But surely he doesn't believe that only African Americans are familiar with that history. Indeed, isn't that why we all study history? Or at least should. In order to enter not just other people's skins and experiences but their times. Not just to understand them as best we can, but identify with them. We could all have been Trayvon Martin, we could all have been George Zimmerman. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. Nothing human is alien to me, said Terence, if you will forgive my poor translation.
But when we divide humanity into stereotypes, choosing one or the other to identify with, black or white, this or that, Them or Us, without seeking to understand the past that shaped the other, too, we are left -- how did the poet put it? -- as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night. And there we founder, deprived of the light that the past gives us to seek understanding, and so shape a better and common future.
We all bring our own historical experience with us to the study of history and literature and the humanities in general. But that doesn't mean the experiences of others are beyond our understanding or capacity to identify with. You don't have to be Jewish (to enjoy Levy's Rye Bread, as the ad used to say) or to identify with the Children of Israel in Egyptian bondage. Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict the Israelites crossing the sea on dry land while its waves overwhelmed Pharaoh. (The culture was more biblically literate in those revolutionary times.)
We do not learn just from our own heritage. Why, I hear tell that some Yankees have been known to savor Faulkner and come to understand his more obscure Southern references and poetic nuances, a feat that yet eludes me.
Classical education may have faded from the curriculum -- an incalculable loss to Western civilization -- but when it was recognized as essential, surely not only Greeks and Romans felt its power and capacity, or profited from the study of Greek and Latin.
On those occasions when Barack Obama speaks about race, and no American president can or should avoid a topic that lies at the core of not just the black but the American experience, his is the eloquent voice of our first black president. If only he also remembered to speak as our president. Period. Without qualifier or adjective. The president of all the people, not just of some of us.
Once upon a time, as a promising young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama galvanized not just a national political convention but a divided and confused nation (sound familiar?) when he rose to say that, while the pundits liked to split the country into red states and blue states, "We are one people, all of us, pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
On that occasion, he rose above the country's divisions and confusions instead of adding to them. He united and not further divided us. There are times, too many of them of late, when some of us miss that Barack Obama, for it is important to recognize that he is president of all of us. Even and especially at those times when he himself may not keep it uppermost in his mind.