Sunday, June 7, 2009
Chauncey DeVega says: African-American Veterans of D-Day and the Existential Power of Barack Obama's Presidency
Elderly White men, watching a Black President deliver the speech at Normandy with quiet reverence and respect, is one of the many reasons I believe that somehow, we will find a way to resolve our collective American dilemma.
Supporters of Barack Obama's candidacy for presidency often discussed the power of existential change that would result from his victory. Here, we meant the power which accompanied the idea of a Black American in the White House as President--a claim about what a person of color in that office would symbolize for America's national identity and shared political culture.
The commemoration of the Allied landings at D-Day, and the invasion of Fortress Europe during World War Two, are examples of these moments. Now, I am not so naive as to believe that a Black man who happens to be president will be a radical change from business as usual by virtue of his mere presence as Chief Executive. Why not? Because a two party system and a centrist politics deem that radicals do not rise to become President of these United States of America.
President Barack Obama's power and importance is rooted in the fact that a Black American, a few generations removed from a moment when his people were systematically excluded from American political life, can participate in one of a nation's most cherished ceremonies is the existential change which so many of us awaited.
In short, many of us never imagined that we would see a Black American fulfilling the role of president as national caretaker and ceremonial leader. This is why we cried and cheered when Obama was elected: for once, the check was not returned, stamped insufficient funds. Thus, President Obama's speech on the anniversary of D-Day is laced with irony as it is a raceless and colorblind moment that is simultaneously pregnant with racial meaning.
While some would like to make Black Americans, and people of color more generally, peripheral to American history, we have always been central to it. In this way, President Barack Obama's speech at Normandy completes a circle of history because while White society has long denied the role of African-Americans on D-Day (an erasure enabled by popular culture both in America and abroad) a Black man now serves as Commander in Chief:
These brave soldiers (as respectable Negroes) knew that service was an important weapon in the Black Freedom Struggle because it would make the justice claims of Black Americans undeniable. Obama knows that he is the direct product of their risk taking and labor. In silent acknowledgment, these veterans must be smiling in quiet satisfaction as President Barack Obama is in many ways the fulfillment of their efforts:
A bonus: some clips from the documentary A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day--