Monday, March 24, 2008


We have heard here of New York’s new black governor and the resignation of its former governor. We have heard the results of every presidential primary as it occurs on our national news. So it was no surprise that we heard that Obama made a speech on race.

But I wasn’t allowed to hear it just from South African media. People IM’ed me, e-mailed me, asked me in person if I had heard this speech. One person contacted me while it was happening (I think). The world seemed abuzz.

When I heard that the speech was about 40 minutes I wasn’t even going to bother because it’s hard downloading things like that here. It takes awhile and I’m sure the speech wasn’t that important. But when my roommate/landlady Anna mentioned it, she said that I “must” watch this speech. Even though Anna thinks Obama is soo “beautiful” and would have two husbands if Obama proposed, I decided to trust her judgment.

At first I thought people (on one end of the spectrum) would be upset for condemning the words of his former pastor. Outside the US if you say that the US has had a role in the anger of those people who have attacked us on 9-11, no one would disagree. In fact it is quite normal when someone attacks you or wrongs you to say “What did I do to enrage the person” or “What could I have done differently.” It doesn’t mean the person transgressed or broke the law or did something inhumane. It’s just recognition of the role you played in incensing the people or at least examining your actions to see if that occurred. It doesn’t excuse the actions of evil perpetrators at all. But then I actually saw some of the other comments. And then I understood. I mean they were uncomfortable. And as Obama said the comments (two of the ones I saw) were not really constructive but divisive. And I never want to do that with any comments I make. I think the main problem is that all the comments seem to be taken out of context. So I would encourage anyone who is really interested to read the entire speech from which those phrases are extracted. Context changes everything. If, with context, you decide they are still inflammatory and destructive, then ok. I’m a bit confused here in SA because I get different stories about what he said, and I’m still not really sure of what comments were put in the media over there. And it seems some of the quotes come from a part of his speech in which he was quoting someone else (I don’t even know if that’s true). Regardless, there are some who have made worse speeches, and it’s important to understand the tradition and experiences that form the environment from which they come. I do wish the spin doctors were more diverse and that they would have at least sat in a service or been a member of the church. But Obama did well. Perhaps I have high standards, but it is the first speech that made me agree that he speaks well. Previously, it seemed average to me for my concept of how a president should speak. Perhaps it takes trying times to test the mettle of the speaker-leader.

The only way I can explain his speech from a South African point of view is with these words: Thank you. You see, some South Africans never felt that Mandela really did anything, that after 14 years the country is worse. I’ve spoken about why this is believed as complaints have come from coloureds, whites, and even some blacks. But I still hold that the most important accomplishment was unity. The country could have erupted into civil war at worst, or riotously attempted genocide at least, but neither happened, not even one act of retribution against a white person (I’ve heard). And much is due to him. Mandela’s work is what Obama’s speech was likened.

You see we need that HERE, in South Africa. Yes, we’re analogously somewhere in the 70’s of US racial history, perhaps. But even at this earlier point in history for us, such a speech is what we need here. Would someone South African get up and say that to our people here? Would someone come out and say the Obama-words that need to be said here? Can we at least say them?

And do you know who was the last person who said something similar to what Obama said? It was Mandela.

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