The Perpetual Achievement of the Impossible

03/20/2008 06:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was fourteen -- the same age as my own son is now -- I came across, or, more likely, was given, a copy of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. I was in my black turtleneck phase, taking each Friday the E train to bohemia (West Village branch), so the book was a natural. I remember the cover; I remember what it said (or what, at fourteen, I thought it said); but most of all, I remembered the cool and elegant restraint of the voice. The subject was fire, but the tone was ice: Miles Davis with a Harmon mute. It cut through everything else I'd read about race -- And for all its condemnation, it is was of the very few books I'd in my then-young life read that, in the moment I turned the pages, gave me faith.

More, for a young man raised in a house where the conversation was about the Rosenbergs and the blacklist and lynchings and Jim Crow, you'll forgive if I tell you that this book led me to understand, for perhaps the first time, how I might be proud to be an American.

If we, and now I mean the relatively conscious blacks and relatively conscious whites who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country.

It was perhaps only by a writer as bleak and unsparing as Baldwin that I could allow myself to be led into faith.

I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand--and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.

Those were words which changed my life; they were also words I hadn't thought about in perhaps 45 years. But this week, viewing and the reading and then reading again Barack Obama on race and faith and class in our Republic, those words cut through once again -- in fine and astonishing sync with Obama's own achievement of the impossible.

Optimism has in recent years become cheapened, desecrated by the cakewalk-and-mission-accomplished crowd; perhaps without fully realizing I'd done so, I had gone the other way. (It is far easier, at times, to have no hope.)

Obama reminded me that it is by a fierce and demanding honesty -- and perhaps only by such honesty -- that optimism can be earned. It's an honesty which looks unflinchingly at the flaws of others, the flaws of ourselves. But once found, that honesty, that optimism, can transform a nation.

And must.

The first section of The Fire Next Time is an open letter written to Baldwin's fourteen-year-old nephew and namesake.

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieve an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

I look forward, tonight, to showing my fourteen-year-old son the YouTube of Obama's speech. My hope would be that it would cut through, the way The Fire Next Time did for me. My hope is that it would make him proud of his country.

My real hope, though, is larger: that we as a nation can come to be deserving of the leadership - -at once practical and visionary, unsparing and sanguine--that Barack Obama has this week offered up.