The Joshua Generation

The Joshua Generation

The New Yorker

David Remnick, Editor

Race and the campaign of Barack Obama.

Barack Obama could not run his campaign for the Presidency based on political accomplishment or on the heroic service of his youth. His record was too slight. His Democratic and Republican opponents were right: he ran largely on language, on the expression of a country’s potential and the self-expression of a complicated man who could reflect and lead that country. And a powerful thematic undercurrent of his oratory and prose was race. Not race as invoked by his predecessors in electoral politics or in the civil-rights movement, not race as an insistence on tribe or on redress; rather, Obama made his biracial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political progress. He was not its hero, but he just might be its culmination.

In October, 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina, Rosa Parks died, at the age of ninety-two, in Detroit. Her signal act of defiance on the evening of December 1, 1955, her refusal to vacate her seat near the front of the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama—what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the ultimate gesture of “I can take it no longer”—was the precipitating act of the city’s bus boycott and the civil-rights movement. For two days, her body lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda, in Washington—an honor accorded only twenty-nine times before. Then, on November 2nd, in Detroit, there was a funeral service at the Greater Grace Temple Church. Thousands lined the streets to wave farewell and sing the old anthems and hymns. Four thousand packed the sanctuary. The service lasted seven hours.

“That funeral was so long that I can hardly remember it!” Bishop T. D. Jakes, the pastor of the Potter’s House, a Dallas church of thirty thousand congregants, said. “Everyone was there!” Jesse Jackson, the Clintons, Al Sharpton, Aretha Franklin, and a phalanx of preachers all paid tribute to Parks. Bill Clinton reminisced about riding segregated buses in Jim Crow Arkansas—and then feeling the liberating effect of Parks’s act. On the street, a marine played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, and the congregants sang “She Would Not Be Moved.”

Obama, the sole African-American member in the United States Senate, had also been invited to speak. As he sat in the pews awaiting his turn, he writes in his book “The Audacity of Hope,” his mind wandered back to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: the news footage from New Orleans of a body laid near a wall, of shirtless young men, “their legs churning through dark waters, their arms draped with whatever goods they had managed to grab from nearby stores, the spark of chaos in their eyes.” A week after the hurricane, Obama had accompanied Bill and Hillary Clinton and George H. W. Bush to Houston, where they visited the thousands of refugees from New Orleans who were camped out at the Astrodome and the Reliant Center. One woman told Obama, “We didn’t have nothin’ before the storm. Now we got less than nothin’.” The remark was a rebuke, Obama felt, to Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush Administration officials who had given him and fellow-legislators a briefing on the federal response to the hurricane; their expressions, he recalled, “bristled with confidence—and displayed not the slightest bit of remorse.” In the church, Obama thought of how little had happened since. Cars were still stuck in trees and on rooftops; predatory construction firms were winning hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, even as they skirted affirmative-action laws and hired illegal immigrants for their crews. Obama’s anger, which is rarely discernible in his voice or in his demeanor, ran deep. “The sense that the nation had reached a transformative moment—that it had had its conscience stirred out of a long slumber and would launch a renewed war on poverty—had quickly died away,” he wrote…

…Long before he ever had to think through the implications, racial and otherwise, of running for President, Barack Obama needed to make sense of himself—to himself. The memoir that he published when he was thirty-three, “Dreams from My Father,” explored his biracial heritage: his white Kansas-born mother, his black Kenyan father, almost completely absent from his life. The memoir is written with more freedom, with greater introspection and irony, than any other by a modern American politician. Obama introduces himself as an American whose childhood took him to Indonesia and Hawaii, whose grandfathers included Hussein Onyango Obama, “a prominent farmer, an elder of the tribe, a medicine man with healing powers.”

As a young man, Obama was consumed with self-doubt, trying always to reconcile the unsettling contradictions of his history. His parents married in 1960, when interracial marriage was still prohibited in almost half the states of the union. As Obama entered adolescence, in Hawaii, his father had returned to Africa and started a new family, but, at the same time, the boy was careful around his white friends not to mention his mother’s race; he began to think that by doing so he was ingratiating himself with whites. He learned to read unease in the faces of others, the “split second adjustments they have to make,” when they found out that he was the son of a mixed marriage.

“Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose—the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds,” he writes, with the wry distance of the older self regarding the younger.

Obama’s mother was an earnest and high-minded idealist, “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.” With Barack’s father gone, she emphasized, even sentimentalized, blackness to her son. She loved the film “Black Orpheus,” which her son later found so patronizing to the “childlike” characters that he wanted to walk out of the theatre. She’d bring home the records of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Martin Luther King. To her, “every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.”…

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