Saturday, March 22, 2008

CitizenSE Teaching Manifesto, Part II: Looking Forward to Teaching Obama's Speech in the Fall

Thanks to Jennifer at Mixed Race America for posting the video (and text) of Barack Obama's speech in its entirety.

Thanks to all the awesome history bloggers Ralph Luker linked to at Cliopatria, who convinced me to watch it in the middle of the night this week (and put off reading for my classes for another 40 minutes).

Thanks to Jennifer again for her follow-up questions, and to Annalee Newitz at io9 for her observations.

Thanks to Chris Clarke at Creek Running North for articulating some of the (to my mind, calculated, on which more in a second) blind spots of Obama's speech. And to N Pepperell at Rough Theory for his reflection on Obama's theorizing of affect and politics.

But thanks most of all to my chair and associate chair for giving me yet another chance to teach Introduction to African American Literature and Culture next semester. Because Obama's speech is going right in the middle of the course's "Nation" unit in the fall, not long after Election Day. (And thanks to Kenny Mostern, one of my favorite former academics, from whom I borrowed the country/city/nation/world structure of my course!)

Why am I going to teach Obama's speech? Because of its supple invocation of and subtle response to the classic debates over American and black nationalism that go back centuries in African-American political discourse. Because it'll help my students understand race and nationalism in more complex and interesting ways. Because it'll enable me to contrast Obama's rhetoric with Wright's jeremiad and draw my students into a consideration of the nationalistic uses of the jeremiad (as analyzed most famously by Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch, and Emory Elliott on the Puritans and David Howard-Pitney in the African-American grain, but also more recently by Edward Blum, Ralph Luker, and Kim Pearson). Because it'll help my students understand the full force of Obama's invocation of Faulkner's line from Intruder in the Dust Requiem for a Nun (thanks to former student Charlie Wesley for the correction!) that "The past is not never dead. It's not even past" (and maybe even wonder why he added "and buried" to the first sentence, or why the punctuation linking the two thoughts vacillates between a period, semi-colon, and comma even when it's scholars doing the quoting--for more on this line and Obama, see Scott Horton). And see why that invocation was no accident, that for Obama to invoke the founders and slavery in the ways he did is to invoke Emerson, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Twain as much as Walker, Douglass, Du Bois, and King.

Among the things the speech itself and the responses to it have made me wonder about are the limits on political speech in this country--what traditions, conventions, and myths you have to invoke (and hopefully rework) and avoid (or avoid questioning) if you wish to be considered "presidential" today. Take Obama's starting with the Constitutional Convention--the literal founding of the U.S.--rather than, say, the Declaration or the founding of Jamestown or the first landing of Columbus in the Caribbean. I've already blogged a bit on the complexities of Hawthorne's relation to the founders in "The Custom-House," so forgive the self-quoting here (and the long parenthetical statement within the self-quotation):

it's not exactly right to put "The Custom-House" unproblematically in the tradition of Jeffersonian democracy (with its "tree of liberty nourished by blood of tyrants" strains), unless you see that tradition as itself problematized and strained. (After all, Jefferson blamed King George for blocking efforts by the colonists to end the slave trade yet also signalled his intent to defend American slavery by condemning the king's version of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; Jefferson affirmed the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence yet called in Notes on the State of Virginia for scientific investigations to confirm his suspicions of the racial inequality of African Americans; Jefferson condemned slavery in part for its corrupting tendencies on masters yet continued to hold slaves and do more than hold Sally Hemings; Jefferson denounced "merciless Indian savages" who fought with England in the Declaration of Independence, praised American Indians in Notes on the State of Virginia, and saw them as an obstacle to the expansion of the American "empire of liberty" that he helped engineer with the Louisiana Purchase.)

Sure, Obama invoked some of this complexity and these contradictions in his speech, but his central axis for riffing on race was black and white. Although he began to problematize whiteness by reaching out to the white working-class descendants of immigrants, his references to other racially/ethnically marked groups always felt like an addendum to his core "America in black and white" focus. This seems to me to distort American history and American society, almost as much the "nation of immigrants" discourse it competes with, which, as Werner Sollors rightly pointed out, is itself a rearticulation of the "Puritan origins of the American self" thesis. "Manifest destiny" is not an add-on to these other dominant narratives of what makes the U.S. America, as I tried to make clear to my students in Japan last academic year, and as I've been trying to do with my American students, before and since. (I've blogged on some of this here and there [and there and there and there and there and there and there--and, damn, did I leave a lot of loose threads hanging on this blog toward the end of that Fulbright year!].)

The history of American Studies and American historiography bears me out. After proponents of one or another account of the origins of American exceptionalism (whether based on the Puritans, the frontier, or liberty--that is, the North[east], the [South]West, or the South) competed for much of the first half of the 20th C, attention to the blindspots in all three accounts--or, to use a metaphor I worked to death in Japan, an exploration of the shadowy areas that their jostling over the narrow-focus spotlight cast into darkness or only fitfully illuminated (namely, Indian removals, expansionist wars, and slavery)--continued for much of its second half. But rather than repeat their predecessors' competition, these scholars increasingly came to question American exceptionalism, to look for ways of broadening the spotlight's focus, to attempt to remap America and put it in a global frame.

What I'd like to see from the politician who eventually comes to replace George W. Bush as the most recognizable and representative American to the rest of the world is an overt acknowledgment of the full range of American complexities and contradictions. I'll give Obama credit for going as far as he did and for responding to the most personal and prevalent and perhaps pressing of them so brilliantly in his speech. And I'll trust that were he to become President he'd go further, that the exigencies of his speech delineated its scope in advance.

What I'd like my students to recognize and analyze, then, is the rhetoric, intertextuality, context, framing, and reception of Obama's speech. I'd like them to be able to assess its strengths and weaknesses, to respond to its call for a sustained and critical conversation on the meaning of race and ethnicity in American public and private life, and hence to participate in the (re)making of America.

[Update 1 4/3/08: Plus I get to teach Toni Morrison and Alice Walker on Obama!]

[Update 2 11/6/08: Not to mention Rob MacDougall!]


Anonymous said...

This was the first thing I thought when I saw it - what a great thing to teach! for the reasons you give.

The Constructivist said...

Did you have the same experience I had watching it? Going from a grudging, "oh, yeah, that was a smooth way of invoking that myth, I guess" to a thrilled, "wow, I can't believe where he was able to go from there!"--about 5 or 6 times? I can't recall when a politician has blown me away like that, period. I can't wait to see how my students react to it, 2/3 of the way into the semester!