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Why Barack Obama's Speeches Should Be Taught In School

We need both hope and work

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Barack Obama is many things: a first black President, a Mandela like figure who saved this country from an economic crisis, an example of a father and family man, and especially a great speechwriter and orator. His speeches are great literature and should be taught as lessons in literature and civics to young Americans.

In 1996, Thabo Mbeki, vice-president of South Africa under Nelson Mandela, soon to be a controversial but important president of SA, gave a now infamous speech “I am an African.” It is the sort of speech that could have been written by Audre Lorde or by Langston Hughes. Mbeki begins the speech with “I am an African,” and then proceeds to pause, during which applause thundered. He continues on that he “owes his being to the mountains and the valleys, the hills, and the glades,” that he “often wonders if leopards and lions should be granted citizenship.”

The most crucial part to me is “I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers down on our graves,” said right after “my mind and my knowledge of myself are formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African Crown.“ and that “the stripes slaves bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.” As he gave his speech, President Nelson Mandela sat with his hand on face, amazed at Mbeki.

Barack Obama gave this speech as “I am a black person” over and over again, though not always saying “I am a black person.” His black person, though, is a moral black person who makes this country better, for he is fated to live in this country that is his reality.

“What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new economy?  If we made sure that college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and we said “Your old job is not coming back, but a new job will be there because we’re going to seriously re-train you and there’s lifelong education that’s waiting for you -- the sorts of opportunities that Knox has created with the Strong Futures scholarship program.

What if no matter where you worked or how many times you switched jobs, you had health care and a pension that stayed with you always, so you all had the flexibility to move to a better job or start a new business? What if instead of cutting budgets for research and development and science, we fueled the genius and the innovation that will lead to the new jobs and new industries of the future?” [Commencement Address at Knox College, 2005]

Obama’s speeches point forward and did so before his historic first Presidential victory in 2008. They are the perfect speeches for a democracy, asking us to always look for the path forward; do not accept melodramatic sentiment as a reason to not get up and “do something about it.” They are the products of a person with a deep understanding of our society, our history, and especially of democracy.

Barack is remembered for giving speeches rooted in spreading hope. It’s the reason why a whole host of people think that he “failed,” despite the fact that Obama saved this nation and both proposed and brought it high levels of civility. Barack’s speeches, however, before spreading hope define choice as what is central to the path forward. Hope is much more rosy than fear: when Barack says choice, he means that you have the choice to give him the congress he needs to get some things passed. Choice is exercised as a vote, and his correlating choice and hope is the Barack’s great achievement in spreading a philosophy of citizenship.

“We are choosing hope over fear. We're choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America."

"You said the time has come to tell the lobbyists who think their money and their influence speak louder than our voices that they don't own this government -- we do. And we are here to take it back."

"The time has come for a President who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face, who will listen to you and learn from you, even when we disagree, who won't just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know."

"And in New Hampshire, if you give me the same chance that Iowa did tonight, I will be that President for America.” - Iowa Caucus Victory Speech, 2008

Hope is also central to Obama’s speeches, but not hope that is not grounded in work. Barack's version of hope goes hand in hand with work, and in his speeches, it is hoping and working simultaneously that allows one to make the right choice. It’s the path that every American child should take, for it is rooted in an understanding of history and Democracy that very few have.

“Hope is the bedrock of this nation -- the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” - Iowa Caucus Victory Speech, 2008

No politician in American history has taken speeches to the level that Obama has. Well known moments in American political rhetoric like “Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country” are often flawed; I have a contract with my government, and if I pay taxes, it’s only right that I ask what it does for me. Barack’s speeches are in a league of their own: speeches that spread political philosophy that helps one live in the present. They are speeches that can culture American minds forward, and it is our responsibility to place them in the right context to build this country.

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