Saturday, May 5, 2007

"What's black and white and read all over?"

Adding to the forest's worth of newsprint that has been expended on Barack Obama, he and his relationship with Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. are under strict scrutiny (as exemplified by a front page article earlier this week in the New York Times.)

Members of Trinity United Church of Christ squeezed into a downtown hotel ballroom in early March to celebrate the long service of their pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. One congregant stood out amid the flowers and finery: Senator Barack Obama, there to honor the man who led him from skeptic to self-described Christian.
Twenty years ago at Trinity, Mr. Obama, then a community organizer in poor Chicago neighborhoods, found the African-American community he had sought all his life, along with professional credibility as a community organizer and an education in how to inspire followers. He had sampled various faiths but adopted none until he met Mr. Wright, a dynamic pastor who preached Afrocentric theology, dabbled in radical politics and delivered music-and-profanity-spiked sermons.

Few of those at Mr. Wright's tribute in March knew of the pressures that Mr. Obama's presidential run was placing on the relationship between the pastor and his star congregant. Mr. Wright's assertions of widespread white racism and his scorching remarks about American government have drawn criticism, and prompted the senator to cancel his delivery of the invocation when he formally announced his candidacy in February.

To be sure, the Times has turned its attention to Obama's relationship with Dr. Wright previously - particularly immediately following the "disinvitation" of Dr. Wright - describing Wright's involvement with the 1995 Million Man March, his support of gay and lesbian worshipers and his 1984 trip to Tripoli to visit Muammar Qaddafi, along with Louis Farrakhan. Both pieces speak to Dr. Wright's embrace of liberation theology and black empowerment.

As I collect my thoughts on all of this, I think back to my time as a member of Trinity. I worshiped with Trinity for 18 months as a member of the Men's Chorus and the Young Adult Ministry. During that time I clearly remember the Dr. Wright's gift of rhetorical flourish. (To describe it as fiery would be to grossly understate its effect.) But for the most part, the subject matter itself seemed then - and in my mind remains - fairly noncontroversial.

As Dr. Wright correctly suggests, blacks in America have been - and to a great extent, still are - victims of racism, with the impact of present-day bigotry in comparison to other factors being the only real point of departure. And to be sure, America has been and is a violent nation; any dispute on that score would be confined to the justness of the purposes for such violence. In any event, these opinions are not discretely confined to the clergy and parishioners of Trinity, as all of this and much more is part and parcel of the liberal canon as it pertains to America's place in the world.

As for Wright's embrace of liberation theology, although the Times was given to "overadjectize" by describing it as "black liberation theology," its tenets are fairly mainstream - at least within the Christian Left. Indeed, it is of a piece with the civil rights movements spearheaded by Mahatmas Gandhi in India and by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the American South. Liberation theology has informed and animated the world-wide struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and hastened the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe.

All of this speculation on the part of the mainstream (read liberal) media about Obama's religious affiliations seems to be part of a larger attempt to determine if he is indeed a "magic Negro" or if he is "just like the rest of them." At times it comes out sounding like a question about Obama's "blackness - whatever that is - a presented by 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft; on other occasions it takes the form of editorializing about what what his racial identity means vis-a-vis his political identity, as it did in the LA Times.
The question of whether the rising Democratic star is black enough really translates to: Whose side is he on? Whose agenda will he favor? By definition, those agendas are distinct. Obama's family history — his father was a black Kenyan, his mother a white Kansan, and he spent his childhood in places such as Hawaii and Indonesia — makes him the personification of post-racial, melting-pot America; he straddles races and communities commonly described as opposites — black or white, native or immigrant.
All in all, such speculation is cut from the same cloth as were Joe Biden's comments on Mr. Obama being "articulate" and "clean" (as discussed elsewhere), with white elites once again in a position to scrutinize the behavior, background and intentions of blacks. Speaking of Biden, I will leave it to Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates of Time to connect the dots between Biden's remarks, the media's fascination with all things Obama and the attitude that it all bespeaks.
What [white journalists] fail to understand is that African-Americans meet other intelligent, articulate African-Americans all the time. In almost every cycle since 1984, at least one of these brave chaps has run for President. Forgive us if we don't automatically pledge our votes to Obama and instead make judgments based on things besides skin color — like, heaven forbid, issues. Joe Biden may have misspoken — and in the process probably destroyed any remote hopes of winning the nomination — but he spoke truthfully for a lot of his ilk; Obamania is rooted in the belief that 50 Cent, not Barack Obama, represents the real black America.

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