Election Of Barack Obama Redefined Black History

In the latest Tell Me More salute to Black History Month, writer Kai Wright reflects on the historic candidacy and election of President Barack Obama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

It's Black History Month, and we're remembering people and events that have played a key role in this country's history as part of our series, Tell Me More about Black History. Editor and writer Kai Wright has been sharing remarkable stories from the past, and even some stories from a more recent time. As President Obama prepares for his major speech tonight, Kai looks back at then Senator Barack Obama's speech after his win in the Iowa caucuses. It was January 3rd, 2007. Tell me more about black history, Kai.

KAI WRIGHT: Thanks, Michel. It's been quite a joy bringing these voices to your audience. And now we want to talk about somebody who we all know, our new president, Barack Obama. And his rhetoric is terribly interesting for many reasons. It really is quite similar to so many famous black orators that came before him. In his inauguration speech, many were disappointed because they didn't hear those applause lines that they'd become used to. They heard so much detailed policy, and there's all kinds of reasons for that, but it's also not unusual.

Barack Obama often gave, throughout the campaign, quite detailed speeches. His debate performances were often soaked in detail. And that's something that both Frederick Douglass, as the first famous black orator, and King, as another, were fond of doing as well. They would stack their speeches with this dense philosophy and politics, and then come to the lines that were supposed to galvanize you to act on the ideas.

The speech I'd like to remind your listeners of is his victory night speech after the Iowa caucuses. And what's neat is that Obama is using rhetoric both stylistically and in the actual words that is so resonate of King and Douglass and people who have been using this style for opposition for centuries. And now he's speaking as someone who is seeking to become the voice of power instead. And he even openly makes that comparison. He nods to it, at himself, in this speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATOR BARACK OBAMA'S IOWA CAUCUSES VICTORY SPEECH, JANUARY 3,)

BARACK OBAMA: Hope, hope is what led me here today, with a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas, and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: 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...

WRIGHT: That could be lifted right out of the speech of Martin Luther King. That cadence, and that tension between what is and what can be.

But now it's someone speaking who then wanted to become president of the United States and now, of course, is. Thanks for spending time with us. Back to you, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you, Kai. Kai Wright is editor of "The African-American Experience: Black History and Culture through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Song and Stories." He joined us from our studios in New York. To hear earlier stories in our Tell Me More about Black History series, please go to our Web site, the Tell Me More page at npr.org.

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