Tis a gift

It’s been an amazing day.

This is going to sound particularly strange to my American friends, but one of the things that really hit me today is that, you know, Obama’s black. I mean, obviously, it’s been a bit of an Issue, and one that I Understood Was Important, but it wasn’t until I saw, y’know, EVERYONE that it really hit me.

There’s white privilege for you.

This is a guy of uncommon genius, and that’s been like water in a goddamn desert. I’ve been digging on Obama as a really bright, inclusive, brilliantly rhetorical leader of people because there have been no such leaders in my conscious lifetime. Trudeau and Kennedy; I have been told they had something — there was this excitement once, in the sixties, wasn’t there?

And here it is, again, with a leader who can reference Jay Z as well as philosophers and politicians; a leader who is leading people, not just ideas. I imagine I am in some ways more centrist in political philosophy than I am in political ideology. Comes from being Quaker, and the whole focus on listening. I have no problem with a conservative minister having given a benediction, for example – as long as that’s what it is. A benediction. Not the right to dictate abortion policy. My fundamental tenant of life is pretty simple: shut up and listen and if you have some idea where someone’s coming from, how they’re living, the majority of them will make sense and not be awful people. (The corollary is that there are awful people in every group.)

So I’ve been so excited about the man with thought and drive and charisma and a brain that the whole bloody division of the country, and the healing the simple act of his oath-taking (regardless of what happens next), didn’t really HIT me.

Some of that is also being Canadian: the day we find a First Nations leader on track to being Prime Minister will hit me in the gut right from the beginning of the race.

However, Obama is rebranding authority. So has Michelle Obama. The thing that made me get teary every single time I saw it was these pictures of kids on the campaign trail, all dressed up in their Sunday best with ties or dresses on, and their eyes huge and feasting on the presidential hopeful who was black like their families and loved ones and selves. I would think of those awful studies of how we learn to hate ourselves, where black children rejected the black dolls as somehow inferior. I think here, here is a connection that will dent that internalized hatred. Here is love that will get through. Because if nothing else, Obama is well loved.

That is a ‘historic’ event, but it is also a profoundly PERSONAL event.

These messages and celebrations are so important. The personal significance, the heads a little higher and the children more hopeful, is the most powerful world event I’ve witnessed.

But Obama’s speech today really showed to me the craft behind his political message. I heard several pundits yammering that Obama’s message wasn’t singular and clear – that it meant many things to different people. But of course it had to be; Obama was doing many things today.

He was embodying the fulfillment of King’s dream. With the trumpeting and festival atmosphere, his inauguration harkened to a bigger and well known tale -the narrative fulfillment of a story of broken people toiling, holding on only to a prophesy – the king who will put things right revealing himself from the common folk, come to make things well. That story is a story we tell with magic and swords and birthmarks and quests because it’s hard to capture and deliver charisma without breaking it, but it’s the story being told here.

Obama had to negotiate that. He’s got the shit list from hell staring at him; he had to answer the dreams of an oppressed people without inflating expectations too far. He had to motivate people to work, to not be afraid, to rise up to the challenges the world faces – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve lived my whole life afraid of the cold war and environmental collapse and the ozone layer and the fact it’s all gone rather to shit, and everyone trying just hasn’t made it happen in a big way. The idea that we COULD all face the same way, that it DOESN’T have to be each individual pushing alone against a boulder, gives me more hope than the individual power of one guy.

More than that, he had to prepare people for his own failure, and his need for support. He showed, right away, that unlike Bush he would not be an unquestionable authoritarian decider, but a man who was working hard, making mistakes, listening, and learning along the way. In the speech after the luncheon (where Ted Kennedy collapsed, and I hope he is well), Obama reinforced that he knew his administration would make mistakes.

During the ceremony, Yo-yo Ma and Itzhack Perlman played my favorite bit of traditional music. If I remember from our “Rise Up Singing” book so present at hippie and Quaker gatherings, it was a Shaker hymn. The lyrics go like this:

“Tis a gift to be simple
Tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be
And when you find yourself
In the place that is right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right”.

