Wednesday, March 26, 2008

dnA on the Difference Between Wrong and Crazy

dnA at Jack and Jill Politics wrote something that I've been fumbling to articulate, when he discusses the difference between wrong (many of the quotes from Rev. Wright that have been popping up lately are factually inaccurate) and crazy (therefore good reverend must be a paranoid loon):

At the heart of both of these claims is the perception that white people simply don't care what happens to us, as long as it doesn't affect them. At the heart of Obama's pitch is solving this problem by making "black problems," American problems, so that they can't be approached with the same level of cold indifference that drives so much of Wright's rage in the first place.

I get the impression that many white people have little to no knowledge about how messed up this country's racial history is beyond slavery or Jim Crow. So stuff like the Tuskegee experiments, or what Reagan's reckless exploitation of the drug trade in the fight against communism and what it did to urban communities, the kinds of things old heads teach youngbloods in casual conversation, are completely absent from their education (exaggeration is sometimes included in this form of pedagogy, as in most oral traditions. So that partially explains how horrifying but plausible stuff becomes indefensible conspiracy).

Check out the whole post.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Rev. Wright

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar places some of Rev. Wright's comments in their historical context here. His words once again illustrate the need not only for personal reconciliation on the issue of race in our country, but, just as importantly, a reconciliation of narratives. That is, much of the backlash against Rev. Wright's comments stem not only from the fact that they were taken out of their immediate textual context (that is, the words before and after them were edited out), but perhaps more importantly because they are not understood within their cultural context. The shock that many white persons feel when they first encounter prophetic black preaching and black liberation theology comes from our own ignorance concerning very different ways of narrating American history.

More on that later, no doubt. In the meantime, here's a bit of what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has to say on the subject:

The Rev. Wright suggested in one of his sermons that AIDS was intentionally allowed to infect people because it would probably do most of its damage in the black community. White Americans see this viewpoint as racist paranoia. But black Americans remember the Tuskegee experiment, when black men who had syphilis were left untreated intentionally so the progress of the disease could be studied by government doctors. This actually happened, and its memory has caused a collective distrust of doctors in the black community for which white Americans cannot see any rational basis. Again we are stuck with dealing with the evil deeds that were done before many of us were born.


(Update: 3-25-08, 2:45pm)

I was going to make this a separate post, but I thought I'd tag it on here instead. In Blood Done Sign My Name, historian Timothy B. Tyson wrote something, immediately concerning tensions and rioting surrounding desegregation and the rise of Black Power in Wilmington, North Carolina (on of my favorite places to visit, by the way), which speaks powerfully to the problem of different ways of narrating history standing as an obstacle to reconciliation:

The power of history hung palpably over Wilmington, my father learned quickly. That history served as a terrible obstacle to progress, even though many people did not know the events that exerted such a power over their lives...

At the first meeting, which convened at our church, Daddy heard African American parents make bitter references to "what happened" and "what caused all this" - as if the causes of Wilmington's racial turmoil were self-evident. Yet the quizzical expressions and vacant nods of white parents made Daddy suspect that the white parents were oblivious to something that every black person in the room understood. "When you say, 'What caused all this,' what are you talking about?" he finally asked the black parents. At first the black parents refused to believe that he did not know what they meant. Finally, one black mother paused to point in the direction of the Cape Fear River. Flashing her mind's eye seventy years into the past to November 10, 1898, she told him, "They say that river was full of black bodies."

Tyson goes on to recount the history of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, and its subsequent omission from most histories of the area. The memory of it, a massacre of much of the black population, was preserved in the black community, but having been left out of the formal histories, it was entirely forgotten by the whites. Thus, when whites - to the great incredulity of their black neighbors - threw their hands up and declared, in the late 60's and early 70's, "How can this be happening here? We've never had problems between the races here before!" they were entirely honest. Their collective history didn't include that event, seared in the consciousness of the entire black community. Before any reconciliation, then, could take place, there needed to be some kind of reconciliation of narratives.

Similarly, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes the connection between Rev. Wright's statements about AIDS and the Tuskegee experiment, it demonstrates that it is insufficient for whites to note that Wight's comments are factually inaccurate. We must also ask ourselves, why would someone believe them to be true? Why would a pastor revered in many black circles say something that sounds so ridiculous to our white ears?

To answer such questions with the hasty judgments that fill so much mainstream (predominantly white) media discourse is to overlook the fact that we are divided not only by the color of our skin, but also and most importantly by the content of our narratives. And there is much in the dominant white narrative that is lacking. Just as the white people in Wilmington had edited their collective memories to erase the Race Riot of 1898, so too has the dominant white culture in America more broadly edited our narrative of American history, to exclude stories that we wish weren't true. Stories preserved only in the memories of the victims. Stories like those of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

As Borgna Brunner writes on the "legacy" of this experiment in the black experience:

In 1990, a survey found that 10 percent of African Americans believed that the U.S. government created AIDS as a plot to exterminate blacks, and another 20 percent could not rule out the possibility that this might be true. As preposterous and paranoid as this may sound, at one time the Tuskegee experiment must have seemed equally farfetched.

Who could imagine the government, all the way up to the Surgeon General of the United States, deliberately allowing a group of its citizens to die from a terrible disease for the sake of an ill-conceived experiment? In light of this and many other shameful episodes in our history, African Americans' widespread mistrust of the government and white society in general should not be a surprise to anyone.

