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."
Concedes Miller: "Some people need to hear" Wright's words. "It's looking in the mirror to get a better self-concept."
In my years as a black nationalist, I often spelled America in my poems with a "k" -- sometimes three. I believed that organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan couldn't possibly have operated and prospered without permission, tacit or otherwise, and support from the U.S. government. It seemed logical to conclude that racism and injustice were fundamental, inherent elements of the United States -- of its government, its policies and its institutions.
In those days, I believed that I was in a serious battle for my future. My fiery words were part of an effort to persuade myself that I had the power to break out of the narrow confines created by segregation. And I sought to seduce others to join in the fight. We could not permit the discrimination we faced daily to beat us down.
I never met the Rev. Wright during this explosive period of my life. But I met and listened to others whose speeches were equally blistering and damning of the United States, its government and its economic system. I even flirted with the ideology of a black separatist group.
Obama doesn't share my heritage. But as a child of mixed-race parentage and culture, surely he, too, struggled for his place in a society that has not always been welcoming to mulattos. His white family loved him, but more than an ocean separated him from his black father and relatives. I know what it's like to long for a father, having never known my own. Perhaps Obama found a surrogate black family in Trinity Church.
"Obama had to go to a church" like Trinity, says Miller. "That was part of his homecoming, part of his self-discovery."
That other African Americans and I were able to overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles is undeniably due, in part, to Wright-like prophetic speech. Like Negro spirituals, it helped us organize, motivate and empower ourselves.
But just as spirituals eventually lost their relevance and potency as an organizing tool against discrimination -- even as they retained their historical importance in the African American cultural narrative -- so, I believe, has Wright-speak lost its place. It's harmful and ultimately can't provide healing. And it's outdated in the 21st century.
I came to this realization gradually. As I expanded my associations and experiences -- organizing in places such as San Francisco, Providence, R.I., Patterson, N.J. and Northeast Washington, meeting caring Hispanics, Asians and whites -- I came to know that we are all more alike than different. I saw that our dreams sat inside each other. All of us wanted a better America, not so much for ourselves as for our children, and their children. Achieving this meant that we had to get beyond our past segregated lives and work together, inspiring the best in ourselves -- not the bitterness and the biases.
This is Obama's message. "I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together," he said last week in a somber, historic address about race, racism and our country's future, presenting grievances on both sides: the pain and anger of blacks and the resentments of working- and middle-class whites.
Earlier, he had denounced Wright's words and dismissed the minister from his ceremonial campaign role. But in his speech he also made clear that he could no more distance himself from his former black pastor than he could from his white grandmother, both of whom are imperfect people.
I understand this sentiment. I have not removed myself from people in my community who continue to rely on Wright-speak. We simply engage in debates. But their numbers are diminishing. More and more African Americans are coming to understand what we have in common with other Americans. Whites, Hispanics and Asians seem to be going through similar metamorphoses. What else can account for the surprising support Obama has received among non-blacks?
And today, there is an entire generation of young people who know nothing of segregation, who see one another as individuals, not as symbols of a dark past. They do not look into white faces and see, as I once did, a burning cross, a white sheet and a vicious dog on a police officer's leash. This is the coalition pushing for a new America.
Some blacks will remain ever distrustful of mainstream America. They cite the noose-hanging incident last year in Jena, La., and the killing of a black man in New York City on the eve of his wedding as evidence that nothing has changed. They praise the Rev. Wright and, like Lawrence Guyot, say that he should continue using the same incendiary language "as long as it is true."
Others, like Miller, believe that the mirror-gazing days of Wright-speak are over. "You have to turn away; if you look too long, it's narcissistic," he says. "Sometimes you have to be radical and smash the mirror. And then you go outside and take your rightful place in the world."
Perhaps Obama's campaign -- with its call for unity and for transcending the negative characteristics of race -- is part of breaking with a painful past. Many of us, blacks as well as whites, hope so.
Jonetta Rose Barras is the political analyst for National Public Radio affiliate WAMU-88.5.