Jesse Jackson’s Tears

by Edwin Turner

I was surprised by the emotional response I had to Obama’s sweeping win last night–or rather, I was surprised by the emotional response that I had to the emotional responses I saw on my television. But it was these images of Jesse Jackson crying that intrigued me–and continue to intrigue me–the most:

What are we seeing here? Jackson’s tears, his clenched jaw, his bared teeth–all stand out in strange relief against the cheering, joyous faces around him. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? What is the word for how he feels? Is this catharsis?

Raw and complex, Jackson’s response is not gleeful joy, but some kind of release–not elation, but deflation, it seems. Indeed, Jackson’s tears, his face, seem to reflect and signal the aspiration of a lifetime’s work–his work–achieved now in a different man, a new man, a man for a new and different time. In some sense–and perhaps I’m way overboard here–it seems that Jackson is working through some deep Oedipal anxieties. And yet such a cathartic response, such a purging also seems to indicate and symbolize a dramatic shift in America’s narrative.

In any case, in our heavily mediated age of instant news and “reality TV” (an age saturated with information and scant on wisdom or reflection), Jackson’s tears strike me viscerally. They are wholly real, the abject edges of turmoil and pain, but also the strange fruit of over fifty years of the Civil Rights movement. And while Obama’s ascendancy in no way changes the past, it changes the future, and delivers a promise to the rest of the world that America truly is a land of freedom, opportunity, and hope.

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2 Responses to “Jesse Jackson’s Tears”

  1. VH1 Classic is showing the Wattstax concert film pretty regularly right now that served as a fund raiser after the Watts riots. Jackson is one of the event’s emcees. Young, afro’d, he introduces Isaac Hayes to the crowd and everyone goes bananas and raises their fists in the air.

    I can’t begin to imagine how seeing that acceptance speech felt to him…

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