Finding Genre in the Selma Speech

For the record, I liked Obama’s Selma speech, that which he delivered last weekend during the commemoration of the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago. As far as these speeches tend to go, this one was good.

I should say that I didn’t read or hear the whole thing. Most of what I gleaned comes from James Fallows’s write up in the Atlantic. Read it here and come back if you haven’t kept up with these things.

I’m not alone in my appreciation of the speech, but I was struck by the degree to which commentators seem to have avoided historicizing the kind of language and imagery that Obama used. The only place I heard anyone talk about the roots of Obama’s words was on Larry Wilmore’s show. Apparently, according to Wilmore, Obama borrowed some lines from Jay-Z.

As for myself, a flurry of cultural texts swirled around inside my head as I was reading. First, I thought of the Bruce Springsteen song, American Land,” and the U2 song, “The Hands That Built America.” Both very good songs, by the way, but I’m not writing to tell you that the myths and symbols of Obama’s speech were born in the words of aging white rockers.

No, instead, I think you can look to aged white Communists. Mostly Jews. The “riff at the end” — as Fallows calls it — cribs heavily from the Popular Front genre of American history. In search of a “usable past,” writers and artists in the 1930s would merge immigrant radicalism with “heartland” populism to craft a brand of communism, that was, in their words, “20th century Americanism.” Think Thomas Hart Benton:

Or think Paul Robeson, who sung Abe Meerpol’s words in “The House I Live In“:

The house I live in, the friends that I have found,
The folks beyond the railroad and the people all around,
The worker and the farmer, the sailor on the sea,
The men who built this country, that’s America to me.

The house I live in, my neighbors white and black,
The people who just came here, or from generations back,
The Town Hall and the soap box, the torch of Liberty,
A place to speak my mind out, that’s America to me.

The words of old Abe Lincoln, of Jefferson and Paine,
Of Washington and Douglas, and the task that still remains,
The little bridge at Concord, where Freedom’s fight began,
Our Gettysburg and Midway, and the story of Bataan.

This genre of writing was part of an unprecedented flourishing of proletarian culture, a “laboring” of American culture as Michael Denning has written, that brought matters of social justice into the mainstream. It also, as George Lipsitz argues, was constrained by a kind of folksy populism that kept its radical roots at a distance, even in the thirties. “It was the reliance on the ‘Lincoln Republic,'” Lipsitz writes, “that prevented the Popular Front” from tackling the legacies of slavery, conquest, industrialization, and imperialism. And even as the Popular Front acknowledge ethnic and racial diversity, just as Obama has in conjuring Navajo code talkers and Tuskegee airmen, Lipsitz argues that such talk in the thirties “evolved into an uncritical cultural pluralism after World War II.”[1]

I tend to side more with Denning than Lipsitz. In my own research, I’ve tracked the degree to which the discourses that the Popular Front produced — as imperfect as they were — were delegitimized and discarded in the late forties and fifties. To the extent that they survived, they transmogrified into individualistic paeans to freedom and liberty. I would argue that this was no fault of men like Robeson and Meerpol.

But given Lipsitz’s critique, one can see why Obama was able to pick up this genre. By making the speech a response to his critics’ attacks on his anti-American-exceptionalism — and here, one can see another influence, that of James Baldwin, who said “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” — the President did as the men and women from the thirties Popular Front did. He painted a picture of the most democratic, inclusive, empathic nation that he could, and he tugged and pulled at some of its metaphorical boundaries a little, but he also let some of them lie. He kept the producerism, added in some individualism, and maybe even arguably bumped up the cosmopolitanism. But the genre, in my opinion, is plain to see.

[1] Lipsitz, George. “” Sent for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today”: American Studies Scholarship and the New Social Movements.” Cultural Critique (1998): 203-225.