Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NYFlags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Barack Obama’s swearing-in signaled the inauguration of a new era (for many wishful thinkers, a “post-racial era”). Yet Obama himself cast the event as a day of remembrance. Picking up where Dreams from My Father ends, Obama’s Inaugural Address calls on Americans to “choose our better history.” To confront and overcome the dangers now facing the United States, he argues, we must revivify values that “have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.” From a political leader who has written with such sensitivity and depth about the presence of the past, these comments invite closer attention. What is the past through which “these things”—“honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—are constituted? I approach this question indirectly, by reading the Inaugural Address alongside “A More Perfect Union,” Obama’s groundbreaking speech on race. Together, these addresses indicate how Obama negotiates among three senses of the past. The first sense, the one best represented by the Inaugural Address, is the idea of a hallowed past that draws upon American civic and religious traditions. The democratic implications of such an invocation, I contend, depend on the ways in which it intersects two other notions of pastness. Following legal scholar Robert Westley, I call these notions “the past as prologue” and “the past as bygone.”

“These things are old.” In the Inaugural Address, Obama summons shared values as essential resources with which Americans might confront a daunting list of economic, environmental, political, and social challenges. The history from which Obama derives these values is not a whitewashed or exceptionalist history, but one grounded in the collective experience of strife and unfinished overcoming. Thus the inaugural speech conjures memories of immigrants, slaves, sweatshop laborers, pioneers, and soldiers (of both celebrated and uncelebrated wars), not only to demonstrate how far we have come, but also to situate progress within a larger story of incompleteness and commonality against a backdrop of conflict. As Obama notes in his address to the Call to Renewal conference in 2006, Americans “want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.” The arc and the purpose that he offered on Inauguration Day built on commitments embedded in the Constitution and avowed in the Declaration of Independence and go beyond them. Obama’s multiple references to God hark back to his earlier reflections on religion and his allegiance to a Christianity in which faith is equally defined by a belief in Jesus and a belief in opposing injustice. Keeping the latter dimension of that faith alive prevents Obama’s conception of a hallowed past from becoming a narrative that merely consoles or that uncritically reaffirms an idea of American mission.

If Obama marries the invocation of shared values to a tradition of striving toward justice, the democratic import of this invocation depends on the relative weight of two other conceptions of the past that are on display, and in tension, in “A More Perfect Union.” First: the past as prologue. Obama’s “race speech” wagers his candidacy on a bold claim that racial injustice is not behind us. Although most white Americans believe that racial equality has been achieved and vehemently resist efforts to reckon with entrenched forms of racial hierarchy, Obama dares to note linkages between past and present forms of segregation and discrimination. “We do need to remind ourselves,” he insists, “that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” Here, he aligns himself with the idea that historic injustice is not obsolete; instead, its accumulated effects can be seen in the fates of the most vulnerable Americans. Further, his admonition to African Americans to “bind [their] particular grievances…to the larger aspirations of all Americans” indicates that to “choose our better history” is to perpetuate a tradition of struggle through which black citizens and their allies have realized political, economic, and social benefits enjoyed well beyond black communities. This is the sense of the past that Obama finds at the foot of the cross on Chicago’s South Side.

Even as Obama reveals his consciousness of a present shadowed by an unmastered past, however, the Philadelphia speech also deftly and surely suggests that some aspects of the past are dead or nearly so. This suggestion emerges in his refutation of Jeremiah Wright. It is not necessary to side with either Obama or Wright to observe crucial slippages here, between the recognition that Wright’s criticism of the U.S. is justified and the suggestion that it reflects a bygone reality, between acknowledging that Wright is an important part of his own past and intimating that Wright exists wholly in the past. Wright’s anger, Obama contends, is fueled by his upbringing in the late 1950s and 1960s and “memories of humiliation and doubt and fear” that bespeak another era. Obama recounts this history with sympathy but in the past tense, and he declines to notice that Wright’s anger might equally be fueled by Hurricane Katrina, mass incarceration, the persistence of residential and educational segregation, or the eroding voting rights of African American and Latino citizens. Further, his observation that “Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive” fails to acknowledge a history in which all substantial challenges to racial injustice have been figured as divisive.

Finally, Obama’s comparison of Wright’s grievances with the racial grievances of white Americans is a brilliant—and troubling—rhetorical move. If it accurately reflects the reality of white resentment, this reflection comes at the cost of flattening historical differences and radically understating the scale and effects of racial hierarchy from the colonial era through the present. Without diminishing the obstacles confronted by poor and working-class whites, we should note how Obama’s characterization of their experience as “the immigrant experience” not only resonates with what Ian Haney Lopez calls “reactionary colorblindness”—a perspective in which black Americans are faulted for not approximating other “ethnic” trajectories—but also occludes the situation of the current generation of non-white newcomers who are the subject of so much vitriol. It advances a version of “our better history” that suppresses the story of racial injustice that Obama elsewhere relates with such eloquence.

As Obama recognizes, any effort to call on citizens to address the lingering consequences of past injustices will be particularly difficult “in this winter of our hardship.” In such a context, omitting references to living ghosts of slavery and neo-slavery, to genocidal expansion and practices of internment, may appear to be the most effective way to ensure the success of measures that will do real good for the polity. But the lesson of the past Obama reveres and the warning bequeathed by the past he sometimes wants to transcend, is that many of the challenges we confront today are the living legacies of injustices that have gone unredressed. Whenever that sense of past, the sense of the past as prologue, slips below the horizon, the invocation of old things becomes dangerous to democracy. For when this happens, it becomes easier to sacrifice (again) the claims of the most marginal and worst served Americans in the name of the common good.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame. See also Philip Gorski’s discussion of Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech in “Class, nation, covenant“.]