Four Letter Words
I write not to praise Barack Obama but simply to remember. To remember 2008 and the excitement of reclaiming a country that had lost its way. To remember a man who talked of breaking down barriers and building not just a nation, but a national community, by bringing Americans together after years of divisiveness, war and economic collapse. To remember evenings in North Philadelphia’s long-neglected neighborhoods, where the air was filled with a mixture of joy and disbelief. “Of course I’m going to vote. We’ve waited a long time for this.” It was more than just the man. It was also what he represented: half black, half white, he embodied the enduring American racial divide, one he confronted, eight years ago next week, with an extraordinary speech on our unhealed wound. It’s true, looking back, that we made Obama a vessel for our hopes, as if his persona could magically transcend our political reality. He became a symbol, which was unfair to the man and insensible to the continuing role of race in America. Never in our history has someone been “half white,” and when the birthers went after Obama’s birth certificate, they were not interested in his maternal family tree.
Eight years later, I continue to admire the president, whom I believe history will accord far more respect than does the current Congress. We were naive in our expectations, and yet, I keep coming back to this: In 2008 the operative word was hope. Today the defining image is a wall.