A few weeks ago, Sterling Publishing released the hardcover of Becoming American: The African American Journey. (click title to buy), penned by Scholar in Residence and Director of the Schomburg Library Howard Dodson. Don't the timeline formatting fool you. This is not a typical "Black History Month Special"...the latest iteration of the high school project timeline. Dodson delivers an interactive, ever-expanding web of linkages rather than a straight unbroken line, weaving art, literature, war, politics and social/economic upheaval into a comprehensive chronicle. How else can one sum up a people, as metaphor for a nation, in 144 pages, encompassing five centuries?
Barack Obama is not at the end of any continuum; he's merely at the newest, dew-dripping edge of the intricate web. There's no special adulatory chapter or insert. The web grows.
And so what's the weft and weave at the end of Dodson's web, where Obama spins a new paradigm? Knocking Iraq, world climate and world suffering off the evening news is the AIG morass. In our non-reading, blog news as real news shallow world, we tend to measure history in terms of hot button big name crisises. Naturally this applies to measuring presidents. FDR not with the Depression by World War Two, George W. with 9/11.
A lesson from Becoming American might be that the true measure of a people and a nation--thus the President--might be the response to these non-mythic crisises. Anyone can be hero or scum in the face of the Abyss. It takes true leadership and vision to met a little nugget of that Abyss. So consider it this way:
Not JFK and Cuban Missile Crisis, but JFK and James Meredith entering the U. of Mississippi, or George Wallace barring the doors at 'Bama, or the assaults on Freedom Riders.
Not Harry Truman and Korea, but Harry Truman and the 1952 Steel strike.
Not George Washington forming a our first government under the Constitution, but George Washington responding to the Whiskey Rebellion.
Not Reagan and the Cold War, but Reagan and the Air Traffic Controller Strike.
Not W. and 9/11 or even Hurricane Katrina, rather, W. and his first proclaimation against stem cell research.
And not Abe Lincoln and Ft. Sumter, but Abe Lincoln and the struggle for the Emancipation Proclaimation.
And so Barack Obama faces the same "smaller" yet vicious chimera embodied in the AIG bonus controversy. Small potatoes, relatively. But that's the danger in chimeras. True he tried to do this through channels, honor the ways of the past course of dealing despite his pledge of change. The result? Perhaps he should have pulled Eric Holder off the bench at timeout sooner. What U.S. District Judge wants to be put on the spot by no less than the Attorney General himself, armed with theories both banal and novel (I suggested a qui tam related cause myself) in support of injunctions stopping these bonuses? All this pending Congressional action, such that it is.
Or perhaps he should have immediately emulated previous battles with mini monsters. Harry Truman unilaterally jumping against both fatcats and unions to stop the steel strike. A geriatric George Washington literally mounting his horse as literal Commander in Chief to tell folks look, we have a government, you have to pay taxes and you will follow the law. Teddy Roosevelt taking a hodgepodge of untried or even inapplicable antitrust laws to go after Robber Barons (Rockefeller and JP Morgan would have proud of banks, wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma etc...up till this Fall). And Teddy stepped in, uninvited, to halt the "little" 1905 war between Russia and Japan. History grows from this little war. Russia begins its short dive to decay and revolution; Japan becomes a modern empire and begins its long march to imperialism, ending forty years later in the radioactive ashes of Hiroshima. JFK sets the federal government finally in the service of civil rights. And Lincoln decided he needs to somehow memorialize the end of slavery.
Little monsters--chimera--can hold a presidency hostage and taint it for posterity. Many people, riding a populist rage, don't like the way Obama has dealt with this one. Nevertheless, the message to arrogant money powerfolk is clear, and they are scared. Still, we don't yet know if AIG presages Obama as a golden, dew-glittering strand of silk in the web, or a dead knot. Either way, Howard Dodson's interconnected vision of history ravels and grows, ceaseless. We begin our sixth century in America. The journey's propeled and impelled by little, inglorious battles akin to the one Obama fights now. They made us who we are, as this one will make him.