I want to get back to Rev. Jeremiah Wright , Barack Obama, and Race. When the right-wing media had its heyday with Wright, they cut his speeches and sermons to shreds and left out everything he said that didn’t suit their purposes. I’ve already posted Father Pfleger’s defense of Wright. Father Pfleger knows Wright well and says it better than I ever could, but I’d like to take an academic’s approach and direct us to the text. I had listened to Rev. Wright’s speech to the Press Club on the radio while I was doing something else, but I went back again to the Rev’s speech (all of which is on Youtube, along with the hateful cuttings of his sermons) and I took some notes. I want to point out what Wright says that the media didn’t pick up.
The first phrase that really strikes me is “set free the captors and the captive,” because I believe that we are all limited by racism. Working on my racism is something I do to free myself of toxic ignorance and any beliefs that create barriers between me and other people. My predudice stops me from seeing, hearing, and appreciating, and that mess is a burden and a heavy weight to carry around. So I’m glad Wright is equally concerned to free the captors and the captive. In much of his speech, Wright defends the “Black Church.” He says there are three principles of that tradition: liberation, transformation, and reconciliation. What part of that can any of us not support? But the press didn’t repeat that. Wright says the Black Church seeks to “root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice,” …and yet the press calls him a “hater.”
Wright makes a very powerful point about military service–his six years of service, and the fact that we have a President who “used his position of privilege to avoid military service while sending over 4000 American boys and girls of every race to die over a lie.” That didn’t get picked up and played over again on the news. Why not?
The press charged Wright with saying America brought 9/11 on itself, but he never said that. He said, and he has said numerous times, what is essentially a version of the so-called Golden Rule: “You cannot commit terrorism against others and not expect it to come back to you.” And the history of American terrorism is a long, well-financed history.
Wright says, “There is no excuse for some of the things that the [U.S.] government has done.” Who can quibble with that? He mentions the Tuskegee Experiment, for one thing. The press made it seem that Wright said he believes the U.S. government created AIDS. He said he believes the U.S. government is capable of anything, including creating the AIDS virus. He said the government grinds people under. Does anybody not see that?
The Press says Wright hates Jews. I’ve never heard him say anything of the kind. In fact, he repeatedly refers to Jesus, who he obviously admires more than anyone else, as a Jew. And in this very speech, the only opinion he expresses about Israel is that it needs to sit down with Palestine and work out a peace agreement. Not exactly a fresh idea, but certainly not a statement of hatred.
The Press says Wright hates Whites. But in this particular speech, Wright expresses gratitude to White people of conscience, White people who helped in the Underground Railroad, White people who helped to create the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, White people who work alongside Black people to understand the injustice that has been done in the past and to make a better world. Wright takes time and effort to point out that he isn’t anti-White; he’s anti-racist. And the two are not the same. What Wright says about understanding, reconciliation, peace, and justice all makes sense to me.
What Barack Obama says in his speech on race on March 18, 2008, also makes sense to me. He says “incendiary language” is divisive. I quite like incendiary language, but I have to agree that it can be divisive, and that divisiveness can be a distraction from what matters.
For Obama, this “anger and bitterness” he sees in Wright (I see the anger, but I don’t see the bitterness–but maybe that’s my bitterness speaking) is a generational issue. Wright was born in 1941. I was born in 1945. So maybe I’m just too mired in the experiences of my generation to see beyond it. Obama thinks this anger and bitterness may “prevent us from forging alliances to bring about real change,” and I’m willing to believe he’s right. I think it’s more than well-crafted speechmaking when Obama says, “working together we can move beyond our old racial wounds,” but I don’t think that will be done quickly. If Obama becomes the next President, we won’t automatically be beyond those old racial wounds. It won’t be White People’s get-out-of-jail-free card. It won’t mean we’re done with racism in this country. We will still have to go on doing our work, uprooting our prejudices, and overhauling the institutions we have created on the foundations of racism. However my time in South Africa persuades me that sometimes, change comes faster than at other times. And maybe if Obama is the next President, we will learn, as Adrienne Rich says, “what it would mean to stand on the first/ page of the end of despair.” In fact, I’d like to include the whole last stanza of that poem (eliminating the typos on the website) as the end of what I want to say about Race today:
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?–
You yourself must change it.–
What would it feel like to know
your country was changing?–
You yourself must change it.–
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
Tags: Adrienne Rich, Black people, Politics, race, racism, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, What does it mean?, White people