Ready to Cross the Jordan

Word formally emerged today that Rep. Charlie Rangel will face an ethics trial in the House. It's been forty years since he unseated Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was then embroiled in an ethics scandal, and now Rangel faces his own charges, and Adam Clayton Powell III IV 4.0 is working to unseat him in turn.


There's a lot that could be written - and much of it has - about the dynastic politics of Harlem, the downsides of ethnic blocs, and the corruption of power. There's as much to say, though, about Rangel's heroism in battle, his lifetime of public service, and all that he accomplished. His fall from grace saddens me. He has the aura of a man who has outlived his time, and doesn't know it. 

And the news sends me back to the speech that Barack Obama delivered in Selma, the piece of oratory in which he staked out his own place in the black political tradition: 

I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we've got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done. You'll see it. You'll be at the mountain top and you can see what I've promised. What I've promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. You will see that I've fulfilled that promise but you won't go there. 

We're going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens. There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed. Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, find themselves in front of the risks that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had taken. That doesn't mean that they don't still have a burden to shoulder, that they don't have some responsibilities. The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. We still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side.

We all like to think of ourselves as indispensable. But to do our work well, to advance the causes we hold dear and prepare others to assume the burden in turn, is to render ourselves obsolescent. It's a bittersweet truth.

This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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