signified symbolically about Frederick Douglass’ and W.E.B. Du Bois’ and Martin Luther King Jr.’s grand historical project of race relations in America, the more important point to communicate was that that torch would continue to burn as brightly as it had in the hands of his 43 predecessors, in defense of liberty and our nation’s interests, at home and abroad.
In retrospect, I now understand what I was to come away with that magnificent Inauguration Day. I have leapt to my feet and cheered for Barack Obama many times before. Tuesday was not a day for rhetorical flourishes and emotional responses. Barack Hussein Obama’s speech was meant to demonstrate that he is now the most powerful man in the world. Game face, on!
We have come to appreciate the soaring rhetoric because it is that which is familiar. Sheer power, perhaps, is new to us all, in the framing of a black man.
With that speech—that speech that fell short of many expectations, mine included—President Obama may have fundamentally altered the perception of the status of our people, collectively, within what philosophers used to call “the scale of nature.” It was, perhaps, his sacred effort.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the editor in chief of The Root.