Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Now I ain't so sure I wanna get educated"

Angry truth

So Barack Obama made a great speech. I've linked it here from his campaign site, though I actually read it off the CNN site, because I'm concerned that CNN might take it down at some point. But that link also has the video of its delivery, which you can play while you do some dishes or something else, if you don't want to sit and read the whole thing.

But the few people visiting this site won't make much difference, and what troubles me is that the various commentators and bloviators who are talking about this speech, and replaying the clips of Rev. Wright, do not appear to have read, or heard, the entire thing. Nor do they seem interested in doing so. And we will go off towards November with no new context added to the noise in the echo chamber, just more noise, more division, more falsehoods, distortions and unintended misunderstandings.

My grandfather used to chuckle when we'd ask for advice, once we were adults and he could be this frank. He'd say that people ask advice and then go do whatever the hell they wanted to do in the first place, that they weren't really asking for advice so much as they were looking for backup.

And I think the people who want to believe in Obama will find backup for their support of him in snippets of his speech, and those who want to disbelieve in him will find reinforcement for that course as well, in snippets of his speech. And, just as few people ask your opinion because they might change direction based on what you tell them, damn few people now are going to sit down, absorb this speech and then decide what they really think about it all and maybe change their minds.

Well, it didn't change my mind, but it helped me clarify some things that have been buzzing around my brain, looking to take form. Here's what it made me think of:

It made me think of the African-American cartoonist Ollie Harrington, and how angry his cartoons were, and how deeply embraced they were in the private world of the readers of the black press, a half century ago. While cartoonists in the mainstream press were creating metaphorical cartoons of cute little black kids being shut out of schools, he drew the one that illustrates this post, and it is funny, but only if you accept a very angry, bitter view of what was going on.

It is a legacy that Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor built on in their humor, and that Jim Brown and Muhammed Ali embraced in their sports careers. It is the legacy of anger that makes "A Raisin in the Sun" matter. It is a legacy in which the stories of the Bible that resonate are those of the Israelites fleeing Egypt while their God rains down plagues on their oppressors, and in which a blinded and chained Samson, his strength and nobility and dignity stripped from him, becomes the subject of a blues song that says "If I had my way in this godamighty world, I would tear this building down!"

It is not the legacy in which America offers opportunity only for those who are willing to adopt the worldview of the majority, the legacy in which a woman can succeed if she puts on a blue suit jacket and skirt, dons a string tie and acts and reacts like a man, and in which a minority can succeed as long as he keeps his cultural identity confined to a few delicious recipes at the company pot luck and a flashy tie on Cinco de Mayo. In that legacy, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's daughter brings home Sidney Poitier, a wealthy, successful, clean-cut doctor with impeccable diction.

And in that legacy -- let us be clear as Obama was clear -- there is no room for white people who have some legitimate resentments themselves, and who aren't eager to have different peoples of different cultures come into their world. It is a Wonder Bread world in which everyone smiles and gets along wonderfully, and anyone, from any cultural community, who voices anger, fear or resentment is to be shunned, condemned and mocked for their backward ignorance.

When I was first in college, I used to hang around with the black students, because they celebrated their blue collar heritage, while the majority of white students adopted a preppy tone even if they hadn't grown up that way. The black enclave was where I could find jokes and laughter and where nobody was concerned about "maintaining their cool" -- a clown was as well appreciated as a prince, each for their own contribution to the moment.

But it was the late 60s, and as the times shifted and resentment and separatism grew in the black community, I wasn't really able to hang out with the black students as a group. Too many of them had an anger in them that made it not-okay for me to be there. I regretted it, I resented it, I accepted it. Those who were my friends continued to be my friends, but we ran into each other in other contexts and not that one. Fair enough.

Maybe that experience makes me more comfortable with this whole issue of Jeremiah Wright's preaching, and of Barack Obama's explanation. I know there's anger out there. I wish there weren't.

But it won't go away simply by our declaring that it ought not to exist. And it certainly won't go away by our shunning and condemning angry people.

One of the stops on my morning on-line constitutional these days is "The Daily Voice," a relatively new site that gathers news and commentary for an African-American readership. I added it in anticipation of the current campaign and it's been quite thought-provoking. This morning, they added an excerpt from a book called " The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About The Good News?" by Rev. Peter Gomes, a professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University.

Gomes writes:

If the focus is nearly always on the man for others who in the short term loses but who one of these days will return in triumph to win, then it is no wonder that so much of the Christian faith is either obsessed by the past or seduced by the prospects of a glorious future. In the meantime, things continue in their bad old way, and we live as realists in a world in which reality is nearly always the worst-case scenario.

The last thing the faithful wish for is to be disturbed. Thus it is easy to favor the Bible over the gospel, because the gospel can somehow be seen as those nice, even compelling, stories about Jesus that have next to nothing to do with us "until he comes."

But that's only an excerpt of an excerpt. Which brings us full circle.


VT Teacher said...

First, I like Obama so I will look for what I like and support rather than what I disagree with... I like that he sounded like someone giving a speech on race rather than a politician. I know that he's been accused of only producing "words" but that's enough for me when his words can describe a complicated middle ground and that life isn't as easy as being against evil and for freedom.

ronnie said...

An absolutely excellent commentary on the speech and the followup.

I found myself a bit mystified by the reaction to Rev. Wright's fiery comments (especially as I was taking the context into account). All I could think to myself was, if people are surprised that many black people think and say the things that he's saying, they just must not know many black people, or certainly not any that they have real conversations with. I suspect you had the same reaction.

Your response in the comments thread to my own reaction to the Obama speech is thought-provoking enough to have, well, provoked thought for some days now before I respond. Let's just say that I think you hit the nail on the head so hard that it's still vibrating a bit.


ronnie said...

Oh, just allow me to add that I am wondering why other candidates and high-profile politicians aren't being asked to apologize for the outrageously racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-American (9-11 was God's just punishment of America for immorality) and other evil comments of the white right-wing evangelical preachers they've kept company with over the years?

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

A whole lot indeed to think about, in the speech and your blog entry, and naturally during a crazy houseguest-heavy week -- so i've been waffling between waiting to comment till i had time to do it justice (but God knows when that'll be) and doing a superficial "Great post!" thing.

Well, great post, and food for thought which i too am still digesting. The problems i have with Wright's sermon clips are few, and are more spiritual than political, which in turn gets into the issue of next-life focus versus action for justice in this life.
Glad to know about the Gomes book, which is going on my reading list.