November 11, 2008
Sometimes me really nuh know wha’ wrong wid some o’ we. I’ look like seh no new news n’e'h deh fi report, an’ like ‘ow we love fa’as i’nna people bizness an’ love i’x up weself , it n’ah go tek long fi smaddy come chat bout ‘ow dem did know Obama, an’ what not.
But, me did really ‘affi buss out inna w’an piece a big laugh when mi deh read di Gleaner a couple days back. Apparently, Kay Osborne could not wait to tell di ‘ole a Jumeyka ’bout har 1 degree of separation from the Obamas. ‘ear ‘ar nuh:
“We liked each other, always hugged and talked when we met. My family and I attended informal get-together at the Obamas, spent time just hanging out, talking, eating, arguing, laughing, just being real.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but she’s not some part of the hallowed circle that she’s letting on here. That was their relationship with lots of people; there were decent people after all who made everyone feel welcome. The people who waited on them at their favourite restaurant and worked on the campaign could also share this exact account.
As fi di repeated comments bout “being real”: I guess all of us are supposed to know what that means? It is yet another of those annoying faddish phrases that are steadily creeping into [some] Jamaicans’ vocabulary, thanks to our uncanny ability to latch on to whatever come from America (and from black queer culture, thank you!) in order to raise the perceptions of our social status a notch. I’m so not impressed.
But just in case we are wondering just how well she knew the Obamas, Miss Kay had to take us all the way into the kitchen and into a private moment between the Obamas:
“I got the sense that they loved each other, there was a great deal of affection and respect in their interactions. It was clear that he adored her and that he was her man. He touched her with great gentleness.[...] I recall once when I and a couple of other women were chatting with a very pregnant Michelle at a small gathering at their kitchen. Barack walked up behind Michelle and put his arm around her waist and stroked her belly. “Michelle looked up at him, their eyes locked, they kissed briefly and Michelle continued the conversation. I recall thinking at the time that this man was absolutely in love with this woman and this was totally cool.”
Now, if this doesn’t sound like white house porno fiction, I don’t what does. I mean, why didn’t she just recount how often Barack feel up Michelle? And exactly when Michelle get ‘ar period? And how many times a week dem have sex? And in what positions? She might as well have, being so eager to share and extrapolate from what she don’t really know!
As far as mi concern, yuh si people like Kay Osborne so? Don’ invite dem ki’n a smaddy a yuh ya’ad an’ inna yuh private bizness. Fa’r di minute yuh tun yuh back an’ achieve sinting, dem ready fi tell di ‘ole a yuh bizness so dem cyan raise fi dem status an’ gwa’n like seh dem more important now cau dem know bigshot smaddy. Come in like dem man whe’ n’eh mi’n dem pikney but ready fi tun daddy as soon as di pickney dem tun out to be smaddy.
But yuh tink Kay Osborne done deh so? No sah! ‘Ear har now nuh?
“[the] Obamas will bring back wonderful, joyous sex to the White House…I believe this to be true. My hope is that despite her age, Michelle will conceive in the White House[..],” says Osborne.
This is what the Obamas have to look forward to – those who are “more than an acquaintance and less than close friend” a labba labba bout dem sex life an’ a spread all kinds of gossip about them. It’s not enough for Kay Osborne to see and admire them, just like everyone else. No, she has to insert herself into the narrative and the public persona they’ve created in order to make herself seem more important. That is just truly declasse. I’m going to send the Gleaner article to the Obama transition team. I bet they will get a serious kick out of this drivel.
But even the picture accompanying the article – one that is now fairly familiar to anybody who’s been following the campaing – had to be brought in line with the pornospeculatory theme of Kay Osborne’s commentary. The caption of the photo reads” ‘I love you’ is what Barack Obama seems to whisper to his wife Michelle.”
Really now? Barack could also “seem” to be whispering “did you remember to call the office this morning?” or, “Just one more picture and then its lunch time, I promise” or [insert whatever fantasy you want to project onto them here]. Or, he could have exhaled with his mouth open.
The more important question here is who authorized the publication of this nonsense in the newspaper? I suppose that “if the world can’t seem to devour enough of this family” as the reporter claims, then I guess she or the Gleaner thinks we need to get in on the nyammings too? Sharks, hyenas and john crows are what come to mind.
November 5, 2008
First it was Nelson Mandela.
Now, it’s Barack Obama’s turn.
[Note: Photos are from Huffington Post. I'm in the grove of trees encircling the outer edges of the crowd. That's as close as I tried to get]
It was beautiful and so, so, so inspiring to see.
I don’t think I could have imagined what it would have felt like to be standing in that long, long line on Michigan Avenue on a rather balmy un-November-like evening, with the most friendly and chatty people I’ve probably ever met, and entering with that amazingly huge and well-behaved (!) crowd into that park to hear and see him live (albeit behind bulletproof glass) as he stepped into his new role as 44th President of the United States.
