I admit it, he had me in tears—I felt like I was listening to the Gettysburg Address, like I was living through a moment that will be revisited again and again and again over the next 200 years.
White America has had this long-standing nightmare in which a vengeful black man—Nat Turner, Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, Malcolm X—comes out of the shadows to menace us, and a happier dream in which a black-skinned mother or father-figure loves us and forgives us unconditionally (Jim in Huckleberry Finn; Dilsey in Faulkner’s Sound & Fury; Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy). Then there’s the fantasy in which a gangster like, I don’t know, Spenser for Hire’s friend Hawk or rap’s Snoop Dogg, gruffly assures us that we can be his friend. Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons evoked those archetypes of reconciliation on stage; a lot of people, I suspect, projected some of them onto Obama too.
Obama changed the script in Charleston. Instead of an easy reconciliation (an un-earned grace that only Jesus can grant), he admonished white Americans to live up not just to our own ideals, but to the example that America’s black fighters and martyrs have set. He challenged us to open our eyes: to stop pretending that a proliferation of guns have nothing to do with gun violence; that racism and racial injustice have nothing to do with each other; that the Civil War was a noble cause with no lessons or implications for today.
So many martyrs. As Obama recounted the facts of Clementa Pinckney’s short life, I found myself thinking about how assiduous the Fox News machine has always been to remind us that Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, and even the little girl in the bikini in Texas who was looking for her glasses, were “no angels”–and that the cops or would-be cops who hurt or killed them weren’t racists either, but just working stiffs doing a difficult job (which for all I know, some of them were–I can’t get inside their heads. But I have a pretty good idea about what’s going on in the heads of some of their loudest defenders).
Then an honest-to-God white supremacist gunned down nine angels in a historic church, a citadel of the Civil Rights movement, making sure to leave a witness behind so that there could be no doubt about his motive. It was as if, Obama said, God was using the killer to carry out a plan of His own. I’m no believer, but those words gave me chills.
When I finished listening to the president, I checked out the commentary at Twitchy. The upshot was that Obama’s “politicization” of the tragedy was narcissistic, unchristian, in poor taste, and of course race-baiting of the lowest kind. Obama, one wrote, is “a man whose messiah complex is so strong, that he’s found a way to turn a funeral into a pander-fest.” Can you imagine, talking about guns and racism at the funeral of nine victims of race-inspired gun violence? What possible place could progressive politics have in a eulogy for a progressive politician?
I almost felt sorry for them.