Over the weekend, I did an assessment of Barack Obama’s “Grace” speech, his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and tribute to the eight other members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church family who were murdered in Charleston. I am warming up for another minute-by-minute post about the speech, which is all the more interesting as I watch it for a second time.
For now, a range of pro and con reaction—about the speech, about the president, about my interpretation of the speech—from readers around the country.
The Importance of “Signifying”
From a professor of rhetoric who (as it is relevant to point out) is himself black:
[The most important part of] your analysis of the speech … is your recommendation that we view rather than just read the transcript or passages from the entire eulogy.
As did you, I found the president’s play on the word, idea, and experience of “grace” quite deep and astonishing. What is also worth mentioning, however, is the president’s demonstrated knowledge of the antiphonal nature of Black worship, subsisted on a powerful use of “signifying” (verbal indirection) aspect of Black speech.
As such, what I thought was also going on in the president’s theme of grace—especially with regard to the part of the speech on the confederate flag—is the president was signifying on not just South Carolina but also the South as a region that was a recipient of that grace, having at one time being “a sinner,” a secessionist region welcomed back into the “love and kindness of God,” into the union, as it were, and reconstructed. For that reason, the president seemed to insinuate, those white southerners, particularly the sons and daughters of the confederacy, insisting on upholding the flag as symbol of ancestral pride, should remember that special national “grace.”
Maybe I’m off here, but I can bet you many in that audience knew or thought the president was signifying that, as well.
The Importance of the Song Itself
I don’t think it was any accident that he chose Amazing Grace as his theme and even sang it, as its words are those of a white English minister tormented by his past as a slave trader seeking some absolution for his blindness, and its music can be traced to African roots.
“Our President Allowed Himself to ‘Be Black.’”
From a reader born in Haiti:
The first thing I said through tears after singing along was, "I wish my Mom were alive to see this moment!" OUR President-finally-allowed himself to "Be Black!" The very "Blackness" that was so hated by the killer, was being Celebrated and Venerated! WINNING!!!
Hate-WE-shall not tolerate! Love does conquer all! How Amazing! How Indescribable! How Unbelievable! The killer had no idea that he would create what Spongebob calls "Opposite Day"!
I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969. I know a little bit about hate-against my Country, and here in the States-against my people-Amen? But as a '69 Baby, I know I would rather Make Love, Be Loved, and Love-rather than hate!
President of the United States of America
A reader notes the closing line of the speech, in which the president asks, “May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.”
We (including our nine year old granddaughter) watched the speech again this morning after I read your Atlantic article. Your observations informed the second viewing and making me appreciate how beautifully wrought it was, building up in power as it progressed.
I can add only one thing to what you wrote and that is to call attention to the emphasis he gave to the word united when he intoned the United States of America at the end of the eulogy. I believe that his deepest ambition has been to continue Lincoln’s quest to forge a more perfect union.
Obama is a serious man in a crowd of jokers. I do not think that the country shall fully appreciate him till many years have past.
I agree about the ending of the speech and will say more about it next time around.
Similarly on the “Serious Man” Front
From a reader in the Midwest:
I have said before that people will look back on his time in office and realize what we have in him.
It was stunning how from day one the microphone of hatred and all things negative was taken over by his opponents (Mitch McConnell's now famous stance on day one that they would not work with him) and allowed to grow louder. I feel true shame regarding the way he has been treated as well as his family as I know at the base of it is racism. The majority of us elected him twice yet the minority has gotten away with pulling the country down.
He Has Changed the Tone
From a reader who (it’s relevant to point out) is white:
One thing you might have added to your appraisal was the importance of the audience. Not only was Obama comfortable in speaking to the black audience, he was confident of their participation in responding to his speech.
It was also transporting to see the interaction between speaker and listeners. It is not something I would personally know how to do, to respond in that way, but I loved watching it unfold. I also loved that he sang, a bit off-key at one point, and I kept tuning into replays of the speech for that moment without really understanding why it was so affecting.
On another note about received wisdom in Washington political journalism. So much of the criticism of President Obama is that he didn't change the tone in Washington. He most certainly did. Has everyone forgotten how Bush/Cheney acted as if the half of the American people who did not agree with them didn't matter?
Obama has always tried to be president of all Americans. I think that amnesia will be rapidly cured in the event of another Republican presidency. I keep wondering what country the Republicans seeking the nomination want to preside over--one without black people, Latino's, gays, atheists, etc. It's not original to note that they say they love the country but they hate most of the people in it, but worth restating.
An Atheist on the Value of Religion
A white American reader with extensive international experience writes:
A a black friend said to me “I’ve been waiting seven years for this.”
I loved that he turns to all America and asks that everyone reflect on his or her role in all of this, the individual,, collective engaged. I hope you are successful in having it labeled the Grace speech.
The singing was fascinating. Some one wrote he entered an e flat major, a classic gospel piano key. How did he find it? I am not enough musical to hear if the organist had played that key a few minutes earlier.
So I suspect, he did have it in his ear someone, and he stumbled a bit as he started on the key, but kept his grip. How brilliant he had already recited the words.
