Well, the much-talked-about day has finally arrived. The crowds are gathering in Washington, the retrospective analyses of how Obama got where he is today are playing on televisions the world over, famous inaugural speeches take up pages on news websites and in newspapers, a sense of almost evangelical hope swells and swells so that it could almost be felt on this side of the Atlantic — and, predictably, Maya Angelou is wheeled out to put in her two pence worth.
The BBC’s World News America took it upon themselves to ask “personalities from various walks of life” to give Obama the benefit of their wisdom — telling him what “they think he should do when he takes up his new job on 20 January”. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one, I thought to myself, still feeling the lingering fatigue from my recent bout of flu and, admittedly, feeling especially grumpy and cynical. The very idea of asking “personalities” to give anyone advice on anything fills me, even at the best of times — and quite justifiably, I think — with a sense of dread. But this was Maya Angelou, after all, not some plastic, no-panties party girl spouting her like, you know, superficial, unintelligible nonsense. Granted, I’m not exactly a fan of her work (I find it rather predictable and… well, frankly, unimpressive), but I was still interested enough to take a look at what she’d said.
Her first four words? “I am a poet.” Brilliant start. Always good to get that out of the way right at the beginning. What follows, however, she is quick to point out, is not a poem (phew.) What it is is “ruminations or reflections upon the advent of President Barack Obama.”
Okay, I thought, not exactly the most groundbreaking of beginnings, but I was determined to keep an open mind and read her insights with as little cynicism as I could muster. Perhaps predictably, however, by the end of the second paragraph I was yawning at the banality and jingoism of it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I too have high hopes for the presidency of Barack Obama. When Angelou says “We needed him”, I can and do empathise. A new direction is needed, a sense of hope has been lacking for far too long. But the over-emphasis that the likes of Angelou place upon this “yes I can” attitude, the prevailing assertion that one man really can make a huge difference — a force for good and only good — is, to my mind, asking for trouble.
So today — without wishing to claim any authority on the subject, offering this only as a grumpy, fatigued observer — I’d like to introduce a note of caution. Obama is unquestionably a good man. His intentions, I feel quite certain, are the best they can be. But he is just a man. He is not a 21st-century Moses leading his people into the Promised Land. Yes, enjoy today. Celebrate the possibility for change. But where Obama, Maya Angelou et al insist that what it is to be an American can be summed up in the three words “yes I can”, I suggest you as a nation select another three instead.
I can try.
Because, ultimately, that’s all any of us can do. Great things can nevertheless be achieved — not only because the willingness to try is in itself a positive, but also because with these three words the weight of expectation is a little less burdensome. Hope for and strive for success, but do not weigh the man down with messianic aspirations.