The writer in me has always been an admirer, from the beginning of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign onward, of our 44th president’s oratory skills. It’s clear that many of his speeches will go down in history as some of this nation’s best written works. His memoir Dreams from My Father is already finding its place in our American canon.
And yet, there is something about Obama’s language, whenever he addresses this country’s crises of bigotry, that troubles me. His words can come off as brief, as though he’s skimming the surface of the issues — devoting as little speech to them as possible, so he can get back to praising America for the better things it’s done.
I felt this way about much of President Obama’s farewell address, when the president spoke of progress often being somewhat of a losing battle. “For every two steps forward,” he said, “it often feels we take one step back.”
No, I thought when I heard him say this. Don’t try to placate us in the era of Trump. Speak bluntly about the mess this country is in.
But, instead of bluntness, Obama’s next sentence was a softball of calm, intended to minimize a dire situation. He continued:
“But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
And onward Obama pivoted into listing some of the great progressive accomplishments of the past eight years.
President Obama consistently lifts up the good of this country above the bad, even when America’s sins are too egregious and bloody to be simply overlooked. That’s just what he does. Even he admitted to this, in his 2008 speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” citing his belief that a view of America that “elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America” is “profoundly distorted.”
I don’t think such a view is profoundly distorted. Not when, all over this country, and in even greater numbers thanks to his time in office, undocumented immigrants fear for their safety and the stability of their families.
I don’t think such a view is profoundly distorted when, somewhere in this great nation of ours, a black woman driving down the street is seconds away from being pulled over by a cop and hoping she won’t become another hashtag, another name on a list of the dead.
I don’t think such a view is profoundly distorted when a transgender person who walks down a lonely street tonight might notice that they’re being followed, and may never make it back home alive.
Gone are the days when we can look at this country through the eyes of the most privileged without guilt. In fact, those days should have disappeared a long time ago.
If they had, President Obama might have publicly taken Donald Trump’s candidacy more seriously than it appeared he did. If we were more focused on how drastic the situations of our most vulnerable are, instead of how rosy the rest of America supposedly is, maybe we would have been motivated enough to take more precautions, to set our sights on combating voter suppression and the normalization of a bigoted man as a candidate for this nation’s highest office.
I say all of this now because I don’t want us to make the same mistakes we did in the past, believing that America is greater than it is. America rests on a foundation of sin. Its body is strong but its soul is dead. Yes, America provides so much freedom and benefits so many lives. But woe to us if we look at this country’s glass as half full when so many of our fellow citizens barely have water at all. Woe to us if we praise the calm in our lives while failing to give the distress of others’ lives the full attention it needs.
Any speech about America that fails to look at this nation’s current state with the realism and gravity it deserves is speech about a country that doesn’t exist. The America that President Obama spoke of, in his farewell address, is an America I barely recognize.