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When Barack Obama announced his candidacy on a blustery February day in 2007, the entire country went quietly (or not so quietly) nuts as they absorbed the significance of the moment. Obama, then a wee senator from Illinois, was principled, well dressed, charismatic, and, oh yeah, if elected, he'd become the first African-American president in the nation's history.
Of course, the media mentioned that tidbit, but they also outlined Obama's platform, his stance on the war in Iraq, and his promise to address economic hardship and health care reform. They compared him to Abraham Lincoln, another honest dude from Illinois who fought for equality at a pivotal point in American history. For a hot minute, the American people—especially the young adult population—were interested in the young senator who was going to change the FUBAR status of so many parts of the country.
But that was just for one hot minute.
Pretty soon, the tone changed. The media asserted that Obama's pastor had delivered some of the most controversial sermons of all time. They were referring to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who was the officiant at Obama's wedding and the baptism of his children. Two of the pastor's sermons contained rather inflammatory statements in which he accused the United States of supporting state-sponsored terrorism in Middle Eastern countries when it suited American policy.
He said U.S. actions abroad were directly responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks, and he also talked about how our government continued to hate on minority groups. All of that stuff together proved people were not even close to equal under the Constitution.
Obama faced tons of backlash for his pastor's comments, and for not distancing himself from the church and from Reverend Wright. In response, he delivered a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18th, 2008. He spoke of the historical split between black and white in all facets of life, how that split affects the way those communities interact with and refer to one another still today, and most importantly, how our union will never be "perfect" until the average person actively chooses to make a change.
The point of the speech was to contextualize Reverend Wright's comments without condoning them. Obama was like Mandy Moore in the film A Walk to Remember, when she straddles state lines to exist, impossibly, in two places at once. If race were the state line, Obama had roots on both sides. He understood the consequences of his pastor's rhetoric, but he also knew that our Founding Fathers designed our government to change with us, which was super significant. Even if it wasn't their intent, those guys set it up so the bigwigs who came after them, men like Honest Abe, could fight against racial discrimination so some day everyone really could be equal.
Instead of wallowing in frustration and Netflixing A Walk to Remember for a good cry, Obama used Reverend Wright's comments to start talking about race in a new and targeted way. No more divisive rhetoric, no more blame. He believed the key to moving forward was in taking control of the story, and changing it.
And the next generation, the average young American who cheered for him on that cold winter day in Chicago, gave him hope that such a thing was possible.
Since the turn of the 21st century, we've been witness to stunning trends and innovations in all sorts of categories: jeggings and cake pops; smartphones and the Mars Rover; the ability to binge-watch cartoons on Netflix while ignoring your adult responsibilities. The entire world is connected in a way our grandparents could never have imagined.
But despite our access to all this crazy stuff, centuries-old issues still determine much of the way we live our lives.
Race, we're looking at you.
And like Obama says, that's completely unacceptable. Really, we all deserve to just enjoy eating copious amounts of cake on sticks and then throw on jeans that never get too tight because they stretch like leggings.
Of course, inequalities based on race permeate our lives way beyond our collective enjoyment of forgiving pants and delicious desserts. The nightly news is filled with stories of racially motivated violence, discussions of wage gaps, a glaring lack of diversity in the entertainment business...the list goes on. Even Netflix has developed an algorithm that, in determining what you may also like to watch, birthed a category called African American Movies.
In his "A More Perfect Union" speech, Obama presented a case illustrating how widespread racial segregation is in this country, not to condone what Reverend Wright said, but to remind us that we still have a lot of work to do. Sure, an African-American category on Netflix may not seem so serious, until it becomes clear that designations like Thriller or Drama come second to the race of the actors in the film.
Bottom line: people are so much more than the color of their skin, and defining entire populations by their race limits all our lives.
Besides, there are tons of other reasons to dislike someone—there's people who walk slowly right in front of you, or are mean to waiters, or who park their cars in such a way that two parking spaces are taken up…the list goes on. There's plenty of annoying features to go around, but race doesn't play into any of them.
Constitution Center—A Virtual Exhibit
Take a gander at this page for everything you could ever want to know about this speech.
A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation
Brigham Young University produced this film in 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention. It's obviously a dramatized version of events, unless BYU has figured out how to time travel, but it does touch upon a lot of the problems in the nation at that time, including the slave trade.
Linguistic Interpretation of "A More Perfect Union" Address
In the interview, George Lakoff analyzes Obama's speech to tell us exactly how the words in the speech convey American values and principles.
"A More Perfect Union"
Speeches, of course, are meant to be heard, not read. So watching Obama as he speaks adds an entirely new tone to his message.
Hungry for More?
A collection of all of Barack Obama's speeches throughout his career in federal government.
Haters Gonna Hate
The face you make when you realize the goin' got tough, but you saved it.
I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends
The Beatles had it right—just ask Joe Biden.