Sunday, April 13, 2008

Beneath Obama’s rebuke of Jeremiah Wright: Is a new global consciousness afoot?

When I learned that the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright was going to give a speech at Michigan State University on February 7th, I spread the word to friends and colleagues I knew would love to hear Barack Obama’s pastor speak. Of the half dozen or so people I mentioned his name to, none of them had heard of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, let alone his spiritual connection to Barack Obama. I prepared a question to ask Rev. Dr. Wright, but as it turned out, I did not need to ask the question. Such was the freestyle nature of the luncheon with Rev. Dr. Wright that the topic came up on its own. Rev. Wright said one of his grand daughters came home from school one afternoon and immediately asked: “Grandpa, you and Barack cool?” To which the reverend responded, “Me and Barack cool.”

The grand daughter had overheard conversations at school in which media reports were said to have described a parting of ways between Obama and Rev. Dr. Wright. In fact the question I had prepared for Rev. Dr. Wright had been prompted by a March 6th 2007 New York Times report in which Barack Obama had reportedly picked up the phone and disinvited Rev. Dr. Wright from Obama’s February 10th 2007 launch of his presidential campaign. Obama was said to have told Rev. Dr. Wright that it would be advisable if he were not to show up at the launch.

The hue and cry that arose from the mainstream corporate media’s attention on the sermons of Rev. Dr. Wright appears to have died down, and the same media has reported that Obama appears to have weathered the storm with his ship more or less intact. But Obama’s campaign also carries hopes and aspirations about the image of Pan-Africa, aspirations captured in Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s February 21st article on The Zeleza Post. Thus almost a month after Obama’s public denunciation of Rev. Dr. Wright, it might be time to ask whether the challenge that Obama threw to the American populace about a frank discourse on race has been taken up or not. In denouncing his former pastor in the realpolitik terms he did, Obama was forced to sacrifice a part of his intellectual ideology in order to curry favor with a mainstream white America hell bent on turning a deaf ear to black America’s narratives. In so doing, Obama confirmed fears about the political compromises a black candidate is forced to make in America’s presidential politics, compromises that pit a viable black presidential candidate at odds with the aspirations of Pan-Africa and the Third World.

That Obama had to make the denunciations he did also characterizes the stubborn refusal in mainstream white America to engage with the painful discourse on the repercussions of US foreign policy, an exercise described as curiously absent especially amongst US peace educators, in a new book by Carl Mirra, a former marine and First Gulf War veteran, now associate professor at Adelphi University in New York. As we learn from Bill Fletcher Jr.’s and Manning Marable’s recent speeches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the African American PeaceMakers as Agents For Change series, mainstream white America’s refusal to engage with the painful aspects of US foreign policy goes back to the days of African American peace leaders such as WEB DuBois, through to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Further to that, the whole episode of the anger expressed against Rev. Dr. Wright also puts the spotlight on the schizophrenic contradiction between America’s perfunctory commemorations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s activism versus the excoriation of Rev. Dr. Wright, both of whose views have been critical of US policy and practice at home and abroad.

The March 6th 2007 NYT report had seemed credible to me, seeing how Obama was shirking any talk of race and black people’s issues in the campaign. It was also disappointing; a sad, sobering parting of ways with a man Obama describes in such a profound, touching way in his autobiography Dreams from my Father. It was a confirmation of how to become a credible black presidential candidate with the majority white voters in American, one has to make a break with the facts and truths of the majority of black Americans’ perspectives of their lives in America.

But in his luncheon talk at Michigan State on February 7th 2008, Dr. Wright said the New York Times report was a misrepresentation, and that everything was alright between him and Obama’s campaign. He went as far as saying until four months previously, as recent as October 2007, he did not believe mainstream America could embrace Obama’s candidacy the way it had happened in Iowa and other white majority states. He said the success of the Obama campaign was making him believe that the current generation of young Americans possessed a quality he was not aware of, and he realized that he was from a generation that may not have moved on the way young Americans, of all races, had. He said going by the support Obama was garnering amongst white college students, he was very hopeful for the future of the country.

On one hand, the speech Obama gave in Philadelphia on race in America makes one wonder whether Rev. Dr. Wright was always aware of what Obama really thought about the pastor’s views on race in America, and US foreign policy. On the other hand, one is left unsure as to whether Obama always found his pastor’s views on race and US foreign policy as “offensive” as he put it in his speech, or if he was indeed toeing a line a black presidential candidate in America needs to toe in order to become viable. Nothing in Obama’s Dreams from my Father suggests any slightest whiff of the latter position, leading one to wonder the extent to which a black presidential candidate in the United States has to go walking the tight rope of denouncing “radical blacks” while acknowledging the existence of racism in America.

