Rev. Jeremiah Wright resurfaced last week in the pages of The Washington Post. In an interview with the controversial minister published Thursday, Wright spoke of how his life had changed since the 2008 presidential campaign, when the fire of his homiletic past and his proximity to President Obama before he became president was an issue — a kind of “what did he preach and when did he preach it” style of character assassination by association that went on far too long.
“It is unrealistic to think that one person can change the mess that this country has gotten into, but to pick on him is like picking on one of my kids,” Wright told The Post. “I have been knowing him for 20 years. I have not stopped loving him because of what the press did, and to see him beat up on because of things he is not responsible for is painful.”
This statement from the 2010 model Jeremiah Wright, defending Obama, seeks to calm some of the troubled racial waters of the campaign — waters stirred up as much by intragenerational black American politics in general as by any specific utterance by Rev. Wright from the pulpit of the Trinity United Church of Christ.
Wright’s statement was his Kum Ba Yah coda on his part in the intraracial conflict between Obama, vanguard of a new style of black leadership at the levers of power, and those of Wright’s generation for whom the old identity-dependent tools and strategies for fighting America’s racial ills have been mostly working just fine.
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Others from that generation have been heard from again.
In recent weeks, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have stepped up challenges to President Obama’s domestic agenda, exasperated at what they see as a lack of attention paid to issues specifically related to African Americans navigating the shoals of a ruinous recession.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan told Politico that the White House is “not listening” to black lawmakers.
And off Capitol Hill, Michael Eric Dyson, author, lecturer, Georgetown University sociologist and an Obama supporter, is feeling let down: “All these teachable moments, but the professor refuses to come to the class,” he told The New York Times on Feb. 8.
It all came to a head, in a way, on the Feb. 23 edition of Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio call-in show, where Sharpton and guest co-host Charles Ogletree, author and Jesse Climenko Professor at Harvard Law School, spoke with a caller: Tavis Smiley, author, lecturer and presumptive general of the new-media-literate black empowerment movement. Their contentious exchange hinged to a large degree of how much responsibility Obama has for advancing what they characterized as a “black agenda.” Smiley, a longtime critic of Obama as a candidate and as president, wants that attention paid.
On a recent broadcast of the Tom Joyner Morning Show, seeking to justify such special treatment for black people, Smiley threw out one of those questions that was meant to stifle all debate coming afterwards: “Isn’t the African American agenda the human agenda?”
Kris Broughton, writing at Politic365, wasn’t having any:
“Tavis Smiley’s rhetorical question during his monologue last week on [Tom Joyner] is a sentence that reads the same backwards and forwards. Smiley would do well to heed his own advice, and learn to recognize that the White House efforts to back initiatives aimed at African Americans won’t always come with peel-and-stick “black agenda” labels.”
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The debate over the president’s fidelity to the black cause is the latest proof of a split in black American politics, a politics of two minds and approaches right now: One side calls for allegiance to the textbook civil-rights agenda, and to the strategy of identity-focused solutions to national problems. The other side seeks to incorporate the so-called black agenda into the wider necessaries of the nation’s business.
The old guard’s thinking necessarily provokes the question of what challenges now confronting black and minority Americans don’t confront everyone in the country. Among the most oppressing of them — jobs, home foreclosures, health-care reform — it’s not a matter of these issues hitting blacks separate from everyone else; it’s a matter of degree.
But the idea that a black agenda exists and should exist feeds into a hierarchical consideration, the idea of who should best define and articulate that agenda. That’s led to a kind of loyalty-oath reasoning that’s gone on for generations in black America, an us-versus-them attitude that’s troubling.
In November 2006, in a spasm of genetic nationalism, Stanley Crouch published an essay in the New York Daily News noting the absence of links between Barack Obama and the touchstone of slavery common to African Americans.
“After all, Obama’s mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not — does not — share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves.
“So when black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about.
