My friend and colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier sent me this extraordinary and completely unexpected example of a speech of transcendent eloquence. It was a timely and embarrassing reminder of how instinctively I still sometimes think of speeches as something that politicians do. Thanks, Mick.
Steve, I can’t thank you enough for the compendium of moving speeches you’ve posted here. It reminds us that there was, and still is, nobility among our political leaders, and therefore in the voters and supporters who gave them these platforms to begin with. These speeches also remind us of how much work there is to be done in confronting racism and sexism (which has also reared its ugly head in this primary) despair and cynicism.
In any case, I too was moved by Obama’s speech like I have never been moved by a political speech since before I was able to vote: honest, personal, complex, important and dead on. I’ve heard writers, professors, friends, community leaders, colleagues, etc. talk like this, but never someone who was seeking a critical mass of votes to win national office. You see, my political consciousness began with Watergate and late Vietnam (the American embassy in Saigon was evacuated on my 11th birthday, which made it a solemn occasion). I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter when he lost to Ronald Reagan. B. Clinton’s presidency was the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing experience for me as a voter in presidential elections (Reagan x2, Bush x3) and even that ended in a severe disappointment.
And along with everyone else, I’ve witnessed the near total erosion of eloquence, substance and inspiration in political speech making. So much have presidential hopefuls learned over these years to be more careful and less substantive with their speeches, that I was beginning to feel that anyone who held profound or complex ideas, and a desire to speak truthfully, was essentially ill equipped to be elected president in this country – after so much Reagan and Bush can you blame me for thinking this? (BTW, I never understood why Regan was dubbed “the great communicator” and I never understood people who said that George W. Bush is a guy they’d like to have a beer with, talk about dull company!)
Anyway, I wanted to share a speech which “struck this kid like a thunderbolt” when I discovered it browsing the public library shelves as a 13 year-old, which I did a lot (like you, I was a weird kid in some ways). This speech, which addresses being a writer (artist in general) in a cold war era on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, continues to be inspirational and influential for me, as only something which tags your consciousness at a tender age can be. It’s not a speech made in my lifetime and it’s not a speech by a political figure, but it shares, with all the speeches you’ve posted, a fervent appeal to our collective humanity which, one hopes, remains a greater force on one’s actions than the specific crises of the day. It is through our humanity (the recognition of ourselves in others and the recognition of the best we can be in ourselves) that we can move toward progress rather than slide back into bitterness, hatred and revenge (as RFK says in his MLK speech).
In his speech on race, Obama quoted William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past,” (btw. Faulkner’s actual line is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”). This reference reminded me of William Faulkner’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the text of which I am submitting here. Nikki Giovanni’s fiercely healing poem to Virginia Tech, which you posted, stands as a perfect example of what Faulkner is talking about.