I sing this song to myself with some regularly, actually. It’s how I remember not to be a freak. You can’t be the decider, and live in that song.


  1. aN historic event. Whatever. You know, for no good reason, that rule bugs me.

  2. I don’t know if it’s so much “white privilege” as it is being Canadian maybe? Ever since Obama won the Democratic nomination I’ve been going on to everyone about the enormity of this event. And I think that up until today it was difficult for people to fully realize the significance of it unless you had been eye witness to the history of the US during the last 40 years, but I think today, with the multitude of shades of faces in the crowd on the Washington mall, it was apparent to anyone who was watching in the world, that there was a great change that took place.
    I think it is a time of celebration for everyone that the people in the US had finally chosen a black man to lead, but I think it is even more significant that they chose a man of mixed descent. A man who carries within him the blood of both black and white races and of great intelligence to boot!

  3. Yeah. I remember a lot of people telling me that the country “just wasn’t ready” for a black president and I was annoyed, because this dude was really good. I get the statement now, but at the same time that crowd was long past ready! *g*

    Now, for a moment of levity as seen on 538:
    Q: Do you know why Cheney couldn’t walk?
    A: He threw his back out fucking the country 8 years straight.

  4. Rick Mercer did a rant in which he said that Obama ran a campaign that was not based on smearing his opponent. It was based on appealing to the best in each person in the country, appealing to their hope and their vision of what the country could be. I agree. And what that tells me is that Obama believed in the best in each person. He beleived that each person wanted justice and honesty. Each person wanted to lend a hand to help the country become.
    I think that’s one of the biggest differences between Bush and Obama. Bush saw the people as small children to be fooled and tricked into doing what he wanted or accepting what he said. Obama saw people as capable of good and thoughtful choices and acts. He had faith in them and that gave them faith in him. It’s a new direction in politics.

  5. I had my “Holy shit the first black president!” moment back in November, so the inauguration was awesome, but didn’t really hit me that way. At least, not until Aretha sang. Then I did tear up and I was all, “Oh, Aretha! Did you ever think you’d see the day?” Cause you know me and Aretha, we go waaaay back, so I was feelin’ for her.

    (What a voice that woman has. THAT was really my Holy Crap moment: everything I could hear in that voice. If this were a Terry Pratchett novel, several ancient forces would have been awakened by the power of the voice and would now be wreaking mischief on us all. And Justice Stephens would have been an orangutan – but I digress…)

    I was more interested in my reaction to Rick Warren. I expected to hate him, and I didn’t. Maybe that IS a part of inclusiveness, that there is room in the world for fundamentalists too. Maybe there’s room for him and me under the Obama tent – although in a battle over gay rights, I will kick him in his fat ass. But people are going to have to work together, and refusing to do your part because the person pushing next to you holds distasteful beliefs, well. The country’s been divided just that way for far too long.

    It almost makes me want to go into politics, did you know that? Sure, Obama makes black kids realize they could do that – he also holds out hope for the nerdy and erudite, for real human beings who fear they’d have to give up being either real or human or both, for the pop-culture-steeped smartasses, for subtle iconoclasts, for folks with the unfortunate habit of saying exactly what they think. There’s a place for me!

  6. I can’t and won’t speak for my co-religionists, but I myself hated Warren deeply and profoundly the moment he tried trotting out one of Judaism’s keystone prayers, as, like, a token of how cool and inclusive he really is. That’s my sacred tradition, white boy — get your pasty, grasping little hands off it.

    I’m also still pissed that they used John William’s bastardized version of ‘Tis a Gift, instead of the version from Appalachian Springs that I grew up with, in my public-radio-loving family.

  7. See, I loved that they used ‘Tis a Gift. Us Unitarians sing it too.

    As someone who is always swayed emotionally by rhetoric before I can get to the business of taking it apart, Obama’s inaugural speech touched a lot of chords for me. Mostly, it made me proud to be a human being, at this time, in this place, ready to pitch in with the work that he said we needed to get to and not be afraid. And I’m not even American!

