At Barack Obama’s inauguration, when the Rev. Joseph Lowery began his benediction by quoting the third and final stanza of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he provided the historical memory for this historic occasion. I recognized the words immediately and was taken back to the late 1940s and the Sunday afternoons when the NAACP held meetings at my father’s church in Kansas City, Kan. At the beginning of those gatherings, we would stand and sing the words Lowery quoted to a melody written by Johnson’s brother, J. Rosemund Johnson. The song was known as the “Negro National Hymn.” In those days even Aretha Franklin could not have sung “My Country ’Tis of Thee” with the emotion and conviction she did earlier in the inaugural proceedings.
Johnson wrote the poem in 1900 for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday. Lowery’s recitation of that last stanza, with its words of resolve and dedication, took me from those days of my childhood — when racial segregation, and the terror that accompanied it, was as ordinary as sunshine — to this day, bright with sunshine.
The fact that America elected Barack Obama to be its 44th president is not foremost an achievement for him as a black person. Rather, his election represents a profound change in the cultural ethos of the United States, one that I, and many of my generation, did not think would ever happen — and, if it did, we certainly did not expect that we would live to see it. The tears in my eyes were there not only because there is now a president whose skin color is the same as mine, but also in gratitude for the generational transformation in this country. At long last, a majority of people believe that blacks have a place in our common humanity. This belief in a common humanity was a constant theme of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, a theme he iterated in his inaugural address.
But in that address there was a lapse in his understanding of that common humanity. He exhorted us to remember those who had helped to build this nation, those who “toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.” If I were Native American, the reference to those who “settled the West” would have left me feeling excluded, yet again. The West was not “settled.” It was conquered by murdering the people who lived there and forcing the survivors into prison camps called reservations. It hurts when I hear a black person, especially, accepting so unthinkingly the American mythology of triumph.
I listened to the inaugural address not only as a black person, however, but also as a Jew. I felt excluded by the Christian tenor of the prayers. What a profound affirmation of our common humanity it would have been if Obama had invited a rabbi and an imam to deliver the invocation and benediction.
As a Jew I was certainly listening for anything Obama might say about Israel and the Middle East. I was surprised and heartened by his words to Muslim radicals: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
In addition to these strong words, our new president also expressed a dream we all share when he said, “we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.” As fervently as we yearn for such a vision to become a living reality, we must remain aware that we live in a world in which there are people with a very different vision. As a Jew I am concerned that Obama’s optimism might be misplaced, perhaps dangerously so. I know there are people in the world who do not believe that Jews, and Israel in particular, share in that “common humanity.” I know there are people in the world who find commonality only with those who belong to their own tribe. I know there are people in the world for whom so-called martyrdom in acts of mass murder is a greater virtue than acceptance of a common humanity.
As many tears of joy as I shed on Tuesday, January 20, being a Jew I could not help but be a bit apprehensive about whether Obama viscerally understands the fact that Israel and Jews have not even now been accorded full membership in this amorphous entity, “our common humanity,” something which Jews have believed in longer and with probably more fervor than anyone else.
I love that Barack Obama is now our president, and I hope that he can persuade others that this vision of a shared humanity that he so eloquently articulates is one that will add to the dignity and safety of all our lives.
Julius Lester is a professor emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author, most recently, of the novel “Guardian” (Amistad, 2008).