What a moment. What a speech. What a speech. What depth of character. What a quality person. What a long time for the 106 year old woman from Atlanta to wait for someone of this caliber to step into the role of leader of this United States of America. How could anyone not want this man to be the person who represents them and acts on their behalf on the world stage? He even recognized his non-supporters and did not demonize them – what a display of grace and humility!
I was so moved by the whole thing, I could seriously even imagine myself living here in this city. America seems almost tolerable again. And you know what else? As I listened to him speak, I knew that he would never see it as politically expedient to declare that I, and persons who share my sexual orientation, could not have a place in his Cabinet. That would simply be unthinkable. He is a model of leadership that we could all learn something from.
Now, I need to go get some sleep as I have a plane to catch in a few hours. You really had to be here. It was worth every last minute and cent to have witnessed and participated in this moment.
November 3, 2008
I know I am not alone in wondering why the most random Jamaican person is all a ga-ga over the possible outcome of the US presidential elections.
I mean, seriously. Why has so much adulation and interest – from editorials to letters to nonstop chatter at the taxi stand – been generated among us about Barack Obama? It just seems unthinkable, extolling a level of support and investment in the election outcomes of a country that we have just loved to criticize, and as recent as the Olympics, at which we have hurled all sorts of vitriol, homophobic remarks included.
Ok, so a lot of what we glam on to and work ourselves into a lather about doesn’t always make logical sense, although it makes perfect emotional sense. I think this love affair spans across these categories, but definitely leans towards the latter category. That is, beyond the obvious – history being made in a country whose history of being relentlessly racist and anti-black is being redirected in a most spectacular way, and whose role in the world, including in Jamaica, has been nothing short of problematic – why do we even care, and make such effort to communicate that investment in such public ways? I have counted no less than ten editorial columns in the Gleaner over the past three months going on and on about the US elections. You would think we had a direct stake in the outcomes! Even the daughters of the soil have gotten short shrift! Yvette Clarke’s (who’s such a part of the NY Democratic machine that she supported* Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama) and Yvonne Graham’s campaigns for elected office have been virtually ignored!
Given the amount of ink shed, one is left thinking that there is not really much going on in Jamaica; even our Senate has not bothered with the paltry business of showing up for work. Perhaps many are at home watching tv and glued to their computers following all the polls about Obama’s progress, while the rest who were “travelling” were really in the US, using their American citizenship as an opportunity stumping for Obama? Who knows?
Anyway, I figured that blogging about these thoughts – however incomplete or half-baked – might just be the way for me to stop trying to figure out an answer to these questions. Besides, I do think that there are some aspects to the mass media’s wilful enabling of this love affair that are worth examining further.
WARNING: This is a very long post. It was not intentional. Sorry.
[In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say: I supported the Obama campaign with my hard-earned monies and got my t-shirt as proof; I voted for him via absentee ballot; I have also made phone calls for the campaign, and had the absolute misfortune of talking to a Jamaican woman who has lived in Indiana for umpteen years and who plans to vote for McCain. I promptly set some other Indiana-living Jamaicans on her; hopefully they succeeded in converting her.]
Reading between the lines of the chatter in Jamaica, here’s what I have discerned that informs why many Jamaicans at home are so psyched about Obama, as well as my take on the issues.
1. More than anything else, the level of the suspense, drama and spectacle of it all – done and broadcast in a thoroughly dominating and blinding fashion that is only possible by Americans, of course – allows us some temporary relief from our own homegrown, maudlin and less spectacular drama, which is experienced as more of a deathwatch, and does not show any signs or possibilities of happy endings anytime soon. So, getting drawn into somebody else’s story gives us something to talk, and even to feel good about.
2. We in Jamaica love to big-up famous black people. Just so. One part of this is our penchance to fall in love with success, power and charisma, and anything that helps us keep the “hard work equals success” mantra going, even if that’s not or ever entirely the whole story of how a single individual came to our attention.
3. Being so intimately familiar with the story of the oppression of black people in Europe and North America, and in such denial about what that oppression looks like for black people here at home, we [can certainly be convinced to] feel some kind of personal vindication when a black person in belly of the foreign beast rises to a level of visibility and power that otherwise seemed improbable.
4. [a combo of 2 & 3] Its even worse when they [appear to] embody all the characteristics that we already assign to decency and respectability at home: the “biracial” factor plays here in Jamaica in a way that it can’t play in the US.
Don’t even bother to point out that Barack does not identify as “biracial” but as “African American.”
And yet, that’s the very point that we in this “out of many one people but please help the black people not to embarass us by not speaking proper english” neurotic space will hold on to. He has a white mother. Because, to too many of us still, his white mother and ancestry DOES modify and even neutralize any elements of his not-so-civilized African blackness. For us, he could have been “too black.” That racist logic that helped make many white Americans more accepting of Barack also does work wonders on us as well: we can feel much better and rest much easier because his parents are not ONLY or JUST black. And certainly, he doesn’t look or present like the “type” of black person that we can’t simply cannot stand [don't all turn to look at Portia, now!]
