Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack Obama, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Race In America, March 18 2008

I find myself spending a lot of time on this site defending ministers.....
Because of extreme sermons by his own pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama finally came out with a stemwinder of a speech on race in America.
I think people will be studying this thing in rhetoric classes for a long, long time. The main reason?
Obama had to say something brilliant, or it would all be over.
Cliches would be useless.
Typical campaign boilerplate would be mocked.
So he took history, theology, family, race, politics, and some insane Democratic Party talking points, mixed them together, and came out with one of the best speeches I can remember hearing.
It reminded me of some sermons that I've heard in my own church recently. Sermons that were produced in a crucible. Did I agree with every word of them? No. And I don't have to. That's what makes my church a good one.
Do I want Obama to be the next president? No.
But I'd rather listen to those sermons or this speech than anything else I've heard in the last twenty years.
Somewhere in all this is a defense of listening to those who disagree with you, and trying to understand where the other person is coming from without screaming for an Inquisition. Especially in a time of mind-boggling societal change. It's about looking at the sum total of someone's life and work, instead of highlighting heretical quotes for bumperstickers or clipping sound bites to pull out of context for radio shows.

In our country, we all have radically different contexts.

Here are some of the high points of Obama's speech (speaking of pulling things out of context). You can hit the link above or watch the video for the complete text.

....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. Reminding people that he was a community organizer and a constitutional law professor....

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.

The melting pot personified, and if I worked for his campaign, I would put that paragraph on 10,000 T-shirts tomorrow.

....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.

I've read others (Falwell, Robertson, etc.) saying similar things about 9-11. Elsewhere, I've noted a Baptist preacher claiming that God Almighty will not hear the prayer of a Jew. I've never heard that quote repudiated, only nuanced. There's this weird disconnect that we establish between our faith and our daily reality. Somehow, statements like these usually get a free pass. Unless someone from the outside is looking in to report it.

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.

That's why I can disagree with the minister at my church on Social Security, The Minimum Wage, Republican vs. Democrat, and Mallard Fillmore vs. Doonesbury. There's more to him than that. There's more to me than that. No creeds. No dogmas. We both want a big tent, although he probably wishes that I would stop stretching the far end of it.

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."

It's been a long time since I read it, but Ralph Wiley covers some of this same territory in an old book called "Why Black People Tend To Shout". It's worth finding.

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.

Brilliant line.

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.

I think that if there's a weak part to the speech, other than the ending, it is this. Dragging grandma into the speech probably wasn't necessary. BUT....we all know this woman, don't we? Obama is reminding his white audience that he was raised by people....who....are....just....like....us. Never mind. It's not a weak part of the speech. It's the backbone of it. What do I know?

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

....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."

OK, he's quoted Mississippi's own William Faulkner. This speech is now officially classified as "Greatness". This speech should be carved into the foreheads on Mount Rushmore.

....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.

To understand all is to forgive all.

....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.

Yep, we've all heard it. In the barbershop. In the breakroom. It's been a while since I heard it from a pulpit, but we don't have to drive very far to hear it from some pews.

.....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.

He's giving us white folks some slack. Acknowledging that things have gotten better, and a lot of people took a lot of risks to accomplish that.

....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.

Here comes the "Call To Action" that we all learned about in Speech, Creative Writing, and Freshman Comp.....

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.

This is where he got down to bidness. Do we want to keep talking about his preacher? Or do we want to talk about our problems?

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time."

This is where the speech should've ended. (Since I work in shipping, transport, and logistics, I'm an expert on these types of things.)

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. I wasn't particularly moved by this story.

Ashley's story is commendable, of course, but I don't see how the old man at the end ties the story together. Or the speech. Is he a stand-in for Jeremiah Wright? All the old men who didn't get to run for president?

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.

And the Clintons actually want this man to consider being their Vice President....


TC said...

More depth to the story here: http://acropolisreview.com/2008/03/barack-obama-condemns-reverend-jeremiah.html

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Dear Acropolis,
Thanks for the comment and the link.
I don't know that I would use the word "condemn" in reference to what Obama said or wrote yesterday.

Anonymous said...

I hear echoes of Clarence Jordan in this line: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community." Jordan, when threatened and told to leave Koinonia Farm said, "we can no more leave this land than we could leave our mothers."

This speech may rank with Lincoln's Cooper Union speech in the way that it impacts the upcoming election.
Or it may be lost in the "distractions." In any case it represents a clear eyed presentation of race and difference in the United States.

DG in FW

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

Whoa! Great Essay - thank you for sharing!

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Dear Great Satan's Girlfriend,
One day, I'll find the time to tell everyone about your site.

The U.S. is The Great Satan, Israel is little satan, right? I don't get by there every week, and it takes me a while to remember all the monikers you give everybody.

The main reason I'm writing this? To test out my patented Dead Tree In The Road user profile pic.
I want to see if it'll show up.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Ah....There it is.

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

yeah - that is correct. Now the funny thing is - htese names were given out by uncool, unfree, unfun and nigh unhinged illegitimate intolerant murderous, corrupt regimes for America (Great Satan) and Israel (Little Satan) by the Grand Old Ayatollah himself.

Mostly used in the ME, Central Asia and bits of East Asia.I just went with it!