Now that the election is over, and Barack Obama is set to become our first African American president, it may be instructive for the nation to revisit the explosive controversy that almost took down Obama in his quest for this country’s highest office.
In the not-so-distant past, the news of Jeremiah Wright, President-elect Obama’s former pastor, seemed to be in the headlines without end. Rev. Wright was barely discussed in the media when Sen. Obama disinvited him to stand on the podium as he announced his presidential candidacy. It was apparent then that Obama knew Rev. Wright’s presence could be seen in a negative light.
Back then, the young Illinois senator was not perceived as a threat to his Democratic rivals. However, after he won the Iowa Caucus and began racking up primary victories, people began giving him a legitimate chance against Hillary Clinton. It was at this point that Rev. Wright suddenly emerged as an Achilles heel to the Obama campaign.
Thanks to Fox News and conservative bloggers, a 20-second loop of Rev. Wright’s sermon following the Sept. 11 attacks was cast in the national light. That message, as well as other old sermons that were unearthed with ferocious zeal, ruminated on the duplicity of the United States as a beacon and defender for democracy, while also being a “perpetrator” of ill will to citizens of color within in our country, as well as in other places throughout the world.
As I listened to the pundits’ and political commentators’ bumbling attempts to interpret the meaning of Wright’s sermons, I recalled what I read in W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks:
…the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s souls by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this two-ness, — an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Dr. Du Bois uses two metaphors that depict the life of African Americans within this country. We live behind a veil individually and corporately that hinders the mainstream culture from seeing part of our true selves. We do have a “double consciousness.” Today, the PC movement would call us bi-cultural. However, Du Bois intends more depth in his observation.
When the mainstream views us as bi-cultural, it focuses on our ability to go in and out of two worlds. Dr. Du Bois really is articulating what Ralph Ellison later so powerfully explored in his famous novel, Invisible Man. Historically, the mainstream has not seen nor been interested in the fact that African Americans have a mind, and a reality, separate from its own. The mainstream society does not “get it” that we have a host of feelings, concerns, and aspirations for an existence apart from its members’ perceptions. This second consciousness is similar to what my wife has said to me on various occasions when we have had contrary perceptions rooted in our particular gender worldview. She often says to me, “You don’t get it.” And it’s true. I don’t see parts of her, just like the mainstream misses parts of the African American individual and collective realities.
The mainstream also does not understand that our critique comes from a deep love for the country and the ideas captured in the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution of the United States. We have historically participated in every war that jeopardizes the values held in these documents. We have also fought with the hope that the freedoms we defended would be extended to our community, and our humanity recognized as equal in worth.
When the sermon of Rev. Wright was being replayed on YouTube and news services throughout the country, all of a sudden the country was “peeking behind the veil” into the second consciousness of Black folks. This consciousness is not a singular phenomenon, but a collective one.
Rev. Wright, in all of his eloquence and intelligence, is just one in a long line of highly educated, articulate, and prophetic Black voices that have spoken like the prophets of old in these United States of America for centuries. The only reason there was any curiosity to peek behind the veil this time was because of Barack Obama. Just as Du Bois stated, the mainstream looked at the African American community “in amused contempt and pity.”
The mainstream has rarely shown a genuine interest in the sermons, speeches, rants, and cries our leaders have uttered throughout our residency in this society. If only they could have heard the likes of Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Sojourner Truth, Henry Highland Garnett, Henry McNeal Turner, Alexander Crummell, Vernon Johns, A. D. Williams, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Gardner C. Taylor, Tom Skinner, and William Pannell, along with so many others.
Eventually, it became humorous to hear evangelicals join in the chorus of criticism aimed at Rev. Wright and question his position as an under shepherd caring for the flock of Jesus’ followers. I wondered how they would’ve responded to Frederick Douglas and his comments regarding Christianity within the United States in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave:
“… between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: …Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”
The Black community has an ongoing critique of this country and its policies. Our community has been discouraged and depressed over the United States’ long lasting duplicity of advocating for the rights of oppressed people but ignoring the injustices of those who are native to our land and disenfranchised in our economy. The critique in most cases emanated from our spiritual centers, our faith in God. Before we had church buildings, we met in the woods, slave quarters, barns, and the balconies of White places of worship, until we were able to erect our own church buildings.
Perhaps the most beloved and influential African American in our country’s history is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Again, as testimony of the double consciousness of Black people, the mainstream recalls readily Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but ignores the plethora of speeches that critiqued the fraudulence and debauchery the country continued to perpetuate. In “I’ve Been o the Mountaintop,” Dr. King’s final speech before his death, he said:
… And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?”
I wonder if anyone recalls how Dr. King condemned our country for its involvement in the Vietnam War? Within the confines of a church, just like Rev. Wright, King took America to task and lost the support of other civil rights leaders and ministers in the country, while irreparably damaging his relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Now that Barack Obama will be our next president, it’s easy to sweep aside Jeremiah Wright as just one of the many obstacles and intrusions a candidate must overcome as he reaches for the ultimate elected office in America. But neither Wright nor his critique of America should be dismissed so quickly. Yes, he’s abrasive. Yes, he’s outspoken. But if you saw his interview with Bill Moyers, you know that Wright is a well-educated man with a depth of appreciation for Scripture and for the diverse population of the United States.
I grew up in Chicago. I was well acquainted with Rev. Wright when I lived there. I am not his publicist nor am I interested in defending him. But Wright provides testament to what James Baldwin said best in his 1963 speech, “A Talk to Teachers”:
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”