I remember last year when a columnist (I think it was Jean Lowrie-Chin but don’t quote me on that) made the comment last year about 2007 being the year that Golding and Obama, being light-skinned black men (half-black, half-white, whatever) were slated to become elected leaders, suggested that they had this lineage as something in common, and how this signals a new era for biracial people in politics. I remember being totally bemused that anyone would think Golding and Obama had anything in common. I mean, are you kidding me?? Besides Golding’s obvious deficits on – well, pretty much everything that counts for me – public conduct, knowledge, problem solving, empathy – the skin colour thing is completely irrelevant.
Nonetheless, apparently it doesn’t matter to the Jamaican media that Barack does make it perfectly clear that the fact of who his parents are does not determine the identity he chooses to claim or political stances. He’s not the wishy-washy “I’m half-black and half-white so that means I can’t recognize or say anything critical about white people’s complicity in racism.” In other words, he’s not Tiger Woods. Being black is not marginal to how Obama sees the world; he’s just found a different language to advance his own thoughtful [if sometimes moderate and pragmatic] political agenda.
5. [combo of 2, 3 & 4] Listening to people talking about Obama, it is as if he, as the new famous black person, is the new EXAMPLE of how we are all supposed to be. The perception is that his shadow is so long, it will invariably fall over all of us, and we might want to be happy to be in that shadow. In a not unexpected tone of sarcasm, I laughingly noted to a friend that if even if he does not wins the election, Barack, Michelle, Malia and Natasha will become the Cosby family writ large and international. I mean, he will certainly satisfy those of us who are crying about “marginalized black men” who who so badly want a Black Patriarch, won’t he? Who wouldn’t want Obama to be THE representative Black father and quintessential family man? We chuckled, knowing that, it was only time before yet another set of cultural wars about the problem of fatherless black families would be waged. What we don’t know yet is how, and using what methods.
Funny how this racism thing works, isn’t it? We don’t like when the “lowest common denominator” for black people is defined in the worst possible terms – criminality, poverty etc. But rather than fight for the dignity of the most maligned among us, we can’t wait to jump up and identify with the ones who have “made it”, only to then turn around and tell the downtrodden others that they need to learn to be like the successful ones. We don’t seem to care too much about what that black person stands for, it seems. Until now, Colin Powell has been the darling of many of us, the Black Man who has reached the highest echelons of American politics. Superlatives abound. We didn’t, and still don’t seem to care what Colin Powell thinks and the stances he has taken. He wasn’t just duped by Cheney to support the Iraq war; he has been part of the American war machine for a couple decades now, but who’s paying attention to the substance of things? Not us, we are so invested in the facades of position, status and public performance of respectability that we can easily be blinded, dazzled and hoodwinked by the spectacular displays of propriety, as we were by Powell, and will continue to be.
Mind you, Barack Obama is miles ahead of Colin Powell in most respects when it comes to political credibility. And, there’s also the small matter that the stances that Jamaicans here at home take on most issues look remarkably similar to the Republicans. Colin Powell was and is a Republican; he could have changed his party affiliation but has not. That tells me something about his commitment to certain ideas. By virtue of how we in Jamaica do politics, how we define political issues, and behave politically, we are really offshore Republicans.
And don’t think Republicans haven’t noticed. Why do you think its been so easy for our local reactionaries to get the so-called pro-lifers in America to come to Jamaica and set up shop and influence the abortion debate, and further undermine our democracy? Even though Republicans say they like “small government”, while we have maintained an unhealthy dependence on the predator state to do and solve everything for us, when it comes to using “morality” arguments like an uzi against women, poor people, gays and lesbians, Jamaicans – here and abroad – and US Republicans are like bench an batty.
6. By virtue of the light shining on Obama in such a positive way, I think that many of us do think, in unconscious as well as conscious ways, that we – as a majority black country – are going to get something out of it. What we are going to get might not be sent by personal courier, wrapped with a bow, or in the form of large sums of money, but we believe there is something to be gained in the long and shortterm. First, there’s the decency factor. As a friend told me on Saturday, “he’s just such a decent, principled man. If only our politicians could take a leaf out of his book.” Yes, he’s definitely the kind of role model that some of the men (and women) who make decisions about our lives could benefit from emulating.
Then there’s the stuff that might trickle down or skip across the waters to us. Since we don’t really know that much about how American politics and policies work, we are wont to think that of course immigration policies will be more friendly towards us; of course Americans who come to our country won’t be [quite] as racist as they often are, and we won’t have to put up with the crap that we do when we try to enter their country. Of course, Barack will look on us with favour in terms of trade policy when he finds out how much Jamaicans supported his candidacy and how many Jamaican-Americans voted for him. Of course, we expect tit for tat. Because that’s how we see politics in general; one hand washing the other.
