If you think being black in America is only negative and narrow, then yeah, I guess Barack Obama transcends race. If you think race talk in America can only be negative and narrow, then yeah, maybe Obama should avoid talking about race.

If you think being black in America is only negative and narrow, then yeah, I guess Barack Obama transcends race.

If you think race talk in America can only be negative and narrow, then yeah, maybe Obama should avoid talking about race.

Confession: I cringe a little every time I hear someone - it's usually talking-head media types - say Obama transcends race. But not nearly as much as I cringe when a smooth-voiced anchor intones the historic possibility of - lower voice please - the first black or first woman president.

News flash: Hillary Clinton also would be the first white woman president in the United States. But, in the U.S., race is not necessary when race is white. There is nothing to transcend, merely something to be, no description necessary.

So when we say Obama transcends race, we don't mean he transcends race. We mean he transcends blackness.

Granted, Hillary Clinton does not transcend gender. But in her case, we call it exactly what it is. Besides, Bill is always around to shore up the testosterone level in her campaign.

Hillary Clinton won in Florida this week, but it's a win without delegates and both Clintons are still on the whipping end of a backlash after last week's South Carolina primary race. Obama won in a landslide, but not without the kind of black-baiting Clinton used effectively in previous campaigns.

So far, with candidate Obama, it is not working.

Pundits and party leaders accused the Clintons of "blackening" Barack, of "ghettoizing" Obama. Their words, not mine. I kid you not.

The words, like the idea of racial transcendence, imply there is something wrong with being black in the United States, something deeply wrong with talking about being black in the United States. Why can't Barack Obama be authentically black and genuinely American? Why does he have to transcend? Why can't race talk be both positive and universally uplifting?

The answers, in order of the questions: He can be. He doesn't have to. It has been, can be, and often is.

What passes for race and race talk in this country have been conflated, demonized or dismissed so regularly that many of us don't know or wouldn't recognize the richer, full-throated realities of black life in America.

At its best, black Americans' struggle to be fully American is at the heart of the American conscience. The story of race - and ethnicity, class and gender - in America embodies the continuing struggle to make the country live up to its highest ideals. The role of black people, in particular, rising from property, constantly pushing a whole nation to change its definition of what it means to be fully American, is a model the rest of the world has not ignored.

Reaganites may swoon over Reagan's, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall." But when the wall came down, Berliners sang "We Shall Overcome." The young people at China's Tiananmen Square invoked the modern civil rights movement. Even rap, minus its more materialistic, misogynistic strains, has become the sound track of young people around the world calling for human rights.

Can you get more inspiring than that? Can you get more universal?

Suppose for a moment that we have misread Obama and that he has misread himself. Suppose the story is not one of racial transcendence, but of racial embrace. Suppose he's talking about race all the time, but our own tin ears have not allowed us to tune in.

What is his major campaign theme but an echo of Martin Luther King's dream and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition?

This century is not a decade old, but already it feels on the verge of something much bigger than a presidency. Fasten your seat belts, make sure the airbag works. You don't make democracy work, you don't make real change happen by merely electing a candidate. And you don't make democracy real without suffering a few bumps and bloody bruises.

This is a special moment in time. I'm glad I'm alive to see it.

Pam Adams is a columnist with the Peoria, Ill., Journal Star. Her e-mail address is padams@pjstar.com.