The careful reader will note Crouch’s exception, a caveat the size of Mount Everest: Other than color. It’s a bit like saying, “you know, if it weren’t for gravity, we could all fly.” Crouch ignored the way most black Americans navigate bias and racially-tinged conflict every day in their lives: first on the basis of skin color, then on the basis of shared language and culture, and then on the basis of originating nationality. Instead, Crouch went straight for the plantation logbooks. It’s only the slightest variation on the “paper bag” rule common in black culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
That’s the first generational misconception that persists among blacks who matured in the civil rights era (and one that dogged Obama periodically during the campaign): the idea that some black leaders were entitled to their leadership on the basis of how well they advanced the talking points of the classic civil-rights agenda, right down to who their mama was and where she was from.
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This myopia runs parallel with an inability to see the ways in which campaigning and governing are two distinctly different political experiences. Like any candidate on the campaign trail, Obama was both liberated and imprisoned by the candidate’s necessarily idealizing function in American politics: This is what I want to do, intend to do, if I get elected.
As president of the United States, Obama is constitutionally obligated to combine those idealistic intentions — the ones he advanced during the campaign for every interest group you can think of — with the praxis of running a combative bicameral government, working for a nation of more than 300 million people.
The idea, advanced by Tavis Smiley and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, is that the degree of unquestionable misery that black Americans now experience requires special, singular, identity-based attention by the president; this thrusts the identity of the campaigner onto the shoulders of the president, and it’s not a good fit. It seeks to hold the president hostage to working for constituencies within this nation, rather than on behalf of the nation as a whole.
President Obama understands this. “I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks,” he said recently. “I’m the president of the United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”
If Dyson wants a teachable moment, that right there was a sound expression of the realpolitik required to formally govern a nation, as opposed to emotionally governing a people. The professor isn’t just the professor anymore; he’s the chancellor of the university system now. A vastly different thing, requiring a vastly different threshold of responsibility.
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Ironically, one of the things that hamstrings us as a people is an inconsistency about our own self-identity. We rightly insist on inclusion, but we find ways to reinforce a sense of apartness that contradicts that drive for inclusion. The name of the most celebrated black American advocacy organization continues to use in its name a phrase that is the antithesis of modern black American self-description.
We insist on the primacy of Black History Month as Ours, the singular time in the calendar for honoring black history (lest America forget it), when, in fact, other dates on the calendar — from Martin Luther King’s birthday in January to Black Music Month in June, from regional Juneteenth observances that same month to Kwanzaa in December — indicate how much black history has been for decades a year-round, unavoidable, national experience.
Now, with the first African American president in the nation’s history, a man sworn to uphold the national interest, there are calls for that president to engage in corrective measures that would segregate black people from everyone else — a course of action politically unpalatable and, maybe, constitutionally actionable.
Nothing tells the future like the tide of American history. In a masterful August 2008 essay in The New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai grasped what Obama truly represented, at that time as a candidate, and what many in the black American community still don’t get at this time, with Obama as a president:
“For a lot of younger African Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines joined the political mainstream.”
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Leave it to Dr. Dorothy Height to make sense of things. The social activist, educator, counselor to presidents going back to FDR and, for 40 years, the president of the National Council of Negro Women spoke truth to power again in a recent interview.
“We have never sat down and said to the 43 other presidents: ‘How does it feel to be a Caucasian? How do you feel as a white president? Tell me what that means to you,’ ” Dr. Height told The New York Times.
“I am not one to think that he should do more for his people than for other people. I want him to be free to be himself.”
Image credits: Obama top: Pete Souza/The White House. Congressional Black Caucus: Via Brown Man Thinking Hard. March on Washington 1963: National Archives via Wikimedia Commons. Barack Obama and family: Time.com via Wikipedia. Fair use rationale: Necessary to depict 'Obama's mother' in pertinent historical context for elements of this essay. Obama bottom: Reuters/Jim Young.