I do think many working- and middleclass Jamaicans who live in the US will benefit from the policies that he might introduce, if he is successful at his bid for POTUS. I just came across this video that I think is useful to underscoring that point. Given that many, many Jamaican women labour as home healthcare workers with very few benefits and crappy pay, it should hearten some of us that Barack is interested in understanding the conditions under which mostly women of colour, including immigrant women, labour, and willing to consider doing something to ameliorate their situation.
And, after all these years of taking on [the most problematic aspects] of American cultural practices, while openly criticizing many of Americans policies, I think there is a sense in which many of us want to feel that we could embrace American society identity more easily if it was a black person “in charge”. The sticking point – not wanting to identify with a country run by white people – would be resolved, albeit temporarily. Who knows, this might be the time for the 15th Parish (the eastern seaboard of the US) to really show its political weight. Of course, we are forgetting that its not, or only, the person “in charge” who makes America what it is. And that America has never been a simple, homogeneous society where the one in charge acts like king and tells everyone what to do. It may feel and look that way to us when we watch TV, but it just isn’t so.
Neither the substance of Obama’s politics nor the nuances of the American political culture come through very well in the editorials. For the most part, all we get are sweeping claims that do absolutely nothing for us, besides get us further caught up in the rapture of the possible win by Obama. Even in today’s paper you can see how dazzled and uncritical the editors of the Gleaner have become [or are?], presenting as incredibly seduced by and almost drooling over the notion of a black man becoming “commander-in-chief of the only superpower on planet Earth.” Now, I thought the President of the United States was Head of State, but to listen to this, you would think the column was being written by a most patriotic American!
You would not even know that Obama would have any other responsibility besides overseeing the army and the navy, and running a war. For that, you can thank George Bush, John McCain and the Repiglicrats for successfully changing the language and the terms of the recent presidential contest so that its now all about who can run the best war. But, we can’t expect our local media persons to provide such basic analysis, can we?
Thankfully, Obama is aware that he is running for the job of president, and that he has several other jobs and important responsibilities besides spending off American taxpayers’ monies on killing people in Afghanistan, Iraq and torturing and disappearing people in the various “black sites” the US has created around the world.
This particular editorial (although other columns do it as well) goes on to champion “America as the leader of the free world” as if this is something desirable, mind you – there is that American patriotism again! – and to caricature and reduce American racial politics to terms that resemble the 1970s, and not the 2008. This is decidedly unhelpful to us in interpreting what has gone on through this election campaign, and what is to come.
For example, the editorial claims that ” it is conceded that many white Americans say that they can never vote for a black man to enter the White House.” Well yes that is a truism. But it is also a truism that millions of said white Americans are voting and agitating to make sure that said black man gets into the White House. But they don’t mention this detail, so we are left to assume – what? That’s its only African Americans who are voting for Obama? That its a few token whites who are voting for Obama?
The editors who wrote this certainly don’t understand or recognize that the most pervasive forms and expressions of American racism are least found in those staunch refusals to embrace a black candidate, and more clearly expressed in the refusal of many to vote for someone who has “Hussein” as a middle name, or is not Christian [I swear, If I didn't endure this on the Indiana and Missouri phone calls, I would be tempted to say that CNN was overstating this issue]. In relying on their shorthand definition of American racism, the editors have failed to communicate to its readersthat the core of American racism and racialist practices have shifted significantly, and is not necessarily reflected in these blatant statements of anti-black attitudes, but in the more pervasive cultural attitudes that informed people’s stances on election issues such as “leadership”, “experience” and “religion”, and more importantly, how they responded to the question of who is a “real American” – McCain or Obama.
It turns out that this latter issue has been drummed home quite often in this recent campaign. But, African Americans like James Baldwin, Ella Baker and even Malcolm X spoke to this issue about citizenship and race back in the 1940s through 1960s! That is, they pointed out the contradictions inherent in the experience of African Americans, who are rendered non-citizens on one hand through the denial of civil and social rights which defined access to and participation in the core aspects of American life. On the other hand, African Americans (like Colin Powell) have consistently demonstrated their commitments to America, but never gotten the rewards they anticipated. This citizenship issue is a deeply racial question that has been very, very important to white working-class people in the US. If white working class people have been considered nothing else, they have been considered to be true-blue Americans.
African Americans have had to fight to be considered American on their home turf, and we know the fight is not complete because Michelle Obama made that contradiction apparent early in the campaign; Hillary Clinton also made it plain in her language about “hardworking Americans” wanting her to be the nominee. That’s also why Palin and company can drum this issue about “real Americans” home, and why it continues to resonate among white working-class people who see someone with the name “Hussein” as not American. Because, for many – including us! – American still means white, and that’s a core argument that election of Barack Obama will disrupt.
I could say more, but that’s it for now. My priority right now is to find a way to get to Barack Obama’s election rally in Chicago tomorrow night. Will let you know if I reach.
June 1, 2008
Here we go again:
Right-wing propaganda? Yes, with the able assistance of Fox News, the wingers will make mincemeat out of anybody and anything – white, black or blue – if it will hurt Barack’s campaign for the US presidency.
