Friday, June 26 did not start out as any particularly auspicious day. I did receive a news alert in my inbox from the LA Times saying that the Motion Picture Academy (which nominates and votes on the Oscars every year, among other things) had extended their fold to 322 diverse new members. ‘Sweet! Cause to celebrate.’ Which it is. But beside the point—not 20 minutes later did I check Twitter and see—gay marriage is legal. Hallelujah. A huge and momentous day.
And then, sometime after that, Obama’s eulogy of Clementa Pinckney. I think, like most people, I sat in front of my computer (or television set, I suppose) watching the playback gape-mouthed, eyes wide, hand covering some aspect of my face. (To watch the eulogy in full click here.) Truly, this is unbelievable. An unbelievable moment in culture. Barack Obama, in one of the clearest, most unmistakable, most watched moments of his presidency–has embraced his blackness.
That might read to some as…offensive. Not PC. Or maybe, simply, not accurate. After all, what do I know about being black? I have wondered if, like me, other people have sat watching the aftermath of some of these big moments—Baltimore, for one, and the Michael Brown verdict—and seen Obama’s cool and careful remarks about non-violence, don’t loot, etc., and thought, ‘What are you really thinking?’ It must bother him, not just as a human being but as a man of color, and not just that but the Most Powerful Man In The World (if you believe such things), that his race is under attack, the victim of institutionalized discrimination—from his institution.
Yes, I know—Obama does not run the police. He must walk a tight line, say the right things. So, how phenomenal was it to watch his eulogy of the slain pastor, and to have every moment of it ring authentic. Not necessarily authentic to him—I don’t know him to be particularly religious or from the South, but authentic to the African-American southern church. From his musings on grace, his repetitions of speech, his singing of “Amazing Grace”—maybe the bravest, craziest presidential moment I have ever witnessed from any POTUS—he celebrated and spoke to a culture, an identity, place, heritage, a group of people—a very specific group of people. And everyone felt it.
“…[The] fact that this was a major national ceremony, involving fundamental discussion of national issues and prospects, in which all the major participants were black: president, preachers, mourners, congregation. I can’t think of a comparable previous event. Someone writing about our time will, I think, note it as an important step that this was treated not as a ‘minority’ commemoration but as a central American discussion,” James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic.
Surely, everyone who watched that eulogy felt the weight and the significance of that moment. Even if they didn’t fully understand it—which I probably don’t—but it felt significant. And different.
So bogged down are we (are they—they being the politicians and the media) with tradition, with rhetoric, with ‘watching our fucking backs so that we don’t piss off some party we are beholden to’—that everything feels like one typed up, watered down, PR chain-of-command press release statement. With the exception, of course, being Donald Trump, who will forever remain a bullheaded and unmediated jackass.
It sure feels, most days, like this has to be near the end. Europe wants to collapse, ISIS kills and terrorizes, the conservatives have taken over the UK, there are earthquakes, tsunamis, ever-growing divides between rich and poor, people gunned down in the streets, an environmental crisis which we refuse to acknowledge (death clock, anyone?), unmitigated consumerism that will surely be the death of everything, and seemingly every other week yet another bastard Republican to enter the 2016 race. Like you stand a chance. Seriously.
Obama was elected (the first time) on his ‘vote for hope, vote for change’ platform. He felt like change then. Most would agree he hasn’t lived up to that promise. Probably his fault, but also the fault of all the people (Republicans) who made sure that his hands were tied. Friday, June 26 felt like change. It felt like a uniquely hopeful, honest, authentic and brave moment. It felt like Obama bringing comfort, compassion, celebration, respect and a voice—a powerful voice—to that moment. This moment in history, for which he of everyone has right to comment. To where we are as a country, as a people, all of us—but especially the southern, black community. He felt like a leader. It is being celebrated as his “most fully successful performance as an orator,” and not because of the confederate flag talk or the gun-violence talk (which was on point and a good call), but because of Amen. Because of God’s Grace.
Barack Obama is a lot of things to a lot of people. I won’t even go into the positive or negative opinions regarding him. At the very bottom, he is our first African-American president. A historic event. Nothing so surprising or shocking or welcome as that was. Whatever your feelings on race, or on Obama—the black and white divide is the most challenging, boiling-point topic of the day, and in my opinion more important even than gay marriage (#LoveWins). And with his eulogy, Obama very publicly, very loudly, very significantly embraced, celebrated and showed allegiance to that culture. He held them up. It was a simultaneously presidential and very un-presidential thing to do. A moment outside of rhetoric and bipartisan politics. Something creative, that felt like improv, that felt like saying Yes.
I hope this is a defining moment. Not just in his presidency, but for our society and history; a beginning step toward the end that so many people have worked for. Either way, it felt like an amazing day to be alive. An unbelievable moment in culture.