I had this long comment I was going to make, but then I saw this beautiful note from Sorn, that says everything I wanted to say.
Why he's in church. I mean, not sitting in the pew, but the President's in church. This isn't the speech you give to people to convince a hostile crowd. This is a speech you give to people who know that they have to face a hostile crowd, but for now they're safe and they need their spirits built up, so tomorrow they can get through the grind again.
I've seen the same theme play out again and again in small churches all over. I've seen Crow Preachers, White Preachers, Cheyenne Preachers, Blackfoot Preachers, Catholic Priests, all give this type of message. I've seen this type of speech at revival tent meetings, and in places where the pews were so plush people were afraid to fart. I've even seen my father give this type of sermon, but that part of my upbringing is another story.
Obama's at the high church of blackness --meaning no offense to anyone-- he knows the drill. The general theme of these speaches is always the same. First make people feel good about themselves and connect them with their history. Then illustrate present problems and dificulties. Step on a few toes and let people know that they can't rest on their laurels. Link the present dificulties to the triumphs of the past. Tell people that if an older generation can over come harder things that they should have no problems overcoming present dificulties. Make a few appeals to personal responsibility. Finally, End with a benediction or a story that links everything together and shows the indomitability of the human spirit.
The New York Times description of this speech misses the boat entirely. However, I think that's for a few important reasons. First how many reporters go to church? No offense intended but the structure of a sermon, which is what this is, is different from the structure of an ordinary political speech. I think if more reporters were more familiar with a bit more puplit pounding they'd understand. Second, and I've seen this play out with Native Americans if not with African Americans. Mainstream society has two stereotypes that they love to continually play out when they talk about minorities. Either members of minority groups are portrayed as drunk, lazy, good-for-nothings, or they are pictured as noble savages resisting the incursions of the evil white man. An alternate variant on the "noble savage" stereotype exists as well. Usually in this variation the "good minority" adapts themselves to the progress of "civilization."
I think the headline of the NYT article, if not the entire article, is a lazy, half-assed, way of reporting on a sermon that was meant to be and was inspiring, if only in a typical Sunday got-to-meeting type of way. In the article the two ways that mainstream society have of viewing those outside are fused. We get both types of stereotypes. On the one hand there's the noble savage stereotype in Barrack Obama. On the other hand, there's an element, in the article, of the "good" minority who's come back to tell the "bad" minority how to adopt the white man's ways and be successfull.
The problem with this entire way of reporting is that somewhere in the fusion of stereotypes people loose their humanity. I said before that the speech was a sermon, and, in the best sermons, people are preached to both individually and collectively. Collectively the president brings everyone into contact with their history. Individually he brings his struggle into relationship with the individual stuggle of the audience members. The end result is to give strength to the individual by preaching a collective message of hope, and to inspire the collective by preaching an individual message of perserverence. Watch the conclusion of the speech again, like all good preachers, and I maintain that on this occasion Obama is a preacher, Obama uses the individual stories of people like Moses Wright to give a strength and a voice to the communal experience of African Americans.
Of course the NYT got it wrong. First they don't understand the tradition, and second they don't understand the dynamic between the individual and his group. Of course if their reporters went to church a bit more, or if they stopped viewing ethnic minorities as monolithic communities they might get a bit more right. However I don't see either of those two things happening in the near future.
I think what Sorn says gels really well with how Obama began the speech--"It's good to be among friends." I don't think people get that. When Obama talks to black audiences, it is, for better a worse, a different kind of conversation. Not for political reasons (maybe I'm naive) but for organic reasons. A lot of this has to do with that "he's not really black" line of thinking. Which extends from their own racism, from their belief that they fucking know what black is. Which itself extends from their desire to get up from under history. The South isn't the only place with a Lost Cause.
I'd add just two more things. 1.) As someone else, mentioned I thought his juxtaposition of Christianity and slavery, was really powerful. 2.) My strong reaction to the Times (perhaps overreaction, and the ongoing "Obama lectures to the blacks!" narrative comes from a biased perspective. I'm a journalist. It's a point of professional pride.