  8. @rachel – Oh god, Aretha and I go way back too. They were playing the inauguration at Ripley’s school, and he saw her come out and made a comment about her hat. And I said ‘Hush, child, that’s Aretha and she can wear a penguin on her head and it will be made of awesome.’ I think I started crying about then.

    @PS – I didn’t, of course, hear Judaism’s keystone prayer trotted out for Diver-sitty because I wouldn’t know it if it hit me in the face. I did recognize Our Father, but only because we used to have Religion in our Schools and we said it every morning.

    (I also made my mom teach me the rosary at one point, because she grew up Catholic and the rosary always struck me as intensely Witchy; but I get to Hail Mary full of grace and then there’s something about the fruit of her womb which, really, is an image I don’t care for, and so it didn’t stick. I’d probably recognize it if it were stolen, though.)

    What’s the prayer?

    @MP – Having someone saying, don’t be afraid, we can all work in this direction together – well, I am also not American, but man did that seem right.

  9. Everything you said. Great post, Arwen.

    My fingers are forcing me to add that I, too, hate that rule (arwen @9:14) and in recent years have refused to follow it. Unless you are Eliza Doolittle, the “H” in historical is not silent. Precede it with “a” all you want.

    There are many silly grammar rules (“because we can’t afford to write another exception, that’s why”) I feel compelled to follow but that is not one of them.

    Goh Obama!

  10. Phantom– I too missed the keystone prayer, not (probably) because I wouldn’t know it but because the whole time Warren was talking about inclusiveness and everybody together &etc I was growling “but not gay people, huh, you jerk?” (“jerk” because MG was sitting next to me eating American Flag Waffles). So I didn’t totally hear everything he said.

    But more tolerant, inclusive, people than I, like RW’s mom, said they liked what he said.

    It’s funny, I didn’t lose it yesterday the way I did watching the acceptance speech, or even that Seeger/Springsteen clip the other day. But I was awed by the crowds, as much as anything else: the sheer magnitude of people come to witness, and the power of that.

    And it was a profound relief to see Bush go off in that helicopter. Where was it I read that the crowd was singing “naa naa naa, hey hey, goodbye?”

  11. He said the Shema very early on in the speech: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” To which I replied, “Fuck you, white boy.”

    (BB didn’t even blink. She is, ah, habituated to her mama’s mouth in times of political high dudgeon.)

    My comment to Songbird on FB was, “Yeah, I’m sure some of his best friends are Jewish.”

  12. Oooh, ooh! This is that “Call and Response” I’ve heard so much about in the Christian Churches.

    Dude at the front: “The lord be with you”
    Everyone else: “And also with you”
    Dude at the front: “…the Lord is one”
    Everyone else: “Fuck you white boy”
    Everyone + Dude: “Ahhhhh-Mennnnnn”.

  13. Is it just me, or did seeing Cheney in a wheelchair bring to mind Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”? That somehow seems perfect.

  14. *lol* Not just you, although I admit I hadn’t put it together until you said it. I was, however, sitting there thinking, “Now, who does he look like?”

  15. I loved the Simple Gifts (I like every version of it, Phantom)–I hum that to myself pretty frequently, Arwen.

    Rick Warren was definitely the low point of the inauguration. Invoking Jesus at the end, saying the Lord’s prayer–all seemed divisive, but mostly just dull. Lowry totally showed how to handle a prayer (if there must be prayer) at a big public setting.

    I teared up at several points during the ceremony, just on and off–mostly at shots of the Obamas walking around, or the Obama girls. Just the sight of them makes me smile.

  16. Richard just said to me tonight that Cheney reminded him of “Old Man Potter” from IAWL and made me crack up at the image. Riding along in the chair with his cane ready to knock people out of the way, a snarl on his face. Yup. Both of you saw it right away. And he swears he didn’t read it here first.

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