The more authentic parts of Obama’s speech would appear to be the exhortations he made about the need for mainstream America to make the effort to understand the reality of life for black Americans. Said Obama: “. . . the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed.” He added, in a rare moment that marked a remarkable coming to terms with an issue he had hitherto put great effort into avoiding, at least on the campaign trail, that the concerns of black people in America needed to be addressed in a real way. His frankness on this was refreshing, inasfar as this campaign. “But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

But Obama still had to appear to keep standing on mainstream ground so as to appeal to the white majority votes he can not do without. And he seized the opportunity to tell the truth about the indicators that demonstrate the depth of the experience of black America: wealth and income gap between black and white; concentrated pockets of poverty in urban and rural communities; a lack of economic opportunity among black men; the lack of basic services in urban black neighborhoods. Starkly missing was the stunning statistic that there are about 900,000 African Americans in prison, while there about 600,000 in college, figures presented by Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS TV series African American Lives.

The reaction to Obama’s speech was unprecedented. Getting online on the evening of March 20th from Dowa district in Malawi, I read in a New York Times article that the speech was being discussed in university classrooms across the United States, and churches were spreading word that the speech would be the subject of Easter Sunday sermons. Among the numerous listservs that I subscribe to and participate in, four were actively discussing the speech, including one on which matters of race are normally not talked about. Suddenly, it appeared as if this was the first time that white Americans were being told that black Americans do have a legitimate concern with historical and contemporary racism. That this is exactly what Obama’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Wright, has been saying for years was made even more obscure by Obama’s politically strategic disowning and criticism of Rev. Wright, even as he urged an appreciation of where the pastor’s anger and that of many blacks came from.

But unlike the discussion on the four listservs, which was earnest and eager in accepting Obama’s exhortation, the mainstream media has been obsessed with relegating Pastor Dr. Wright to the fringes of incoherent radicalism. In the days following the speech, with the exception of the New York Times which demonstrated some rare open-mindedness, the mainstream corporate media revealed a deep-seated denial of the existence of the anger that Obama acknowledged. Instead, some in the mainstream media sought to further isolate Rev. Dr. Wright and paint him as a rabid radical who could only be touched with a nine foot pole. The attempt was to marginalize Dr. Wright as unrepresentative of any constituent of American society, expressing amazement that Obama associated with him for a whole twenty years. Such sentiments came from the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ward writing in the print edition of the Financial Times of London (March 22/23), Daniel Nasaw and Ewen MacAskill in the print edition of The Guardian of London (March 22), and an editorial in the Europe print edition of The Wall Street Journal (March 20-24).

The Guardian article reported that white voters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were deserting Obama in the aftermath of the Pastor-gate issue, with one poll showing Hillary Clinton leading at 56 percent to Obama’s 30 percent in Pennsylvania, and 43 to 42 percent in North Carolina (p. 7). Two respondents interviewed in Philadelphia were quoted as saying by not leaving Rev. Dr. Wright’s church for another one, Obama shared his pastor’s opinions. It took an African American respondent to put a reality check to the gravy train, pointing out that it was only white America that found Pastor’s Wright’s anger new, “but these things happened to us” (ibid.). If white people felt uncomfortable with the pastor’s sermons, said the respondent, well, black people have felt uncomfortable for centuries in America. That punch line, left unqualified, ought to have pricked at the conscience of those in the mainstream who get alarmed when they hear a minority perspective they have always been shielded from.

Tim Wise expressed it sharply and squarely in an article originally published in Lip Magazine, and widely distributed on various websites. Wise, a deeply thoughtful and prolific anti-racist campaigner, exposed the inaccuracies involved in the claims that Dr. Wright said America deserved the 9/11 attacks, and that blacks should sing ‘God Damn America.’ Wise systematically and categorically laid a litany of the truths of black Americans’ lives that many white Americans refuse to hear about. Wrote Wise:

We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it.

Amongst his examples, Wise mentioned white people’s shock when Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall refused to celebrate the 1987 bi-centennial of the constitution, arguing that most of those two hundred years had been years of “overt racism and injustice.” Wise also wrote about the disbelief amongst whites that a racist white police officer could frame a black man; white people’s shock upon learning that most black people viewed the US as a racist nation; white people getting “stunned to the point of paralysis when they learn the truth about lynchings in this country,” among numerous other “shocks.”

Thus it was that many white people (not all) were shocked to hear what Rev. Dr. Wright had to say about racism in America, to the point of expecting Obama to publicly disown him.

