Monday, January 16, 2017

The Faith of Barack Obama

On Martin Luther King Day we're apparently allowed to talk about race in America.  (Also in February, I guess, if it's historical.)  This is a simply produced but clear public access video of Barack Obama in 1995, talking about his first book Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  He reads an excerpt and then answers questions.

For some of us, 1995 doesn't seem so very far away, but Barack Obama hadn't even run for public office yet. (You used to have to do that before you run for President.)  He'd been a community organizer in Chicago, gone to law school at Harvard where he achieved the prestigious position of editor of the Law Review, and had begun practicing as a Civil Rights lawyer.

This was filmed at the Cambridge Public Library, which I'd frequented twentysomething years before.  I post it today because of what the future President says about race in America, including quoting Dr. King, and the reality of his own journey to a racial identity.

But of course it's fascinating in light of what became of him.  Everyone will have their own impressions but here are a couple of mine...

In the brief reading when he assumes the voices of black friends and a black mentor, it sure seems he could have had a career as an actor.  August Wilson would have loved to have him for his plays.  Perhaps that's partly why Obama won a Grammy for his audiobook reading of this book.  

Otherwise, when he's introducing the book and especially answering questions, the Obama we came to know is there.  There are pre-echoes of sentiments we heard in his campaigns and presidency.  And even his facility in answering questions, he already looks and sounds like the President at a press conference.  This is pretty fascinating stuff on all levels.

Young Obama's faith in America to work through racial issues, as he worked through his racial identity, remains at his core.  Aside from legal or political efforts,  the cultural inclusiveness he and his family brought to the White House, particularly the recognition of African American cultural expressions as essential to American culture, helped to bring more of MLK's dream to life.

Yet let's face it: all the things that some of us love, from his family to the inclusive White House to how he deliberately inspired young African Americans and other children of color, these also inflamed hatred, and helped bring racism not only into the public spotlight but into power.  America has still not worked through this.

 As young Obama says in this appearance, and as President Obama said in his farewell speech, there has been improvement.  But we're not there yet.  And--to state the obvious from the weekend's headlines--in racial justice as well as related issues, there are hard times ahead.

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