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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

He Is (Or, We Are)

The make it alrighter
The get you through the nighter
The soul defender of anything I fear
The pain remover
The bad times undoer
The joy bringer
The love giver
He is.

Heather Headley, “He Is”

He is walking out onto the stage, the president elect of the United States. This feels like a life-changing event. I am already crying, weeping loudly at first, trying to bring myself under control, glad that I am not in a public place right now. I promised to blog this moment, even in the midst of writing up notes for my paper and preparing my talk, struggling to keep it a regular day, the day that I had planned. I cried when the little black girls came out. He is their father—that one fact is part of what brings it home to me. God Bless America.

Rick Warren is there, providing the invocation. “Let us pray.” There are a few boos. Folks, folks, it’s not the time for that. Good, they keep it together during the prayer.

Biden is being sworn in. He squints—is the sun in his eyes?
It is 11:58 a.m., Barack is up in a few minutes. Yo Yo Ma is playing, beautifully.

Here come Roberts,Barack and Michelle with the bible in her hand.

It is done. He is… the President of the United States. I weep loudly and insistently now with no shame, shaking my head at the unreality of it. It is like when my mother died. Spinning unreality, hot, hot tears, a knowledge that the world will forever, be different, different. But this is a birth; we have collectively given birth to a new leader who is a symbol of a new era. He is, however, but a single symbol in what will, I hope, be long period of broad civic engagement, both here and abroad. Yes, he is, but we are, also.

In his essay, “Messianism in the Political Culture of the Weimar Republic,” author Klaus Schreiner discusses how language is a creature of both cause and effect: on the one hand, changes in language illustrate how society’s political thought and behavior has been transformed, but on the other hand, it is language itself that often spurs these changes. Applying this to the Weimar Republic, Schreiner observed how the use of messianic concepts on the one hand laid bare the presence of messianic impulses in civic life, but such language was also the catalyst of the messianic fervor came to undermine democratic ideals.

Now, this is in no way to suggest that the new administration in Washington is somehow on a messianic journey to undermine American democratic ideals and lead us to a hypernationalistic state. Quite the contrary, I took great solace in the first official statement of our new President. In his inaugural address, President Obama opened with: “My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.” Though many commentators critiqued the speech as lacking in “grandeur” and “loftiness,” I think that President Obama got it just right. He went on to remark how “greatness must be earned” and how there is a long and rugged path back to prosperity.

President Obama is not a messiah or the Messiah. He is a strong and capable leader. He will not walk on water to save us from drowning. He will probably not even tow us all to shore while swimming with the rope from the raft in his teeth. He will, I believe, captain our common ship during storms or fair weather, and even help us to paddle it when it the engine falters.

We must resist the impulse of imagining the secularized eschatology of a New American state, one wherein we are immediately reborn as both less and more: less sexist, less racist, less homophobic, less bellicose, but more rational, more compassionate, and more inclusive. These things may happen, but only over time, only if we, collectively, make them happen.


  1. Nicely said, Lolita. It is the "we" which is so important...without it, things will remain the same, no matter how much we hope for the better. As important as hope is, only coupled with doing will the "we" be able to effect change and affect the future.
    Your neighbor

  2. A wonderfully stated idea Professor. I've been thinking about what his means to me since it happened. It means so much but putting race aside, what it means to me is 1) that I am so happy to have a leader who not just really passionate about his ideas and about how to bring them to reality - indeed there are lots of people like that (me included)- but that he also has the confidence, drive, spirit, calmness and determination to take on the highest level job in the world in order to bring those ideas about. That is what I love about him; and 2) not that he will "fix everything" but that he makes so many of us WANT to get involved and help fix things; and he does that by instilling in us confidence in him as a leader.
    Your former student