Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech

Luckily, I had the time to watch all of Barack Obama's speech about his pastor in particular and "race" in general today. Especially for a politician, Obama came perilously close not just to telling the truth but to indulging in complexity--two things we've come not to expect or accept from our political speakers.

Although the facts show I'm a privileged white male, I'm in the "minority" on a couple of issues. First, I didn't find the Reverend Wright's excerpted comments offensive or even incorrect. "G.D. America" was a bit over the top, theologically, only because I reckon it's G.'s decision whether to D. anyone or anything. But even that phrase wasn't over the top if you place it in the context of prophetic preaching. Look at the Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example: preaching that calls down the thunder and makes the Reverend Wright seem mild, no offense to him intended.

Second, I'd prefer to retire the word "race" as it applies to categories of people, simply because there is no basis for this categorization in science. However, I understand the argument that because racism is alive and well, we might as well keep "race" in play. It's just that I'm persuaded by the human-genome project and its apparent discovery that our entire gene-pool may be traced back to what we might call Eastern Africa. That's where the "race" began. The stuff about Caucasians, "Orientals," Anglo-Saxons, "whites," "blacks," and "Negroes" is just invented nonsense. But I'm willing to defer to those who want to keep "race" in the lexicon for strategic and tactical purposes. Recently, scientists have found three or four genes that control skin-color--but they control skin-color, not "race."

Because I teach African American literature, I talk every day--or every M-W-F--about what Obama talked about--just not as eloquently. Or more accurately, my students and I talk about such topics--the complexities of spirituality and race, class and race, how a sense of "whiteness" depends on a complicated view of "blackness," how white folks are privileged to be "tired of talking about race," whereas black folks have to think about the topic all the time, and so on.

Of course, the mainstream commercial media and right-wing hucksters smell blood, ratings, and money in the water, so they'll continue to "harpoon" Obama--David Gergen's phrase. A moderate Republican, Gergen liked Obama's speech but allowed as how, in his opinion, the right would relentlessly attack now, no matter what Obama said. To his credit, Gergen seemed disgusted by the predictable harpooning.

Having read the works of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, George Schuyler, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Iceberg Slim, Chester Himes, Rudolph Fisher, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois, among others, I would have regarded the Reverend Wright's comments as unremarkable. The media ginned up the controversy, as far as I'm concerned, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm constantly amazed that African Americans aren't more angry, dispirited, and incensed. I can't think of another ethnic group from which fate and history have exacted more suffering and asked more resilience and patience. That Obama was so resilient, patient, articulate, and nuanced today impressed me, even if, in my opinion, there was no controversy to begin with. No offense to the Reverend Wright, but his righteous indignation and its targets are not news, nor should they be. That they are news may mean that the U.S. is a bit more "static" than Obama's speech allowed. To me, white privilege looks as implacable and immovable as ever, but I'm willing to follow the lead of Obama's speech and think the best I can of this society. And Obama, in the words of Langston Hughes, let everyone know that he is "still here." (Hughes's "Still Here" is one of my favorite poems, incidentally.) To his credit, Obama expects more from his nation than I do; he is more optimistic than I. Good for him. Good, I hope, for us, too.
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