But, let’s not miss the point that Michael Pfleger is making in that segment of the sermon. And he’s definitely on point, even if Barack thinks its politically expedient to dismiss him and his message.
And so the real damage that is being done here is not being committed by Pfleger, but rather by an American media machine that is hellbent in pursuing a different story, where any attention on “race” and “racism” necessarily represents black people and anti-racist whites as lunatics; somehow white people are not implicated in the “race” problem, only when they don’t agree. When HRC was extolling the virtues of “hardworking white Americans”, it wasn’t a problem for her campaign, just fatigue, misspeak, etc. Go figure.
May 14, 2008
Notice I haven’t had an Obamarama entry in a while? Well, it will be a while before you see another one.
I saw this article in the Washington Post. I stopped to ponder why Obama campaign has been downplaying this aspect of the work of building support for him. Hearing about these racist attitudes probably embarasses many white people; poor things, how could they not know… And for sure, the campaign probably doesn’t want to emphasize any opposition to Obama at this point. This is one that is certain to feed a whole nedder media frenzy. Enough of those I say.
For those white folks who are still uncommitted, many are wondering whether they are doing the US a disservice by voting for Obama; after all, what reasonable hardworking, law-abiding American [read white] wants to upset the applecart and participate in doing something that would assuage their guilt but create social unrest?
March 27, 2008
Of National Lies and Racial Amnesia:
Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Audacity of Truth
March 18, 2008
Indignation doesn’t work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country–the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples–we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.
But here we are, in 2008, fuming at the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago–occasionally Barack Obama’s pastor, and the man whom Obama credits with having brought him to Christianity–for merely reminding us of those evils about which we have remained so quiet, so dismissive, so unconcerned. It is not the crime that bothers us, but the remembrance of it, the unwillingness to let it go–these last words being the first ones uttered by most whites it seems whenever anyone, least of all an “angry black man” like Jeremiah Wright, foists upon us the bill of particulars for several centuries of white supremacy.
He noted that we killed far more people, far more innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than were killed on 9/11 and “never batted an eye.” That this statement is true is inarguable, at least amongst sane people. He is correct on the math, he is correct on the innocence of the dead (neither city was a military target), and he is most definitely correct on the lack of remorse or even self-doubt about the act: sixty-plus years later most Americans still believe those attacks were justified, that they were needed to end the war and “save American lives.”
But not only does such a calculus suggest that American lives are inherently worth more than the lives of Japanese civilians (or, one supposes, Vietnamese, Iraqi or Afghan civilians too), but it also ignores the long-declassified documents, and President Truman’s own war diaries, all of which indicate clearly that Japan had already signaled its desire to end the war, and that we knew they were going to surrender, even without the dropping of atomic weapons. The conclusion to which these truths then attest is simple, both in its basic veracity and it monstrousness: namely, that in those places we committed premeditated and deliberate mass murder, with no justification whatsoever; and yet for saying that I will receive more hate mail, more hostility, more dismissive and contemptuous responses than will those who suggest that no body count is too high when we’re the ones doing the killing. Jeremiah Wright becomes a pariah, because, you see, we much prefer the logic of George Bush the First, who once said that as President he would “never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
And Wright didn’t say blacks should be singing “God Damn America.” He was suggesting that blacks owe little moral allegiance to a nation that has treated so many of them for so long as animals, as persons undeserving of dignity and respect, and which even now locks up hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders (especially for drug possession), even while whites who do the same crimes (and according to the data, when it comes to drugs, more often in fact), are walking around free. His reference to God in that sermon was more about what God will do to such a nation, than it was about what should or shouldn’t happen. It was a comment derived from, and fully in keeping with, the black prophetic tradition, and although one can surely disagree with the theology (I do, actually, and don’t believe that any God either blesses or condemns nation states for their actions), the statement itself was no call for blacks to turn on America. If anything, it was a demand that America earn the respect of black people, something the evidence and history suggests it has yet to do.
Finally, although one can certainly disagree with Wright about his suggestion that the government created AIDS to get rid of black folks–and I do, for instance–it is worth pointing out that Wright isn’t the only one who has said this. In fact, none other than Bill Cosby (oh yes, that Bill Cosby, the one white folks love because of his recent moral crusade against the black poor) proffered his belief in the very same thing back in the early ’90s in an interview on CNN, when he said that AIDS may well have been created to get rid of people whom the government deemed “undesirable” including gays and racial minorities.
So that’s the truth of the matter: Wright made one comment that is highly arguable, but which has also been voiced by white America’s favorite black man, another that was horribly misinterpreted and stripped of all context, and then another that was demonstrably accurate. And for this, he is pilloried and made into a virtual enemy of the state; for this, Barack Obama may lose the support of just enough white folks to cost him the Democratic nomination, and/or the Presidency; all of it, because Jeremiah Wright, unlike most preachers opted for truth. If he had been one of those “prosperity ministers” who says Jesus wants nothing so much as for you to be rich, like Joel Osteen, that would have been fine. Had he been a retread bigot like Falwell was, or Pat Robertson is, he might have been criticized, but he would have remained in good standing and surely not have damaged a Presidential candidate in this way. But unlike Osteen, and Falwell, and Robertson, Jeremiah Wright refused to feed his parishioners lies.
