Recently, Gore Vidal was quoted saying, on Barack Obama’s candidacy for President, “Slaves have a hard time making poetry, unless it's got a beat.” Vidal’s iconoclasm serves him well here, in his deep offensiveness but also in his astute revelation of the cultural politics of race in the United States. Such a remark, of course, illuminates a number of different national preoccupations. Suffice it to say, Vidal reveals a tin ear not only for poetry, but also for national poetics.
I suppose I could address this in a variety of different ways. Those of us who study the American Republic as well as live in its current manifestation are acutely aware of the rapturous as well as tortured transformation of the national concept. In this spirit, I offer a pantheon of American heroes, not the usual suspects but remarkably important nonetheless, who in thought and action counter Vidal’s witty racism on this, the penultimate eve of portentous national change. In spite of struggle, hardship, and violence, Americans have never given up at chipping away at the edifice of exclusion. That is the optimistic American tradition worth honoring and preserving.