Over the last week, I have been seething about how the media has used de-contextualized clips from Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons to hijack the public perception of Sen. Barack Obama's historic run for the presidency. I was therefore eagerly, if anxiously, awaiting Obama's formal response to this situation.
Since I was en route to the nation's capital to conduct an interview on the morning of the speech, I did my best to time my travel so that I would be stationary by the time Obama began his remarks. Because the highways of the mid-Atlantic corridor are prone to congestion, and because I had other pressing errands to attend to, I ended up at a bank in Georgetown as the speech began. There, in the lobby of the bank, I was relieved to see a flat-screen TV tuned to CNN. Obama stood at the podium – looking ever-presidential. As I approached the counter, I realized that the sound was completely mute. So I began to read:
"And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States," read Obama's words scrolling along the top of the screen.
I read teletype daily on cable news networks or when I am watching the news in a café or coffee shop, and never have I been so mesmerized by digitized rhetoric.
I was running late; so I tried to leave, but the text would not let me go. I kept reading.
". . .[R]ace is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."
I knew I had to sit down. The bank clerks could see me but not see the screen, so they looked at me strangely. I'm not sure if I've ever been in a bank with a television, and they looked at me as if no one ever deliberately sat to watch this particular TV. But I did. I sat there for the whole speech, completely entranced by Obama's words and my inability to stop reading them.
An older, African gentleman joined me. He too sat down, entranced by the teletype on the screen. We did not say a word to each other, but I knew he was African, he knew I was African American, and without speaking we collectively acknowledged that this was a pivotal moment in American history.
Recalling the soundless power of the words moves me even as I write this. Obama's concluding anecdote about "Ashley," a young white supporter, and an "elderly black man" finding mutual ground through the spirit of the campaign was all the more dramatic in the teletype. As I realized the rhetorical force of the anecdote, the cultural, generational and gender barriers symbolically and literally broken through the example, a tear blurred my vision. Embarrassed, I quickly wiped it away and kept reading.
"And so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty-one . . ."
As the speech neared its end, I realized that the sound bites I would hear broadcast repeatedly in coming days would inevitably ruin the power of the message delivered, no matter how well excerpted. Suddenly, I counted myself lucky. If the sound had been on, I would not have stayed; I would have gone to my car, continued my journey just listening on the radio. The experience of reading the speech as text was transformative for me. For the first time I could appreciate Obama's presidential poise – and the full promise of his vision - without the distraction of his soaring rhetorical skills. I could see and feel the sincerity of his expressions – and the challenge to all Americans, issued through his measured movements and pointed gestures — without the calculated applause of the audience.
For me, this was Obama, without any hype, at the most critical juncture of his campaign. And even without sound he was magnetic.
James Braxton Peterson is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University and the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, Inc.