Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Sufferer's Lesson

Neither the shenanigans of Governor Palin and her children, nor the winds of Gustav, Hanna, Josephine or Ike have distracted me from the significance of Obama’s ascendency. His being the first black man to be a contender for President of the United States is clearly a transcendent moment in the history of the country. There was ample evidence of the meaning of the moment to individual people on the convention floor. As the cameras panned around and found face after face covered in tears, the personal and private magnitude of what we witnessed was clear. Watching big black men, who are tough as nails and raised in the American South of the 1950’s and 60’s, weeping like children was extraordinary. Listening to people speaking through their emotionally choked throats about how much they wished their fathers or mothers had been alive to see this, was amazing. What was equally striking was the coalition of people – an incredible array of the disparate faces that make up America. Senator Obama has managed to find the resonant note on the common human chord. That is a sufferer’s lesson to the country.

Spike Lee, in an interview with CNN, challenged the network to pay careful attention to “the face of America” that was present at the Democratic convention versus that which will be on hand for the Republican convention. The little ticker said that nearly a quarter of the delegates at the convention were black. Nearly 7 percent were gays and lesbians. There were significant percentages of all of the groups of people that make up this country. It also said that there were more than 80,000 people on hand for Senator Obama’s address and that nearly 40 million people watched it on television. That is approximately 10 percent of the entire population of the United States.

Obama and the current political movement he has created demonstrate the potential of what black Americans have to offer the country. Cornell West has long said that black people in America have a tremendous amount to contribute to the world from our long lessons on suffering and the pursuit of dignity and redemption. Obama is a brilliant example for our time. It is clear in his message, that he understands that there are very few social issues that are defined by clear sides of good and bad. The cross section of people at the convention who all bring their respective issues was a testament to that fact. He listed some of the most polarizing social issues of our time – abortion, gun rights, same sex marriage – and easily pointed out the locations of shared space where our common human interests reside. Of course he is an individual and there are others who operate in that vein, but the ability to find that shared space is a lesson that sufferers can teach. The sufferer knows that demonizing “the other” has its place, but it is not the long term solution. Ultimately, that attitude reduces both to demons.

If there were waves carrying the contributions of black Americans to the country, one would be cresting now. The black American legacy in the United States has been one of suffering and an ongoing pursuit of success and dignity. One of the lessons of that legacy is that mutual understanding, if not reconciliation, is a pre-requisite for dignity in a polarized society. Obama will of course bring an array of political and economic tacticians with him to the White House. Quietly though, he will also bring a gift, a sufferer’s lesson, to the country and to the world.

kamau