What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock–though make no mistake, they already knew it–is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that “everything changed.” To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.
But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.
This is what James Baldwin was talking about in his classic 1972 work, No Name in the Street, wherein he noted:
White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded–about themselves and the world they live in. White people have managed to get through their entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky: a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac.
And so we were shocked in 1987, when Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall declined to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution, because, as he noted, most of that history had been one of overt racism and injustice, and to his way of thinking, the only history worth celebrating had been that of the past three or four decades.
We were shocked to learn that black people actually believed that a white cop who was a documented racist might frame a black man; and we’re shocked to learn that lots of black folks still perceive the U.S. as a racist nation–we’re literally stunned that people who say they experience discrimination regularly (and who have the social science research to back them up) actually think that those experiences and that data might actually say something about the nation in which they reside. Imagine.
Whites are easily shocked by what we see and hear from Pastor Wright and Trinity Church, because what we see and hear so thoroughly challenges our understanding of who we are as a nation. But black people have never, for the most part, believed in the imagery of the “shining city on a hill,” for they have never had the option of looking at their nation and ignoring the mountain-sized warts still dotting its face when it comes to race. Black people do not, in the main, get misty eyed at the sight of the flag the way white people do–and this is true even for millions of black veterans–for they understand that the nation for whom that flag waves is still not fully committed to their own equality. They have a harder time singing those tunes that white people seem so eager to belt out, like “God Bless America,” for they know that whites sang those words loudly and proudly even as they were enforcing Jim Crow segregation, rioting against blacks who dared move into previously white neighborhoods, throwing rocks at Dr. King and then cheering, as so many did, when they heard the news that he had been assassinated.
Whites refuse to remember (or perhaps have never learned) that which black folks cannot afford to forget. I’ve seen white people stunned to the point of paralysis when they learn the truth about lynchings in this country–when they discover that such events were not just a couple of good old boys with a truck and a rope hauling some black guy out to the tree, hanging him, and letting him swing there. They were never told the truth: that lynchings were often community events, advertised in papers as “Negro Barbecues,” involving hundreds or even thousands of whites, who would join in the fun, eat chicken salad and drink sweet tea, all while the black victims of their depravity were being hung, then shot, then burned, and then having their body parts cut off, to be handed out to onlookers. They are stunned to learn that postcards of the events were traded as souvenirs, and that very few whites, including members of their own families did or said anything to stop it.
Rather than knowing about and confronting the ugliness of our past, whites take steps to excise the less flattering aspects of our history so that we need not be bothered with them. So, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, site of an orgy of violence against the black community in 1921, city officials literally went into the town library and removed all reference to the mass killings in the Greenwood district from the papers with a razor blade–an excising of truth and an assault on memory that would remain unchanged for over seventy years.
Most white people desire, or perhaps even require the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a re-injury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense, and what few if any white Americans appear capable of grasping at present, is that “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” portray an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real. These iconographic representations of life in the U.S. are worse than selective, worse than false, they are assaults to the humanity and memory of black people, who were being savagely oppressed even as June Cleaver did housework in heels and laughed about the hilarious hijinks of Beaver and Larry Mondello.
These portraits of America are certifiable evidence of how disconnected white folks were–and to the extent we still love them and view them as representations of the “good old days” to which we wish we could return, still are–from those men and women of color with whom we have long shared a nation. Just two months before “Leave it to Beaver” debuted, proposed civil rights legislation was killed thanks to Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour filibuster speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. One month prior, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus called out the National Guard to block black students from entering Little Rock Central High; and nine days before America was introduced to the Cleavers, and the comforting image of national life they represented, those black students were finally allowed to enter, amid the screams of enraged, unhinged, viciously bigoted white people, who saw nothing wrong with calling children niggers in front of cameras. That was America of the 1950s: not the sanitized version into which so many escape thanks to the miracle of syndication, which merely allows white people to relive a lie, year after year after year.
No, it is not the pastor who distorts history; Nick at Nite and your teenager’s textbooks do that. It is not he who casts aspersions upon “this great country” as Barack Obama put it in his public denunciations of him; it is the historic leadership of the nation that has cast aspersions upon it; it is they who have cheapened it, who have made gaudy and vile the promise of American democracy by defiling it with lies. They engage in a patriotism that is pathological in its implications, that asks of those who adhere to it not merely a love of country but the turning of one’s nation into an idol to be worshipped, if not literally, then at least in terms of consequence.
