April 30, 2008

Obama and Lincoln

I'm a bit late in posting this, but I recommend this perceptive piece by Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books comparing Obama's speech on race with Lincoln's famous address at the Cooper Union on race, abolitionists and the Constitution. I especially liked this passage:

"...[If] Obama did not go into the specific outrages of Wright, his criticism of him was profound and instructive. He praised the concern for the community that Wright had shown. That has always been a mark of black religion in America. Unlike the Calvinist stress on individualism, on the private experience of being saved, blacks thought in terms of the whole people being saved—all of them riding on the Ark, all reaching the Promised Land. This journey of the people is deeply embedded in the spirituals. As Jacob wrestled the angel till the break of day, "and never let him go," so:
I hold my brudder wid a tremblin' hand;
I would not let him go!
I hold my sister wid a tremblin' hand;
I would not let her go!

It was this aspect of black religion that impressed Abraham Lincoln, who became an instant friend of the former Sunday school teacher Frederick Douglass. Lincoln's Second Inaugural would eloquently argue that the whole people had sinned in slavery, was being punished together, and would repent and be saved together.

Obama's deepest criticism of Wright was not in terms of personal attack. On that, he would hold his brother with a trembling hand. The problem was that Wright saw the whole people as the black people, while Obama sees the people as the entire nation. Wright did not reach his hand to the wider circle of brothers and sisters. His view of the world was static. He would freeze the Ark's motion, though the spiritual tells us "the old Ark's a-moverin', a-moverin.'"