So what can we say about a nation that values lies more than it loves truth? A place where adherence to sincerely believed and internalized fictions allows one to rise to the highest offices in the land, and to earn the respect of millions, while a willingness to challenge those fictions and offer a more accurate counter-narrative earns one nothing but contempt, derision, indeed outright hatred?

Wise’s exhortation to his fellow white Americans will most likely go unheeded, as he himself is probably written off as being on the fringes of radicalism as well. But his understanding of black America and its place in American society is as intimate as it is passionate. His choice not to excoriate Obama for his rebuke of Rev. Dr. Wright signifies the depth of that understanding. The question that persists for Obama now is what remains of his Pan-African identity, an identity he profoundly craved and beautifully constructed in his former life before politics. Clearly, the Obama who wrote Dreams from my Father is a much more authentic, deeply feeling, rigorously reflective intellectual, a far cry from the Obama campaigning to become president of the United States of America.

Despite the pretensions of the presidential campaign, Obama knows who he is, probably more so than many people in this world, a truism expressed by the New York Times columnist David Brooks on the PBS Jim Lehrer News Hour program earlier this year. Not only is Obama an exceptionally gifted writer, he is a very brilliant individual, a globally conscious intellectual, and, going by his 1995 autobiography, a Pan-Africanist, Third Worldist, and global cosmopolitan at heart.

For starters, Dreams from my Father is about 450 pages long, spanning his early days in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, ending with his long-sought reunion with his fatherland in Kenya. The book was published in 1995 when Obama was 34 years old. Obama was in Kenya for only three months, the summer before his entry into Harvard Law School, yet out of those 450 pages, his three months in Kenya occupy about 155 pages, a whopping one third of the book! He went to Harvard University, where he probably spent no less than four years, yet his Harvard days warrant a pitiful two sentences, buried inside a nine-line paragraph (p. 437).

The most persuasive evidence about Obama’s global Pan-African identity can be found in what he writes about his three months in Kenya. On arrival at Kenyatta International Airport, the very first time that he lands on African soil, he immediately develops a powerful sense that he has arrived home, a home he has spent a lifetime searching for. His bag has not arrived with him, and he asks about what to do. A Kenyan woman, donning a British Airways uniform, notes the name on the form he has filled out, and asks if he is by any chance related to Dr. Obama. Obama responds: “He was my father.” That recognition of his name was the moment he had spent his conscious life hitherto longing for. He writes:

That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A., or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand.

More than a Pan-Africanist, Obama also carries sharp Third World instincts, aware of and in tune with the global solidarity that unites peoples of the world colonized and exploited by Europe and America. This is in evidence when a week or so later after his arrival in Kenya, he encounters the tensions that exist between black Africans and Kenyans of Asian origin. His cousin Auma calls him naive for imagining that everything is well between the two groups, reminiscing about his close friends from India and Pakistan in the United States, “who had supported black causes. . .” (p. 347). Obama muses, “My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of the racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody’s fault necessarily. It was a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life” (p. 347-8).

Indeed, as Vijay Prashad reminds us in his recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2006), there used to be such a thing as a Third World project, which alongside other anti-imperialist projects such as Pan-Africanism, were part of the struggles that effectively ended political colonization around the world. Obama is fully conversant with this history, but is forced to avoid it for purposes of his presidential bid.

These then are the burdens thrust upon a black presidential aspirant in the United States, burdens few would happily shoulder. Obama appears to have the capacity to shoulder these burdens, although he must pretend to represent a parting of ways with such expectations. It is a balancing act tough enough to tire out the most seasoned athlete. For some, this parting of ways warrants little more than subdued ambivalence that an Obama presidency would do anything for black America, Pan-Africa and the Third World. For others, the demands of realpolitik require that Obama plays as close to mainstream white America as possible, including his public views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Regardless of the true reasons for which Obama publically rebuked Rev. Dr. Wright, Obama’s candidacy does indeed represent something new in not just American politics, but also in the global discourse on race and identity. And Obama seems to be aware of this much more than perhaps many of those supporting his candidacy. It is in that awareness that hopes arise for a fundamental shift in global racial consciousness and the future of America’s place in it.


Jens said...

Thank you for a very deep post, and I think in many ways accurate. The one suggestion I would make is this. Under the American system, only one out of two candidates can win in the general election. So candidates are always forced to take the most central line. A candidate with fairly liberal ideas must try to become more conservative, and likewise, a candidate with fairly conservative ideas has to try to adopt a more progressive stance. I think this is what we are seeing with Obama, and it is not necessarily negative. Sure, I'd like to see him be more openly challenging, but at this point he is likely more interested in winning the election.
Not related to the post directly, but if you are interested, I am working to develop a post-colonial international language, to function as a sort of world creole. It's called Neo Patwa, and is described at If you have comments or suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

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