If properly understood, Senator Barack Obama's remarks yesterday at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, constitute one of the most significant and honest public addresses ever made on America's 400-year struggle with race. Had we heeded DuBois' 1903 prophetic warning, The Souls of Black Folks, it may have found voice in the 20th century. There is a conversation America has, literally in some cases, been dying to have. That conversation is not in favor of any particular presidential candidate. Please don't relegate and dismiss it on those grounds. However, it is unlikely that we would be so inescapably confronted with such issues outside of a person of color experiencing some measure of success in a bid for the highest elected office in the land.
In her post, "Putting Rev. Wright's Preaching in Perspective," Diana Butler Bass implored us to listen better to one another. Now let me suggest something to listen for. The thought is simple, but the lesson is not: Not everyone has experienced America in the same way. And we must lay down the self-absorption that makes us think this doesn't matter, if we are ever to begin to appreciate each other.
Permit me this timely example. If you are not Black, you may not know that the Black church is the theatre in which Blacks have historically exorcised their demons - with the pastor as both theologue and thespian embodying the collective process of redemption for his/her people every week. Initially, church was the one place we could go that we weren't under massa's whip, which is why we relish it. Eventually, it became the center and sustainer of our community. So most of us understand Rev. Jeremiah Wright in a way that may escape others.
Church equaled life for us. Where else could we go to exorcise the demons of injustice and intransigence? Where else could we go to exorcise the marginalization and invalidation, the defeat and depression, the struggle and scorn? Where else could we go when our children asked - as my daughter did while coloring just the other day- if Jesus were brown or white? My answer was that he was born to Jewish parents, people of color, whom we usually refer to as olive-skinned. And her heartrending response at 5-years-old was: "Why can't he be white? In all the pictures, he's white!"
It was in church that we heard the story of a people who were considered least among the nations, scattered and subject to the whims of others. Their story taught us how to survive in exile. We listened close and learned that a healthy nationalism has been the most broadly successful defense against the ravages of imperialism. Thus, it was in the womb of the incontestable sense of ethnic validity given to me by Black liberationists/nationalists like Rev. Wright who were "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian" that I finally found enough courage to reach beyond my own tragic racial history.
From outside the Black experience, you can't legitimately critique this. Western Christianity hadn't been true enough to forestall the savageness of chattel slavery (a peculiar and altogether new institution of bondage in which for the first time in recorded history a people were legally, socially, theologically and scientifically defined as property, a thing, subhuman), let alone genocide, apartheid or discrimination. If an amalgamation of Black pride and Christological hope were the only way those of us who held onto it could remain Christian, so be it.
Notwithstanding, there have been those like King, non-nationalists, who by divine grace cultivated eyes to see and ears to hear glimpses of the kingdom that heretofore had escaped almost all of us. He and those like him caught a glimpse of a post-racial reality in God. (Not a non-racial reality-a well-meaning sociological nonentity-but post-racial: those who have suffered through the crucible of race and come out the other side determined to live beyond race-still in visceral awareness of its worst and unequivocal opposition to even the slightest of its indignities.) You and I could have such eyes and ears and tongues and lips, we're just not practiced enough.
Lest one be tempted to brandish the name of King in vain, as many are apt to do, we must immediately confess that 'post-racial' is a martyrdom posture in a relentlessly racial modern world. Forty or more years of privilege can alter the collective memory of a nation. But I remember. It was not the majority of middle- and upper-class blacks and whites who loved King while he was alive. I remember. He became America's hero only once dead. I remember. King and Shabazz were assassinated only as they moved closer to each other and closer to embodying justice as the birthright of the entire human family. I remember. Robeson was blacklisted and Hughes domesticated in children's literature texts. I remember. DuBois was expatriated and Washington's message appropriated to justify segregation. And I remember Douglass, magnificent Douglass, who up and decided one day "that however long [he] might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when [he] could be a slave in fact" - and vowed to give as good as he got from any person who thought otherwise. (And he did.) With a ferocity and intimidation unmatched by a mere mortal such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Douglass voiced a irresistibly brilliant and no less scathing critique of America that succeeded in having him sent abroad 'in service to his country' at the very time his eloquence and intellect were most sorely needed here. I remember.
So what do we do, my friends, in the face of our undeniably incongruent histories - which give us reason to forever suspect one another, a reason dramatically subverted by the call to embrace one another in the way of Jesus?
[to be continued...]
Melvin Bray is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, lover of people, connoisseur of creativity, seeker of justice, and believer in possibilities. As founder of Kid Cultivators, he lives, loves, and dreams with friends in Atlanta, Georgia.