Both of the Obamas have committed what has become an unforgivable sin in our current culture. They went a bit literary on us.
It may be that in our current digital state of affairs we have lost the ability to handle any messages more than 140 characters long or to understand any expressions more complicated than howls of anger or squeals of delight. Entering Facebook or the comment sections on news media and blogs is like stepping into a pit viper den. Its inhabitants are able only to strike out at the intrusion, and then coil back down to ready their reptilian brains to strike out again.
Barack Obama's DNC speech had political purpose, but it was largely an essay on how American democracy has evolved so that the facts of our political status fit the aspirations of the language in which the nation's founding was framed. He emulates the speeches of Lincoln, which are part of America's literary canon.
In providing courses in literature in our schools, we strive to enable the students to understand communications that have cognitive content, that consist of more than squeals and howls. Literature consists of much more than imaginative fiction, poetry, and drama. It also consists of modes that deal with facts: exposition, narrative, and the methods of analysis, such as cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast. The objective is for students to recognize and understand such forms of communication when they encounter them and to be able to use them in their own thought and expression. Working with language in its various forms is what literacy is.
Michelle Obama's speech to the DNC produced an outpouring of illiteracy. One part of the speech became the focus of many demonstrations of the ignorance of language:
That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. [Emphasis is mine.]
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.That phrase "a house built by slaves" spurred some howls of rage from those who identify themselves as conservatives, whatever that means in their minds. It sent Bill O'Reilly off into claiming that the slaves who worked in building the White House were well fed and well housed, as if that mitigated that they were held in bondage and required to do the work. And a comment at the Dakota Free Press accused Michelle Obama of being a liar:
I see Michelle repeats her prevarication of a slave built White House. The historical truth is that the White House was built almost entirely by Scottish masons and their apprentices, local tradesmen, local carpenters, immigrant Irish and Scottish laborers and free blacks. Slave labor was used primarily for rough cutting stone and timber. Scottish stone masons were even used in the quarries to train the slaves on how to quarry the stones. To claim that slaves built the White House one would also have to claim that wheat farmers bake wedding cakes and lumberjacks build houses.
The White House Historical Association refutes that:
The D.C. commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African American—enslaved and free—to provide the bulk of labor [my emphasis] that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.The significant aspect of those who fix on "a house built by slaves" is their illiteracy, their inability to handle any form of communication that is more than a howl or a squeal. Michelle Obama's speech is devoted to showing what is right with America:
So, look, so don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!She uses the story of her daughters to illustrate that the greatness of America is in its striving to live up to its call for freedom, equality, and justice. To do this she uses the imagery of a house built by slaves and two young descendants of those save now being occupants of that house and playing on the lawn with their dogs. The imagery captures the progress the nation has made from being built on slave labor to the free and happy young women playing on the lawn of the house that represents their nation.
Michelle Obama's speech clearly states what she is illustrating:
That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
There are many peoplewho are rejecting, consciously or not, the premise on which the nation was built.