“Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.”
—Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day”
African Americans comprised nearly half of the audience at Lincoln’s second inaugural address. As Lincoln spoke to the crowd, he made the astonishing suggestion that perhaps God had willed that the Civil War would continue, “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” It was the day that Lincoln became the black man’s president.
Frederick Douglass reported “a leaden stillness” among the white half of Lincoln’s audience. But a reporter for the Times of London noted an enthusiastic call-and-response reaction from the black folks listening to Lincoln’s speech. The suggestion that God was taking a white eye at long last in return for the suffering of black slaves all these years was one of the most radical ideas ever voiced in the history of the American presidency, before or since.
Frederick Douglass, alone among all of those blacks who had been in Lincoln’s audience, found himself trying to fight his way past two guards barring his entry to the White House reception following the ceremony. Lincoln, spying Douglass, waved the guards away and demanded that Douglass give him his frank reaction, saying that no one’s opinion mattered more to him than his. Douglass, deeply moved by the speech and by Lincoln’s comments about him, responded, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
When Barack Obama pointed out Lincoln’s 703-word speech carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial to his daughters last week, and Michelle explained to the girls Lincoln’s fight for greater equality, 10-year-old Malia responded by asking, “Yeah, how are we doing on that?” Malia then told her father that his own speech, “better be good.”
So, how did our new president do with his 2,419-word address? While I felt that it had been beautifully delivered, some commentators felt that it lacked Obama's usual rhetorical eloquence. Yet we tend to forget that Lincoln’s most famous speeches—Gettysburg and the second inaugural—read much better than they sounded. This may be Barack Obama’s first experience with this.
I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but my initial reaction to the president’s address was a certain puzzlement at my own reaction, because I found it less moving as a rhetorical statement than I had expected. And I believe the audience sitting around me on the grounds of the Capitol did as well, judging from our collective eagerness to reward him in loud voice and with great passion, with as many applause lines as we could.
I should have known that the new president had different intentions for this speech—its shape, its delivery, its effect—than, let’s say, his astonishing Iowa victory speech (which moved me to jump out of bed, covered in goose flesh) or his equally memorable “race” speech in Philadelphia.
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.