Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race

By Thomas J. Sugrue | Go to book overview

I

“This Is My Story”:
Obama, Civil Rights, and Memory

“Rosa sat so Martin could walk…

Martin walked, so Obama could run…

Obama is running so our children can fly!”

So goes a poem that circulated widely during the last weeks of the 2008 presidential election.1 This short piece of verse encapsulates the relationship of Barack Obama to collective memories of the civil rights movement. It is a story of debt: Obama owes his success to the past generation of civil rights protesters. It is a story of redemption: Obama's political career realizes their dream that skin color be no longer a bar to ambition. And it is a story of hope and promise: Obama's victory will open up extraordinary opportunities to the next generation. The poem offers an unself-conscious interpretation of history—it is powerful because it provides Obama with a political genealogy in the most important social movement of the twentieth century and offers a teleological view of America on an inexorable path of progress.

It is by now axiomatic that Obama's election as the first African American president of the United States brought the

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