In his 1961 essay, The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King, James Baldwin speaks of the death of segregation in America and he raises the question as to “just how long, how violent, and how expensive the funeral is going to be.” We have lived the length of the funeral, felt its violence in the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, we have paid a price too high.
Baldwin advocated, however, a quick burial of the corpse of segregation:
The sooner the corpse is buried, the sooner we can get around to the far more taxing and rewarding problems of integration, or what King calls community, and what I think of as the achievement of nationhood, or, more simply and cruelly, the growing up of this dangerously adolescent country.”1
Obama’s speech on race yesterday was a step toward the maturing of our adolescent country. His willingness to stand against the firestorm of outrage in the face of Jeremiah Wright’s statements and, without wavering, to challenge the American people to live the tension that Obama himself embodies, that we as a nation embody: this took courage. It was a stand for achieving nationhood, to use Baldwin’s words, a move toward genuine community, to use King’s.
Our response will take courage too.
I am proud to say that I hear something of the courage it will take in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.There various civic and religious leaders were interviewed about their reaction to the speech. One voice heard here is particularly dear to me: my step-father, Theodore Loder, retired pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown and long time advocate for social justice. He has worked his whole life toward achieving the nationhood of which Baldwin speaks.
I have often said that my support for Obama is animated by a concern for the future, but reading Ted’s words quoted in the Inquirer, I am increasingly aware of how important this moment and this candidacy is for all those thoughtful, courageous leaders, black and white, who came before, teaching us the hard lessons of what it would mean to grow up as a country.
With them in mind, I end here as I began, with the words of Baldwin, this time from his 1960 essay, Notes for a Hypothetical Novel:
A country is only as good … a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by God, but by all of us, by you and me. I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.