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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Person In His Time

Did the Moment Make Barack Obama, or Has Barack Obama Made the Moment?

Just before the President spoke yesterday I got a call from a cousin. Whatever time of day or night it was in Jerusalem, he and his wife were watching the inauguration, sounding almost giddy with delight. NPR reported the same mood in Paris, not to speak of Kenya. But that brings a question — is it that he is such a singular man that he personally has redirected history, or is it that the forces of our time pushed him, lapped up at his door, carried him along? How we answer this question relates directly to what we have been talking about — role models, examples, 3-D portraits, how nonfiction for younger readers works. Here’s why:

If the moment makes the man, then we are seeing the inauguration of the age of the twitter electoral campaign, the tanking economy, the weariness of war, the browning of America, the globalized world. In other words the times demanded a new man. If the man makes the moment, we are seeing the inauguration of a person with singular gifts of intelligence, ability to listen and synthesize information, rhetorical skill, and the kind of community organizer’s confidence that can charge fractious individuals with a larger sense of purpose. Of course, you must all be saying, both moment and man matter.

But then when we model roles in books for young people, what are we telling them? They are not in the same circumstances as the people in our books. The whole purpose of historical context is to make that clear. And not every reader will identify with having extraordinary personal skills and abilities. I suspect it comes down to the old Latin phrase: carpe diem, seize the day. That is, Obama, like, King, Mandela, Havel, Gandhi, Parks, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Milk, even Reagan, felt a kind of call of opportunity-necessity. Somehow like Jonah in the bible, they knew they they had something that must be said, precisely at that time, whatever the risk (and felt trapped in a whale until they did). They were like shamans, understanding some essence, some truth, some gap in the world-as-it-is, that they and they alone could walk through, and thus must walk through. And that is a role our books can model — because any reader may have a truth to speak, an insight to share, a unique knowledge that is being ignored which they alone can shape in a way that can be heard. 

The individual meets the challenge of the moment — the individual is human, thus surely flawed. The moment comes and goes, a new age presents new challenges. But there is that instant, that shining point, when change can come if Jackie Robinson gets through the season, if — well, you tell me, what meeting places of person and moment would you suggest to exemplify (or challenge) my idea of roles and models?


  1. Amy Bowllan says:


    This is absolutely brilliant! It is also what so many people were trying to “put into words” to me while I was in DC.

    Thank you