He's Preaching to A Choir I've Left

By Jonetta Rose Barras
Sunday, March 23, 2008

I've known preachers like the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., former pastor to Sen. Barack Obama. Like many of them, he no doubt sees his congregation as full of victims, and thinks that his words will inspire them to rise out of their victimhood. I understand that.

Once upon a time, I saw myself as a victim, too, destined to march in place. In the 1970s and '80s, as a clenched-fist-pumping black nationalist with my head wrapped in an elaborate gele, I reflected that self-concept in my speech. My words were as fiery as the Rev. Wright's. And more than a few times, I, too, damned America, loudly, for its treatment of blacks.

But I turned away from such rhetoric. Is it time that Wright and other ministers do, too?

African Americans differ on this question. "Some of these ministers are like some hip-hop artists," says E. Ethelbert Miller, an Afro-American studies expert. "Their language is not healing." Counters former civil rights leader Lawrence Guyot: "I am so proud of Rev. Wright, who speaks with unreserved passion, who accepts no quarter and gives no quarter. I'm glad the church is standing with him."

The recent furor over the incendiary rhetoric of the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago pulled back a curtain on black America, sending many in the white commentariat into shock and outrage. But African Americans have been hearing words like Wright's in churches across the country for decades. And for many of us, the uproar over his comments only underlined the quiet culture war going on within our own community.

For a decade, tensions have been rising over questions ranging from what it means to be black, to whether there needs to be a new, post-civil rights meaning of racism, to what features of black America should be transmitted to the mainstream, to whether there even is such a thing as "black America" anymore. Many of these skirmishes have been relegated to our kitchens and living rooms. But they are increasingly being brought to the public square -- often because a white person, a Don Imus or a Michael Richards, commits some infraction or demonstrates cluelessness about African American culture and its unspoken boundaries.

Now the debate is over Wright -- instigated, as many blacks see it, by the media after the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton accused news organizations of insufficiently scrutinizing Obama. Reporters went trolling for stories and found Trinity Church and its controversial pastor -- and what may have been a Sunday dinner conversation in black households exploded onto the public stage.

At the center of the storm is Wright's practice of what is called "prophetic speech," according to the Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington. This is "provocative speech that attempts to awaken and cause people to respond."

Such speech has been the lingua franca of much of the black leadership since the days of the civil rights movement, aimed at galvanizing blacks and equipping them with an armor for the battle against segregation. Combined with instruction in the history of blacks in Africa and the diaspora, it has helped to transform the psychological landscape of many who had been crushed over time by racism and had come to feel inferior to whites.

It's also, at least in part, the tradition of Wright's denomination. In several incarnations, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has been a leader in the fight for racial equality since the 19th century. According to Hagler, "congregationals," as the church's members were then called, were involved in the case on behalf of 43 African captives who revolted against their captors aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad in 1839. In the 1970s, the UCC established a commission on racial justice; Wright was on its board of directors.

Wright's impassioned speech can be seen as a continuation of a uniquely black religious experience. "The fundamental question is how do I use a religion that has been used to oppress me to now fight against that oppression," says Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown University. "There has always been this debate about how far black ministers should go."

Some think they should go as far as they need to. "Without prophetic speech," argues Graylan, "we would not have had Martin Luther King Jr. People remember the 'I Have a Dream' speech, but they do not remember his radical critiques of capitalism and the American system. They easily forget his speech on April 4, 1967." That was the one in which King declared: "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."

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