James Baldwin and Barack Obama

by on October 14, 2008  •  In Race

The New York Review of Books
By Colm Toibin

…Just as Obama, in his increasing urge to inspire, a necessary aspect of his calling perhaps, often seeks a rhetoric free of bitterness and high on healing, Baldwin, in his urge to speak difficult truths, to tell white people what they least wished to hear, sometimes moved toward a tone which was almost shrill. In his great good humor, however, he would perhaps enjoy more than anyone else reading this passage from an essay written by him in 1965:

I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted…. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.

Obama, running for President forty-three years later, just three years too late to fulfill what Robert Kennedy saw as conceivable, what Baldwin saw as far too late, ends Dreams from My Father with the phrase, "I felt like the luckiest man alive." Later, when he won his first election to the US Senate, he wrote:

Still, there was no point in denying my almost spooky good fortune. I was an outlier, a freak; to political insiders, my victory proved nothing.

Similarly, Baldwin in 1985 wrote about his own unique position and attitude in the formative years in Greenwich Village: "there were very few black people in the Village in those years, and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable." More than twenty years earlier he had written:

To become a Negro man, let alone a Negro artist, one had to make oneself up as one went along….

Both men set about establishing their authority by exploring themselves and how they came to make it up as they went along, as much as by exploring the world around them. In Obama's own mixed background and complex heritage he saw America; out of his own success, he saw hope and a new set of values. Out of his own childhood Baldwin produced a number of enduring literary masterpieces and out of his efforts to make sense of his own complex, playful personality and his own unique place in history he produced some of the best essays written in the twentieth century. Reading these essays and Obama's speeches, especially the ones that are high on inspiration and short on policy, one is struck by the connection between them, two men remaking the world against all the odds in their own likeness, not afraid to ask, when faced with the future of America as represented by its children, using Baldwin's wonderful phrase, questions that are alien to most politicians: "What will happen to all that beauty?"


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