"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the price & promise of citizenship

I ran into a former student this afternoon. He called from down the hall as I was headed to my office. "Professor, Professor! Did you watch?"

He's the son of African immigrants, thoroughly Americanized, an athlete, and very popular on this small campus. He's also smart as a whip.

"Do you remember when I was in your class?" he asked. "It didn't even seem like he'd get to run."

This American Life ran a remarkable show on Sunday. They just let people talk, about Obama, abou their hopes and fears for the new administration. They listened to African-Americans on the southside of Chicago. They listened to residents of rural Appalachia, some of whom live in towns where everybody is white. There's a little of that in today's media coverage; check out these words of the crowd in Anacostia, a D.C. neighborhood whose residents live in the shadow of the capitol, but whose voices are never heard in the halls of power.

Abraham Lincoln's famous conclusion to the Gettysburg Address is often misread. It's not the words that people get wrong, it's the enunciation. Notes from the speech tell us that Lincoln put the emphasis on the word "people" in the speech, not on the "of," "by," and "for," as we so often hear it. Lincoln wanted to make his point that we live under a form of rule that is supposed to be about its citizens. It's government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It belongs to us. We have a responsibility to maintain it. And it exists to serve us.

Days like today are reminders of what makes this country so amazing. Every now and then, we get these small reminders that this country is all of us. And lest we forget, it is an incredible privilege to live in a place in which transitions to power are peaceful. We don't have to worry that there will be riots in the streets tonight. We don't have to wait for a coup or a war to bring a change in regime. We get to vote, we get to decide, and then everyone plays by the rules and lets the other side take over.

There are no words to describe the momentousness of this day. I thought Elizabeth Alexander's poem was beautiful, but even she could not capture it fully. Only that fantastic arrangement of "Simple Gifts" even came close.

But deep down, I think I know at least part of what it means. I know what it means to my students, present, past, and future. I know what it means to my friends in Western Kenya and the eastern Congo. And I know what it means to me.


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