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Critics of Obama's speech missed his point -- inclusiveness

The president didn't talk about black or white people, he just talked about all of 'us.'

January 22, 2009|ROSA BROOKS

Keep quiet, please.

Yes, you members of the chattering classes who can't stop dissecting Barack Obama's inauguration speech and finding it somehow wanting. It wasn't soaring enough for you! It was full of cliches! It invoked George Washington but didn't even mention Abraham Lincoln! Or Martin Luther King Jr.! It didn't talk about race!

You hush up. You're talking so loudly you can't hear the echoes.

Obama's speech was just right. You could see that from the tear-streaked faces of so many of those gathered on the National Mall on Tuesday, people who had stood for hours in the cold January wind just to be there, part of history.

The president's speech can't be understood from a transcript alone. Its meaning and power lay not just in its words but in all that came before it. Start with the echoes, and the ghosts.

The National Mall is a haunted place. Stand on it, and if you listen carefully, you can still hear King speaking of his dream. Close your eyes, and you can still see those thousands of upturned faces. You can still hear the singing, not just of those who marched with King in 1963 but of the millions who marched before and after, for peace or for rights, all calling on their nation to make good on its promises of justice and equality.

Obama didn't have to quote King. To those gathered on the Mall, King was already speaking, loud and clear.

There are other echoes too. Listen close enough and you can still hear the young John F. Kennedy, urging us to "ask what you can do for your country." Listen harder, and you hear the cannons of the Civil War. Harder still, and you hear the sound of bugles playing "Taps," drifting over from Arlington National Cemetery.

For President Obama -- the child of a black man from Africa and a white woman from the American heartland -- speaking in that place, at that time, to that audience, there was much that didn't need to be said. But he deftly invoked history, seamlessly joining the imagined future to the achievements and the sorrows of the past.

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Those "cliches" some derided, such as his reference to "gathering clouds and raging storms"? A quote from an early speech by Abraham Lincoln. Obama's reference to the words Washington ordered read at Valley Forge? They were the words of radical patriot and abolitionist Thomas Paine.

True, Obama referred only elliptically to his status as our first black president. He didn't talk about black people or white people. He did something simpler. He talked about "us."

This is what gave Obama's speech its power: His generous vision of an America that includes all of us, belongs to all of us, shapes and is shaped by all of us.

Speaking of the "men and women ... who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom," Obama repeated the refrain: "For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn."

"For us." With these small words, Obama invited us all to claim a past full of contradictions that can neither be resolved nor disowned but only accepted as part of that "patchwork heritage" that shapes and can strengthen us all.

This, I think, is why so many found Obama's speech so moving, even as some professional critics tut-tutted over it.

For blacks -- long marginalized -- Obama's speech was an invitation to take ownership of all that is most noble about American history, even when that same history is also rife with exclusion and oppression. Obama invited black Americans to look at the whole sweep of that history, from the Pilgrims to the power of the presidency, and say, "Yes, that's ours."

For whites, Obama's speech was an invitation to share in the legacy of those who lived and died as slaves, of King and the struggle for civil rights, and to see that legacy as "ours," not as something of "theirs" to which we owed respect but couldn't claim.

In a nation that has so long been riven by exclusion and the politics of division, the message behind Obama's words is that we all own America's past -- its triumphs and cruelties alike.

And as we now struggle to forge America's future out of "our better history," we all share responsibility for the hard work ahead.

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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