It is they–the flag-lapel-pin wearing leaders of this land–who bring shame to the country with their nonsensical suggestions that we are always noble in warfare, always well-intended, and although we occasionally make mistakes, we are never the ones to blame for anything. Nothing that happens to us has anything to do with us at all. It is always about them. They are evil, crazy, fanatical, hate our freedoms, and are jealous of our prosperity. When individuals prattle on in this manner we diagnose them as narcissistic, as deluded. When nations do it–when our nation does–we celebrate it as though it were the very model of rational and informed citizenship.
So what can we say about a nation that values lies more than it loves truth? A place where adherence to sincerely believed and internalized fictions allows one to rise to the highest offices in the land, and to earn the respect of millions, while a willingness to challenge those fictions and offer a more accurate counter-narrative earns one nothing but contempt, derision, indeed outright hatred? What we can say is that such a place is signing its own death warrant.
What we can say is that such a place is missing the only and last opportunity it may ever have to make things right, to live up to its professed ideals.
What we can say is that such a place can never move forward, because we have yet to fully address and come to terms with that which lay behind.
What can we say about a nation where white preachers can lie every week from their pulpits without so much as having to worry that their lies might be noticed by the shiny white faces in their pews, while black preachers who tell one after another essential truth are demonized, not only for the stridency of their tone–which needless to say scares white folks, who have long preferred a style of praise and worship resembling nothing so much as a coma–but for merely calling bullshit on those whose lies are swallowed whole?
And oh yes, I said it: white preachers lie. In fact, they lie with a skill, fluidity, and precision unparalleled in the history of either preaching or lying, both of which histories stretch back a ways and have often overlapped. They lie every Sunday, as they talk about a Savior they have chosen to represent dishonestly as a white man, in every picture to be found of him in their tabernacles, every children’s story book in their Sunday Schools, every Christmas card they’ll send to relatives and friends this December. But to lie about Jesus, about the one they consider God–to bear false witness as to who this man was and what he looked like–is no cause for concern.
Nor is it a problem for these preachers to teach and preach that those who don’t believe as they believe are going to hell. Despite the fact that such a belief casts aspersions upon God that are so profound as to defy belief–after all, they imply that God is so fundamentally evil that he would burn non-believers in a lake of eternal fire–many of the white folks who now condemn Jeremiah Wright welcome that theology of hate. Indeed, back when President Bush was the Governor of Texas, he endorsed this kind of thinking, responding to a question about whether Jews were going to go to hell, by saying that unless one accepted Jesus as one’s personal savior, the Bible made it pretty clear that indeed, hell was where you’d be heading.
So you can curse God in this way–and to imply such hate on God’s part is surely to curse him–and in effect, curse those who aren’t Christians, and no one says anything. That isn’t considered bigoted. That isn’t considered beyond the pale of polite society. One is not disqualified from becoming President in the minds of millions because they go to a church that says that shit every single week, or because they believe it themselves. And millions do believe it, and see nothing wrong with it whatsoever.
So white folks are mad at Jeremiah Wright because he challenges their views about their country. Meanwhile, those same white folks, and their ministers and priests, every week put forth a false image of the God Jeremiah Wright serves, and yet it is whites who feel we have the right to be offended.
Pardon me, but something is wrong here, and whatever it is, is not to be found at Trinity United Church of Christ.
March 20, 2008
Below is the response of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference regarding the media assaults on Rev. Wright. What a difference context makes: too many of our “prophets” in Jamaica don’t do much else besides preach fire and brimstone on queer folks and denouncing abortion. Gender politics aside (yes, I did notice that most of those who are labelled as prophets are men…) who among our religious leaders today will and do speak truth to power, regardless of the consequences for doing so?
(Also check out this Newsweek article about the prophet/politician issue)
“Not On My Watch!”
Now, there have always been accommodationist preachers, those who go along to get along. In biblical terms, they are false prophets. A prophet is simply one who speaks on behalf of God and God’s people. A true prophet speaks truth to power and is not politically correct. The Old Testament prophets were not politically correct. The Apostle Paul was not politically correct. And Jesus, the son of God, was not politically correct. Jesus upset the status quo. He disrupted the comfortable. Remember, Jesus got angry and threw the money-changers out of the temple. Jesus raised some holy hell. So why can’t Dr. Wright?You see, true prophets speak for God, use colorful language and occasionally use a non-traditional method to get their message across.
There is a strong, historical and contextual relationship between the slave-preacher and the social justice, activist preacher of today. And there is a place and role for God’s angry prophets-think Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. They spoke on God’s behalf to kings, to the poor and to the enemies of their nation.Then there are the 20th and 21st century prophets like Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel DeWitt Proctor and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The difference between false prophets and true prophets is the false prophet speaks to what the masses and those in power want to hear. The true prophet speaks truth no matter how painful. There is a price to be paid for being a prophet. And Dr. Wright is now paying that price both publicly and privately.
It was author Alex Haley who underscored the role and relationship of the Black pastor and their congregations. He said, African American pastors are akin to the African griot, a leader, shepherd, father and the one in whom the story of one’s people has been embodied. For Trinity United Church of Christ and the greater African American faith community, Dr. Wright has been and is a formidable griot. At 81, I am an elder in this tribe of social justice preachers, but I, too, can say the legacy and reach of Dr. Wright’s ministry has influenced my faith.
