Canonizing A President
The presence of writing by an American president in an anthology of literature is not amazing, but the editors of the forthcoming Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 3rd edition, may have to use clever rhetoric to explain why Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech of March 2008 is included. Obama can write well. Including excerpts from either Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (2004) or The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) might have focused attention on Obama’s autobiographical presentation of self, but the speech magnifies curiosity about his position in African American cultural and political nationalism. For readers old enough to have learned valuable lessons from Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), the selection raises deep questions about literary history and America’s love affair with “godterms.” For those in younger generations who detect how James Boyd White’s analysis of a 1963 speech by Nelson Mandela in Acts of Hope: Creating Authority in Literature, Law, and Politics (1994) contains strategies for interpreting Obama’s oratory, the selection is vexing. The editorial choice is ethical, political, and literary.
It is fair to guess, without access at this moment to the Norton editors’ metatextual paraphernalia, that the editors were attracted by a structural relationship between Obama’s use of special national tropes of secular religion and the historical usage of biblical tropes in African American jeremiads, polemics, and apologia. Should the guess prove to be valid, it would be appropriate to ask why Obama’s use of the racial binary was felicitous in addressing an omni-American audience, or why the editors thought it was.
Politics, the politics of publishing can from time to time sponsor ironic laughter. In the case of “A More Perfect Union,” the Kenyan American senator who would be president is ever so courtly in excoriating his former African American pastor for loss of faith in the American Dream. Once the Kenyan American achieves the Dream, a double-cross occurs as the Dream betrays his audacity of hope. The reversal of fortune leaves the meaning of the speech intact as it shifts the grounds for our interpretation of significance. It is sheer accident that the publisher of the anthology bears the same name as a character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a character who says: “Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue. I shall look forward with greatest interest to learning your contribution to my fate.” No doubt, at the lower frequency the publisher says to the editors “I look forward to the profit of your fate.”
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. November 29, 2013.