Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration dream


Catching glimpses of Barack Obama watch the "We Are One" Lincoln Memorial concert yesterday, I was reminded of these bits from his 1992 autobiography Dreams from My Father. When Obama was a boy living in Indonesia with his stepfather and mother, she was determined to make him an American.

Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she went to work. ...

"If you are going to grow into a human being," she would say ot me, "you are going to need some values." ...

It was as if, by traveling halfway round the globe, away from the smugness and hypocrisy that familiarity had disclosed, my mother could give voice to the virtues of her Midwestern past and offer them up in distilled form. ...My mother's confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn't possess; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny. ...she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism. ...She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King....

Obama certainly went on to learn that the United States stood for far less admirable actions and qualities than the virtues his mother tried to teach him; in fact, it was in Indonesia that he first began to wrestle with the injuries of race as we have constructed it.

But he also seems to have learned from his mother to take strength from the aspects of this nation's unfinished story that point in better directions. I saw yesterday's concert as his gift to the nation of that innocent dream that has been so submerged under the detritus of empire and exploitation. We can't live there, but recovering some reminders of the good American myth may help us to live better in the tattered reality that we actually inhabit.
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