When I first heard that Barack Obama would address the nation today, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in the same spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr King addressed 250,000 people gathered there so many years ago, at the exact same time (2:45pmEST), I had mixed feelings.
This isn’t the first time the President has invoked King’s legacy: he used a restored Bible which once belonged to King during his inauguration ceremonies, drawing sharp criticism from Cornel West (“You don’t play with Martin Luther King, Jr. and you don’t play with his people”).
And in many ways, the comparison is apt. Many would say that Obama represents a manifestation of King’s famed Dream. “I have a dream,” King famously declared, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The symbolism is undeniable: the nation’s first Black President was just two years old at the time King’s famous speech was delivered, and his current high-powered political reality was impossible, almost unthinkable, during King’s life. In many ways, the world that King was so compellingly praying for and willing into existence has begun to come about.
But in so many ways it hasn’t. We are far from living in some kind of post-racial, or even post-racism utopia, and rabid racial harmony isn’t necessarily something we have seen inspired by Barack Obama lately. A lot of progressives have legitimate grievances with him; in addition to vocal critics Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, everyone from Noam Chomsky to Cory Booker to Michael Moore has expressed disappointment with one or another of his policies or positions. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a kind of sacrilege to the idea that an elected politician of today, mired in the messy political realities of our time, with voters to please and lawmakers to wrangle, could so brazenly set out to fill the shoes of the late King, who despite historical white-washing, it still known for being a martyr, for being such a righteous, morally pure progressive voice that he was literally murdered for expressing his anti-racist vision. (Eager for a more nuanced take on King? Jay Smooth recounts ten lesser known things King said here.)
I embrace the discomfort of this comparison. These things can be hard to compute. Is Obama the King of today? Certainly not, but he might be as historically important and meaningful to the people of color, progressives and anti-racists of today.
I don’t easily dismiss many of the valid criticisms of Barack Obama’s presidency. I also happen to believe that he’s a much better alternative than 99% of mainstream, viable political candidates out there. And that he’s a Black man who is interested in thinking critically about, interrogating, being proud of, his own racial identity and the racial politics of this country, is inexpressibly meaningful to me. It’s easy to forget how magical his unlikely candidacy once felt, but I was reminded when I recently read a passage from “Americanah”, a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that deals heavily with themes of race in the context of a transnational Nigerian love story. In the book, two lovers, one Nigerian woman (Ifemelu) and one African-American man (Blaine), are drifting apart, and their experience of Barack Obama’s candidacy temporarily electrifies their still-dying romance:
“On the day Barack Obama became the nominee of the Democratic Party, Ifemelu and Blaine made love, for the first time in weeks, and Obama was there with them, like an unspoken prayer, a third emotional presence. She and Blaine drove hours to hear him speak, holding hands in a thick crowd, raising placards, CHANGE written on them in a bold white print. A black man nearby had hoisted his son onto his shoulders, and the son was laughing, his mouth full of milky teeth, one missing from the upper row. The father was looking up, and Ifemelu knew that he was stunned by his own faith, stunned to find himself believing in things he did not think he ever would. When the crowd exploded in applause, clapping and whistling, the man could not clap, because he was holding his son’s legs, and so he just smiled and smiled, his face suddenly young with joyfulness. Ifemelu watched him, and the other people around them, all glowing with a strange phosphorescence, all treading a single line of unbroken emotion.”
I’m hoping that Obama manages to do the impossible: slip some potency and relevance into his remarks this afternoon, during a moment where he is surely under pressure to be politically expedient, broad-based and acceptable. I’m also hoping that his words help take us, ever slowly, into the kind of future that King died trying to realize. How do you feel about Barack Obama’s speech today?