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BOOK REVIEW

'The Speech' edited by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting

An insightful collection of essays about then-candidate Barack Obama's 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia.

August 09, 2009|Erin Aubry Kaplan

Sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman gives a wonderful analysis of the speech as a modern jeremiad that draws on the European, American and African American traditions. Early Puritans preached a jeremiad that saw new white settlers as chosen people, thus establishing the idea of American exceptionalism. Later on, the black jeremiad critiqued America as a land that had failed to live up to that exceptionalism by not granting full justice to all of its people. In his speech, Obama sought to bring the two traditions together in a tricky triangulation -- one of his hallmarks -- but with limited success. Smitherman is circumspect. After describing how the black jeremiad typically gave whites explicit instructions on how to redress black grievances and therefore make good on its own promise, she writes that "Obama chooses not to go there, leaving the rhetorical pathos (appeal to emotion) of earlier black jeremiads aside." Obama, instead, opted for reason and deliberation -- perhaps his only choice, given the consternation about the emotional Wright.

And therein is the real problem with the speech. Cool and eloquence notwithstanding, its purpose was not to bring us all together but to convince whites that Obama meant no harm (that he has "goodwill"). Did the speech have merit? A certain independence? Of course. Obama using himself and his own life as a challenge to the national obsession with separation of the races was dramatic; so was the painful anecdote about his beloved white grandmother who harbored racist feelings toward black men like himself. But I didn't forget what forces were really in charge in Philadelphia on that day. Obama seized the moment of truth and, for those 40 minutes, was in admirable control. But those are small potatoes compared with the racial hostility and imbalance that put him at the podium and that have been driving the country a long, long time.

While it may be true that "the political effect of his speech is that it established him as an honest broker of race," as Derrick Jackson concludes in the last part of his three-part contribution, the question remains, a broker for whom? That's the question we rarely have the audacity to ask, and to keep asking.

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Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

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