The Speech Obama Couldn’t Give
For the first time since I was born, America has a viable candidate for president that seems to embody the sum of the nation’s hopes rather than the measure of our fears. In my experience, political candidates are supposed to pander to our prejudices, distort reality and steer us away from any discussion that relates to the real substance of our lives. Maybe that’s why Barack Obama has so thoroughly caught us off guard.
Yes, I’ve been wooed. And even though I’m white, I harbor my own fears about his physical safety, that at the very least his candidacy many be suddenly derailed by some manufactured fiasco.
That appeared to be a real possibility in March as comments by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that have long been in the public realm splashed onto television news networks and YouTube. The electorate is too eager to be manipulated by phantom claims of reverse racism, I reasoned, and the heat of media commerce and sensationalism too searing to allow a real discussion.
I don’t think anyone really anticipated how deftly Obama would seize an acute campaign crisis last Tuesday in Philadelphia and forge from it a treatise on the great commission since the nation’s founding to perfect our experiment in democracy, how he could summon from adversity the spirits of Lincoln and King, speak each to white and black America and persuade both audiences that we stand at a decisive crossroads.
“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’ve yet to perfect,” Obama said. “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 healthcare, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”
Obama condemned his pastor’s remarks while refusing to disown the man, powerfully drawing in the role of his white grandmother to illustrate that as a biracial American he has inherited two imperfect legacies that have nourished him all the same. Whether or not the presidential candidate should have denounced the Rev. Wright’s statements is an argument for another day. As an aspirant to the highest office in the American empire, did he have any choice?
Still, I think it’s worth raising the question of whether there was some truth in the Rev. Wright’s words.
Give Obama credit for addressing black grievances while acknowledging and even validating white resentments.
“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strikes law and then wants us to sing ‘God bless America’?” the Rev. Wright has said. “No, no, no. Not God bless America. God damn America – that’s in the Bible – for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.”
Many white Americans react in disgust to the epithet, and I admit that I find myself cringing at the hardness of those words. Those who suddenly feel disquieted by Obama’s affiliations ask what kind of church would have parishioners that would condone such a message. I think what they miss is that the black experience in America has been forged in acute pain – in bitter historical memories of chattel slavery and systematic exclusion from the fruits of their labor, and in present-day confinement to substandard schools, unequal access to healthcare, and poor neighborhoods. If you are white, try to imagine for a moment how a people that have died in every American war since the revolution and still suffered the slights of racism can simultaneously feel rage at their country and pride in their stake in it.
What Obama could not do was contend with the challenges to America’s imperial domination that his pastor raised. In a world where the weak and marginal of the world live and die by the unconscious whim of the United States, we who hold American citizenship can be powerfully blinded to the sensibilities and experiences of others.
What did the Rev. Wright say that was so objectionable?
“We bombed Hiroshima; we bombed Nagasaki and nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye,” he said. “We have supported state-sponsored terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back to our own front yards. America’s chickens, coming home to roost.”
The Rev. Wright does not privilege America over humanity. Nor do I. As a confessing Christian, I cannot believe that God’s children are sorted according to nationality. Neither the pastor nor I hold any obligation to vet the gospel according to the prerequisites of American patriotism. And yet the dilemma for Obama as a presidential candidate is that he must do exactly that.
The message of the prophetic black church tradition from whence the Rev. Wright comes is very clear. The Old Testament prophets warned of Israel’s destruction should the nation fail to mend its ways of idolatry, materialism and aggression. There was no national loyalty oath at play.
The hope embodied by Obama is that he can help us bridge America’s deep racial divide. I don’t ask him to address the thorny challenge of American imperialism.
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