Last night Barack Obama spoke for Illinois, “the crossroads of the nation,” from his own station at the junction of cultures. Obama’s father, a Kenyan immigrant, grew up in a “tin-roof shack,” herding sheep. His grandfather, he told the electrified convention, was a cook to the British. Obama’s parents—his mother was white—shared an “improbable love.”
“They would give me an African name, Barack, or ‘blessed,’ ” he said, “believing in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success.” Rows of delegates swooned in their seats, and then they screamed, waving their blue Obama banners. The candidate was describing people he hardly knew—he never met his grandfather, and his father left home when Obama was young, and died years ago—to a crowd that, for the most part, had little notion of the world he described. And yet, the morning after his speech, as the mist descended on Boston and the FleetCenter sparked once again to life, everyone here is still talking about Obama.
The themes in the Senate hopeful’s speech are, of course, universal and exchangeable. Both Obama and Teresa Heinz Kerry swapped the struggles of colonialism and apartheid for America’s own civil rights struggle, but their references to Africa came wrapped in steel: In America last night, there were no partisans to revise these accounts of the continent’s colonial struggles. And Obama’s pedigree—hardscrabble, rural, and second-class—treads not at all on white American guilt over slavery. To hear Heinz Kerry tell it last night, America encounters Africa softly, and happily, through the smiling legions of Peace Corps volunteers.
Whatever it is that makes Obama a star, last night he delivered something different from what politicians in this country usually hand out. When he spoke about dependence on foreign oil, he didn’t retreat to the jingoism that has become the Democrats’ wont. And when he talked about the struggle to preserve civil liberties—several times during his keynote address—Obama, who co-sponsored important legislation in his home state to help collect data on racial profiling, sounded like he meant it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2004