[The “grace” concept] helps explain why an atheist like me who is none the less receptive to a kind of spiritualism and appreciates why religion has genuine value, not just opium , to so many people. Why someone like me responds to the spiritualism of the speech.
“A Christianity without Christ.”
Another reader reacts differently:
I read your article and largely agree with it, but as an evangelical Christian with a keen sense of political performance vs. spiritual authenticity, I think it's telling that in a 30+ minute eulogy given in a church setting for a slain pastor, the words "Jesus", "Christ", or "Jesus Christ" are not used. Even once.
There is much eloquence from scripture and the Christian hymnal which can be adopted for all sorts of purposes. But the glaring omission of what Christians believes is the highest and greatest name in the universe—the name in which Mr. Pinckney believed and preached—keeps me from gushing with the same enthusiasm as you.
I wrote back to this reader saying that I understood his views — but that the president had given a speech whose outright Christian religiosity would have been inconceivable in many other Western democracies. This reader replied:
Understood and completely agree, but if the standard is what is conceivable by other Western nations, then I don't think this speech sets the standard when you consider all the other elements from our Judeo-Christian heritage which surround the presidency (starting from the day of inauguration).
But I watched the speech multiple times, listening to it carefully, and read the transcript. I don't think this is a speech that a speechwriter wrote; and I believe the President when he talked about his personal musing on grace….
By the way, my "critique" goes both ways. Millions of Americans sit in pews on Sunday listening to oleaginous speakers. One can argue that the pulpit may be the most disingenous and hypocritical place in America. If Mr. Obama was riding more on eloquence and emotion than genuine spiritual conviction, he is certainly not the first.
A Surprising Comparison to … Kevin Costner
From an American reader in Europe:
I watched the video of President Obama delivering his eulogy/speech. While watching, I was thinking how the President no doubt wanted to honor the victims, the families and the congregation with an authentic eulogy/sermon that would be both respectful and emotionally and spiritually satisfying, while avoiding coming off as a parody of someone performing such a service to the congregation, and at the same time performing in a way that a larger, mostly white audience, the American (and world) audience, both secular and religious would be able to relate to. It was quite the rhetorical tightrope. I doubt the President, or anyone else, could have done a better job.
While it was a eulogy of a smaller scale of import, it brings to my mind (as opposed to reminding me of - the tasks were not similar) the eulogy Kevin Costner delivered at Whitney Houston’s funeral. Both speakers, Obama and Costner, had certain minefields they wanted to avoid, certain cynical expectations they did not want to fulfill. Obama of course was playing for much higher stakes.
I don’t believe real humility can be faked.
I had no reason to expect this, but Costner’s eulogy (which I had never seen before) is quite moving and impressive.
On the Other Hand
From a reader originally from the South who has worked in U.S. politics:
Let me offer an alternative view: the Charleston moment may actually represent the limits and failures of the Obama presidency.
Obama came to office with the hope to further racial reconciliation and an abiding passion for gun control. He was elected to a large degree because of his rhetorical skills with questions of his ability to govern.
Seven years into his presidency, race relations are certainly not better and perhaps worse (though I don't really know the metric to judge "worse.") His efforts at gun control have failed for a number of reasons but in part for his failure to understand the historical uniqueness of guns in American culture. Bringing up guns in the Charlestown tragedy when no serious gun control proposals would have prevented it is like focusing on rope control to stop lynching. It's beside the point and reduces the power of focusing on the hatred of racism.
Obama was good at speeches when he ran. He's good at speeches when he was elected. But as far as effectiveness?
Under Obama we've had the greatest increase in poverty since the Depression, the greatest increase in inequality in US history, the greatest shrinkage of the middle class since the Depression. He's been a plutocrat's dream: the rich have gotten richer, the poor much poorer and millions have fallen from the middle class into poverty. The job numbers? He's on track to become the first president to leave office after two terms with fewer full time jobs than when he took office. He may just barely escape that.
To me, the problem is that the voices who normally speak up for those at the bottom have been largely muted out of a desire to support Obama and a desire not to help Republicans. And Republicans are just not very good at talking about this stuff. And it's a tragedy that we don't have a James Agee or Steinbeck to stand up for those who have been left behind.
Instead of John Steinbeck as our national moral compass we have John Stewart. A middle class suburban kid from New Jersey making millions of dollars and living in a ten million dollar apartment has no understanding of what is going on in the country. Most of our media is driven by DC and NYC based voices in an era in which those areas have become some of the wealthiest in the world. There are fewer reporters and they have never come from such similar backgrounds….
My instinct is that so many in the media like Obama because he is so much like them, or us. He's literate, conflicted, vain and a product of America's elite network. Not a bad description of most who are covering him. (Or myself, I realize.) But are those best qualities in a president? Might it better to have a president more skilled at negotiation, problem solving, with more experience in leadership and a connection to the greatest issue of our time—the economy. I'd take Ed Rendell over Obama.
So much of the praise I read of Obama in the New York Times editoral page reminds of when my grade school teacher said she liked Johnson as president because it was nice to have a president who didn't have an accent. And she meant it.