I've been watching the HBO miniseries John Adams these last couple of nights. I was frustrated, when I first heard of it, to discover that it was scheduled opposite a new ESPN documentary, Black Magic, the story of African American basketball at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). In the end I watched bits and pieces of John Adams on Sunday night, part two of Black Magic Monday night, and filled in some gaps from John Adams (things I'd missed while putting Nick to bed) last night.
Then I read Obama's speech. Now, bear with me, because I know it's a leap from founding fathers to HBCUs and basketball to contemporary politics. Except, it's not.
John Adams demonstrates, among other things, the ways in which the "original sin of slavery" pulled the colonies apart even as they were coming together. Black Magic demonstrates how the legacy of that sin continues to matter in the lives of real human beings. Taken together in the same week as Obama's speech, they demonstrate the importance of that speech, and of his candidacy: we have unfinished business in this country in dealing with race.* Obama gets that in a fundamental way, acknowledging both the distance we've traveled since the founding, and the distance we have yet to go; the damage slavery has done to African Americans, and the damage that racial and economic injustice have done to all Americans.
It's just a coincidence that these things came together for me--it really doesn't take HBO and ESPN to make Obama's speech matter. Read it for yourself--it's not just about one hotheaded preacher. It's about us all.
*You can actually see in both productions something of our unfinished business with gender, too, in Abigail Adams's words and in the near-complete absence of women from the documentary. A topic for another day.