"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."
Pairing "patchwork" with "heritage" is powerfully evocative. One immediately thinks of American folk art, of quilts made by many hands and scraps brought beautifully together in a unified, useful whole. Obama is saying that the fabric of our national heritage is not made of whole cloth, yet its very patchwork nature is its strength. His speech also makes clear that piecing together this diverse heritage has been the hard work of many, and that while government has its own part to play "it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom."
The image of a patchwork heritage works as a symbol because of what it signifies to each of us. Some of these symbolic meanings, like the concept of an "Underground Railroad Quilt Code", persist in memory even if they are not supported by historical evidence. Michelle Obama's own ancestry is the subject of a story quilt that will appear with otherson display in a "Quilts for Obama" exhibit at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Obama wore his red power tie to deliver what is arguably a powerfully feminine image; the strength of our national character brought forth as if by the skilled hands of the domestic quilting tradition. Yes, indeed: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Obama has described himself as a sort of patchwork, most memorably last March in his A More Perfect Union speech on race in the wake of the Reverand Wright scandal:
"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one."
Even with deeply rooted prejudices that predate our founding as a nation, we Americans like nothing better than to celebrate our mongrel origins when it comes to national pride. We took back the mocking Yankee Doodle, after all, and made it our own. It is no accident, therefore, that Obama uses the phrase "our patchwork heritage" immediately after his strongest statement against our national enemies - for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you" - and employs it as a bridge to a vision of "our common humanity" and "a new era of peace."
There is a lot riding on "our patchwork heritage", as there is on this President. It may not be the line people end up remembering from this inaugeral address, but it seems to be a critical stitch in the quilt of his oratory.
(Top image credit: Carolyn B of Detroit)
(Center image credit: Beyondbooks.org)
(Bottom image credit: LivingstonNJ.org)