So what has been lost in inflammatory rhetoric and the talking heads of the day is that Dr. Wright, a theological scholar who speaks five languages fluently, has inspired a church to create over 100 fully-functioning ministries, created seven separate corporations, led thousands to Christ, speaks Sunday after Sunday out of a long and storied, proud and prophetic tradition of our faith. And he speaks in the tradition of the slave-preacher and social justice proclaimer who believed in setting the captives free.
Dr. Wright represents the best among us, one of the best in this tribe of prophetic preachers. He has made his church a place where one could express the centuries-old pain of being Black in America, while finding strength for a brighter day. An attack on this man of the God is an attack on all those of the cloth who believe in the social Gospel of liberation. And I will not stand for it. Not on my watch. Not today.
Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney
Mount Zion Baptist Church, Seattle Washington
March 18, 2008
If you’ve been paying attention for the past two weeks, you will know that white folks have got their knickers tied in all kinds of knots about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and whether he has ostensibly contaminated our dear angel Barack Obama with his fire-breathing assault on white supremacy. I’ll blog about some related issues soon. But, for now, here’s what Rev. Wright had to say to the NYTimes exactly one year ago about the smear campaign they were jumpstarting. Full text is in the TUCC bulletin of March 18, 2007.
March 11, 2007
The New York Times
9 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036-3959
Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years.
You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a “Spiritual Biography” of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met.
For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run.
I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office.
Your own question to me was, Didn’t I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family? I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and
Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.
I talked about how rare it was to meet a man whose Christianity was not just “in word only.” I talked about Barack being a person who lived his faith and did not argue his faith. I talked about
Barack as a person who did not draw doctrinal lines in the sand nor consign other people to hell if they did not believe what he believed.
Out of a two-hour conversation with you about Barack’s spiritual journey and my protesting to you that I had not shaped him nor formed him, that I had not mentored him or made him the man he was, even though I would love to take that credit, you did not print any of that.
When I told you, using one of your own Jewish stories from the Hebrew Bible as to how God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?,” that Barack was like that when I met him. Barack had it “in his hand.” Barack had in his grasp a uniqueness in terms of his spiritual development that one is hard put to find in the 21st century, and you did not print that.
As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five to seven minutes on Barack’s taking advice from one of his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to make me the media spotlight on the day of his announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to the general public a snippet, a printed “sound byte” and a titillating and tantalizing article about his disinviting me to the Invocation on the day of his announcing his candidacy.
I have never been exposed to that kind of duplicitous behavior before, and I want to write you publicly to let you know that I do not approve of it and will not be party to any further smearing of
the name, the reputation, the integrity or the character of perhaps this nation’s first (and maybe even only) honest candidate offering himself for public service as the person to occupy the Oval Office.
Your editor is a sensationalist. For you to even mention that makes me doubt your credibility, and I am looking forward to see how you are going to butcher what else I had to say concerning Senator
Obama’s “Spiritual Biography.” Our Conference Minister, the Reverend Jane Fisler Hoffman, a white woman who belongs to a Black church that Hannity of “Hannity and Colmes” is trying to trash, set the record straight for you in terms of who I am and in terms of who we are as the church to which Barack has belonged for over twenty years.
The president of our denomination, the Reverend John Thomas, has offered to try to help you clarify in your confused head what Trinity Church is even though you spent the entire weekend with us
setting me up to interview me for what turned out to be a smear of the Senator; and yet The New York Times continues to roll on making the truth what it wants to be the truth. I do not remember reading in your article that Barack had apologized for listening to that bad information and bad advice. Did I miss it? Or did your editor cut it out? Either way, you do not have to worry about hearing anything else from me for you to edit or “spin” because you are more interested in journalism than in truth.
Forgive me for having a momentary lapse. I forgot that The New York Times was leading the bandwagon in trumpeting why it is we should have gone into an illegal war. The New York Times became George Bush and the Republican Party’s national “blog.” The New York Times played a role in the outing of Valerie Plame. I do not know why I thought The New York Times had actually repented and was going to exhibit a different kind of behavior.
Maybe it was my faith in the Jewish Holy Day of Roshashana. Maybe it was my being caught up in the euphoria of the Season of Lent; but whatever it is or was, I was sadly mistaken. There is no repentance on the part of The New York Times. There is no integrity when it comes to The Times. You should do well with that paper, Jodi. You looked me straight in my face and told me a lie!
Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. ,
Trinity United Church of Christ
March 18, 2008
Small things I can quibble with, but, really, he gets the big picture…
Here’s the full transcript of the speech:
Published: March 18, 2008 The following is the text as prepared for delivery of Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia, as provided by his presidential campaign.
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.
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.
Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.
This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.
And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”
That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.
But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.
I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
There is one story in particularly that I’d like to leave you with today – a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King’s birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.
Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.