28 August 2008

Obama Had Me At Langston Hughes

Barack Obama gave his candidacy acceptance speech a couple hours ago. As I shared my opinions of his speech with my wife, I wondered what the media would take from his speech. What would the headlines read?

Yahoo! posted an article from the Associated Press. The writers note that:
On a night 45 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a Dream Speech," Obama made no overt mention of his own race.
Pardon me? What is his race? Remember that he is half white, too. I feel that this statement reeks of the "one drop rule." I wonder if he struggled with checking boxes on forms, or if he just always checked African American without giving it a second thought.

It's interesting, too, to note that the Wikipedia page that the details the one drop rule opens references Langston Hughes response to the odd rule:
You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word "Negro" is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown.

Why is this interesting in the context of the Obama speech? Well in it, he refers to "dreams deferred." This is classic Langston Hughes and it speaks miles to the overall sentiment of our country — regardless of race.

Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
This poem spoke to me from the first time I read it. My life so often would feel like it was just one long string of dreams deferred until "it just sags / like a heavy load." I've moved past most of that now, but I immediately saw the connection he was drawing to the current state of our country.

I actually learned about "Dream Deferred" through a play by Lorraine Hansberry called "Raisin in the Sun." The (possibly unintended) reference to this play packed an extra wallop, as it continues to be a steady favorite in theater productions and represents some firsts. The play was the first Broadway play written by a black woman and with the first black director of a show on Broadway.
The nuance of this (un)intentional refererence invokes the spirits of two African Americans who left a legacy, as well as the beloved Langston Hughes. And that's where Obama had me... with Langston Hughes.

Now, I know that I've pussyfooted around the whole un/intentional thing. Well, I'll take a stance and say Obama intended to invoke "Raisin in the Sun." Why...?

While pursuing my English degree, my lit class read the play. As with any lit class, we had a theme around which we would discuss the book. In the case of this one, we discussed The American Dream!

That's right. Did you happen to hear any overt references to The American Dream throughout the rest of Obama's speech? I think I remember a few. The synchronicity of it all is slowly giving me chills. Here is a person who I relate to more than any other I can ever remember, because he was raised by his hard-working mother, his father was absent, he rose out of poverty, and he's been married about as long as me.

Yet despite all our similarities, Obama had me at Langston Hughes.

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