I still believe in Obama's America, says Ian Reifowitz

Historians in the News
tags: Obama

Eight years and two weeks ago, something happened that changed my life and, more importantly, the course of our country’s history. On January 3, 2008, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. To be sure, he had intrigued me from the first time I heard him, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

I had long studied multiethnic societies (my early research examined the Austro-Hungarian Empire) focusing specifically on attempts to create a unifying sense of nationhood that could knit together a diverse population into a single people, that could encourage individuals from different backgrounds who shared a land to see themselves as part of a national community even while maintaining the ancestral forms of identity they valued. The concept of democratic pluralism reflects these ideas.

In Boston, Obama spoke in exactly those terms, citing “a belief that we are all connected as one people.” He defined us “a single American family: E pluribus unum, out of many, one,” and, in the most memorable section, declared: “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.” By 2004, I had shifted my research focus from Austria-Hungary to the contemporary U.S., so hearing a politician speak this way got my attention.

Back to that night in Iowa. Toward the end of then-Sen. Obama’s victory speech, something clicked for me when he proclaimed:

Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.

Here was Obama showing how to do the very thing that years of research and study told me needed to be done. In the course of about 15 seconds, he presented to a huge(yes, I pronounce the ‘h’) audience of Americans a single, common historical narrative that included events all too often separated into “black history” and “white history.” ...

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