Obama and History

As a history major, I love this recent post from the Cornell Insider on a course offering of the Cornell History Department:

I was browsing the course catalogue today and came across the following titillating offering from Cornell’s very own history department, scheduled for the upcoming fall semester:

HIST 3431 – Obama and Lincoln

Crosslist as: AMST 3431

4CR Stdnt Opt

LEC 001 MW 11:15AM – 12:05PM

Baptist,E (eeb36)

Find the link here.

I have no doubt in the slightest that this course will be taught in a completely fair and unbiased manner.

There is absolutely no way that a history course can fairly examine the political and policy legacy of President Barack Obama. He has not even finished half a year in the Oval Office. As a mere symbol of racial equality, however, a course on Obama could have been taught a year ago.

As a symbol, however, he can easily be placed in the context of American history. Indeed, Obama rests at the far end of a clear racially-themed historical arc: starting with the discussions of slavery at the Constituional Convetion to the Emancipation Proclamation and then all the way to the election of President Obama.

Also, on a superficial level, it is clear that this professor wants to attract his young, Obama-loving students to his course. The professor, like so many people, want to harness a bit of that famous Obama buzz.

But this professor’s choice also reveals something deeper about Obama’s place in history.

Also, Obama’s place as America’s first Black president will live forever; he will always be a undeniably positive symbol of America’s racial evolution, regardless of how his presidency turns out. This is a legacy that we could accurately make sense of in early November 2008. He will occupy a particularly important place in America’s collective imagination, particularly in the African-American collective imagintion.

But like John F. Kennedy, whose Catholicism was an integral part of the way historians saw his presidency, Obama’s symbolic legacy will take a relative backseat to how he handles the office of the Presidency. In fifty years, professors will want to put Obama in the context of America’s racial legacy but they will also be judging his actions and resulting outcomes.

There will always be two seperate historical conceptions of Obamas: the symbol of the elusive dream of racial equality and the all too human President of the United States.

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