"Transcending" Race: Op-eds, 2

This is my response to the Obama speech: it's not really a blog entry, more of a crack at an Op-ed, so it's more polished, for better and worse, than what you're used to reading around these parts...

You used the word ‘transcend.’ Do you have any idea what that word means to us?”

I looked up from my papers at three beautiful and angry young black women. I had just given a talk on how Virginia Woolf influenced Alice Walker. I was a twenty-six year old graduate student, nervous and excited to have had the privilege to speak on a featured panel at an academic conference. I was not prepared for a confrontation from three self-assured undergraduates from Spelman. I sputtered something, asked them to explain their objections, and left feeling confused, sorry, and disoriented. It was a deeply disappointing moment of failed communication across a racial divide.

That was back in 1993. The memory still distresses me and I have thought of this moment often when commentators on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign mention how he transcends race.

In retrospect, I think the Spelman students’ objections are clear: the notion of transcendence, with its celebration of a freedom so complete as to be almost bodiless, slides far too easily into a failure to recognize race and racism. When the women from Spelman asked me if I knew what transcend means to us, they were pleading with me to acknowledge the weight of race in American life. To them, this was a weight that was not only impossible to transcend but also undesirable to transcend. When white liberals applaud Obama’s ability to transcend race, I hear the anger, frustration, and fear of those women from Spelman. Are those who invoke transcendence celebrating Obama’s abilities or just relieved not to have to think about race?

T. S. Eliot famously defined poetry as an “escape from personality,” a statement that has contributed to a sense of him as a poet of clever words but not emotions. This criticism of Eliot’s poetry resonates with a common criticism of Obama’s speeches. Few remember the next sentence in Eliot’s 1919 essay: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Eliot asks poets to know their emotions and personality, to inhabit them, but then to transcend them when creating art, to escape from the personal into something greater, something that communicates beyond the self. Can we not ask the same of our politicians? Not that they forget their own stories, but that they see their stories within the larger American story.

Obama’s desire to run a campaign that is not only about his race is different from the desire of fatigued whites not to think about race anymore. As a black man in America, Obama’s life is marked by race: he cannot avoid it nor has he shown any signs of wanting to. However, in appearing to want to transcend race, Obama had, until yesterday, given his critics the chance to see his rhetoric as untethered to reality.

Obama’s speech last week in Philadelphia changed that. For in that speech, Obama showed us all how richly and deeply he understands the bitterness, justified or not, on all sides of the racial divides. More than that, he reminded us why the notion of hope is so powerful. For hope, when tethered to a deeply nuanced understanding of the challenges we face, will be the key to emerging into a better future.

Virginia Woolf used metaphors of tethered flight, of granite and rainbow, to describe the artist’s task: an artist must dream, but she must remain linked to the world. The politician’s task is even more fettered than the artist’s, but too many politicians remain stuck in the granite, forgetting to look up to the skies. Obama has had the opposite problem.

In his speech yesterday, Obama showed us the granite, the anchor of his vision for our future, and that is precisely what he needed to do to make the future soar. If we are to transcend race, we need to acknowledge it; Senator Obama has begun a new chapter in our ongoing national conversation on race. It is up to us to continue it.