The great poet Langston Hughes wrote "America was never America to me" in a poem about what America could be. The promise of America was a dream deferred or delayed or outright denied, but which laid before the pioneer, the slave, the rebel, the migrant, all, as a possible better world a-borning, a place where the love of that dream overcomes the adversity of every present moment to be remade new--a "more perfect union".
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Langston Hughes' America--newly-made, is what John Lewis and Martin Luther King and so many more marched for. That "more perfect" and always infinitely perfectable union, is what President Obama has been talking about since he ever talked. This ability to get better, do better, be more and expect more, has been the very nature of our American exceptionalism. The revolutionaries that separated from their King, the fight that separated slave from master, and made them equals, that lifted woman from helpmeet to citizen--has been the best of America. We face adversity--and still we rise.
In this speech, Obama expanded upon his second inaugural speech to enlarge upon the promise of Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall. He spoke of this country's triumphs in a constant self-examination wrought by democracy to improve upon our common lot.
As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse — everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall are how I experience the American "We". "We the People", we the people of all our various ethnicities and original nationalities. We all our genders and sexualities and struggles with them. We, the imperfect people, coming together to make this better thing that all of us can enjoy. We, the people of faith in America. We, the people of doubt in America.
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?
What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many — coming together to shape their country's course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
This is the America that is sublime and truly exceptional. I don't want to hear about whether Obama "gets it" ever again. Because anyone who doesn't get that he gets it--doesn't get it.