Fire and Race

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

What could be more brittle than “Americanism”? What could be more tedious than the mass defense of the teary-eyed, ahistorical ignorance for which it stands?

We are still in the toddler stage of national awareness, apparently, too young to be told how we got here. Thus the fiery Rev. Jeremiah Wright, proclaiming the bitter truths of ghetto America — skewering the ugly and cruel side of our righteousness, challenging the saintliness of our military might, railing about slavery and poverty and Nagasaki, committing the ultimate sacrilege of uttering “God damn America … for killing innocent people” — is just too, too much for the purveyors of genteel know-nothingism in the media who work so hard to make sure our presidential elections are intellectually stress-free and who have denounced him en masse with the all-purpose condemnation “anti-American.”

We once had a rampant, institutionally sanctioned horror in this country that eventually acquired the label “racism,” and its overt practice was condemned, deligitimized, banished to the margins of society and more or less forgotten. Shhh . . . don’t wake it up. Our vestigial memory of that bad old aberration is contained in the scolding no-no of political correctness, which reduces the old sin of racism — the massive dehumanization of a large segment of the population — to a frowny-face infraction: the giving of offense.

This allows aggrieved white people to nurture their own sense of victimization, and it is these folks that Wright “offends,” as the media inform us, by talking “divisively” about such things as black liberation, with the implication that the African-American experience in this country remains separate and unequal and that the old-fashioned kind of racism, white against black, hasn’t really gone away, just altered its form.

To say such things bluntly is so not-PC — especially to say it while black — and thus, as we all know, Wright has become a big problem for Barack Obama, the leading Democratic contender for his party’s presidential nomination and a member of Wright’s Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ. Indeed, we all know as well that membership in Wright’s church isn’t merely a political front for Obama, but that the outspoken pastor is his spiritual mentor. (The title of Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” comes from one of Wright’s sermons.)

So, whoops. Obama-whose-middle-name-is-Hussein has deep ties to a pastor who’s a consensus anti-American. In American politics, this is called cut-and-run time. Instead, Obama gave one of the most honest — and therefore courageous — speeches I can ever remember hearing in the course of a presidential race.

“Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety — the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gangbanger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.

“The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

“And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

As I savor the lack of retreat in Obama’s words, what occurs to me is that presidential politics really does — or can — have something to do with “change,” by which I mean neither political buzzword du jour nor the kind of change that slips in through the backdoor via secret agendas, which is what the profoundly anti-American presidency of George Bush has brought us.

And furthermore, it’s not the elected leader who brings the change to the country, bestowing it on the populace like breadcrumbs or flower petals from the balcony window, but the electorate itself that does so, by knowingly choosing and embracing a different kind of candidate. The elected leader is himself or herself a part of some larger force, entering office not under the cover of cliche (“I’m a uniter, not a divider”) but as the inescapable embodiment of that force.

“For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation,” Obama went on, “the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear (from the years of slavery and segregation) have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.”

The bitterness of the black experience the two men speak of — Wright with a cascade of emotion, Obama coolly and in a larger context — is not merely an accumulation of a people’s hard luck and personal grievances, but something intrinsic in our national character, our “Americanism”: from slavery to Jim Crow and lynching to the endemic poverty of the ghetto.

“This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”