Truth About Trinity

In the wake of the manufactured scandal concerning Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ (the largest congregation in that predominantly white denomination, but they must be radical racial separatists, right?), one member, sick of the slander, started a blog:

Truth About Trinity United Church of Christ

Check it out.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Coment Moderation Has (Alas) Finally Been Enabled

Because a few isolated individuals (not regulars at this blog) have abused the privilege to comment here, I have regrettably decided to enable comment moderation. I will post guidelines for commenting here later tonight or in the morning. In the meantime, rest assured that in the 2 1/2 or so years this blog has been up, and over the course of now over 400 posts, I can still, despite the comments that have been bounced since I started posting on Jeremiah Wright, count the number of comments I've censored on my two hands. Don't need to go to toes just yet.

So, by and large, any comment left here will be posted. But there is no such thing as an inalienable right to post on someone else's blog, and I reserve the right to post or not post comments at my discretion.

I'll post in more detail on this later, but in the meantime, if you're new here, or in need of a refresher, see this.

Wright's -Post 9-11 Sermon (in Context!)

Tom just sent me a link to this, which posts Jeremiah Wright's post 9-11 sermon, including the infamous "chickens coming home to roost" comment in context!

That same blog (Bald Eagle 08) also does the same thing for Wright's "God damn America," here

For your viewing pleasure, here's the post 9-11 sermon:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mike Huckabee on Jeremiah Wright

Here is part of what Mike Huckabee said concerning the manufactured controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright on MSNBC's Morning Joe:

As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say "That's a terrible statement!"...I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told "you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus..." And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

(h/t: Daily Kos and Political Base.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech

From Barack Obama's website.

Of Roosting Chickens

I've been attempting to avoid commenting on the manufactured "controversy" surrounding Trinity UCC in Chicago and their now retired pastor Jeremiah Wright. That church and its esteemed pastor have been dragged through the mud as a part of an ongoing attempt to smear Barack Obama as being of suspect religion. First he was painted as a Muslim, the new dangerous "other," and now as that is losing traction (by and large, anyway) we're back to that old dangerous other.

The controversy surrounding Trinity UCC - a controversy that exists solely because one of their members has a good chance to be the first black person elected president of the United States - is not about religion, though it is couched in religious language. Ultimately it is about race. It is about how white ears hear powerful black claims. It is about the inability of many whites to understand the prophetic tradition of black preaching, and the unwillingness of many whites to recognize the distance between white and black religious language, and to suspend judgment until they have the requisite grounding to properly interpret statements.

The best case in point of this concerns Rev. Wright's now infamous declaration just after 9-11. But, before I get to that statement, I want to echo these words from Rev. Otis Moss III (one of the key-note speakers at my seminary's recent Festival of Theology), who recently replace Wright as the pastor of Trinity UCC:

Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite.

I could not agree more. To reduce a 36 year preaching career to a few statements yanked entirely from their historical and textual contexts is at best unprofessional and grossly negligent, and the main stream media should be ashamed for their participation in the dumbing down of American racial and religious dialogue. What we're seeing is at best a lazy narrative, and at worst latent racism once again rearing its ugly head in American public life.

In the coming days I may offer posts on Black Theology (Rev. Wright was greatly influenced by James Cone, about whom I have written many times on this blog - to understand Wright's prophetic message you have to have a basic understanding of the theological presuppositions and commitments of the Cone school of Black Theology) and the prophetic tradition. Today, however, I want to narrow my focus to a single quote from Wright, because the way that this quote has been represented in American media illustrates my contention that this discourse is at least lazy, if not outright racist.

The New York Times (whose article is the most responsible journalistic treatment of the manufactured "controversy" I've encountered, as it interviews both James Cone and the University of Chicago Divinity School's legendary Dwight Hopkins, two leading voices in Black Theology, making it the only journalistic attempt I've seen to place Wright properly in his theological context) reports that just after 9-11, Jeremiah Wright preached a sermon that included:

We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards,


America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

That same Times article includes - very responsibly - Wright's explanation for those words, and how they functioned pastorally in his congregation. However, neither it nor any other source that I've seen mentions what many in Wright's congregation undoubtedly knew even as they were hearing this sermon from their seats in the sanctuary that morning: Wright was echoing Malcolm X.

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X explains the controversy that served as the excuse used by Elijah Muhammad to silence him, which in turn was the mechanism by which he left the Nation of Islam. He was asked by Elijah Muhammad to give a speech at the Manhattan Center, shortly after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy:

The title of my speech was "God's Judgment of White America." It was a theme familiar to me, of "as you sow, so shall you reap," or how the hypocritical American white man was reaping what he had sowed.

The question-and-answer period opened, I suppose inevitably, with someone asking me, "What do you think about President Kennedy's assassination? What is your opinion?"

Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt - that it was, as I saw it, a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country's chief of state.

Malcolm X connected the assassination of president Kennedy to the violent hatred in America; in other words, to racism. Now, to white ears this sounds at first at best a reckless stretch, and at worst - well... we've seen the sorts of labels applied to Wright for saying something very similar. However, an appreciation of the historical context quickly shows that Malcolm X had a point. For instance, on the day that Kennedy was killed, the University of Tennessee - only recently integrated, with a handful of black students - had to close. Was this in commemoration? An act of remembrance for a beloved president? Was this due to collective shock that in this unstable time not even the most powerful person in the country is safe?

No. This was because there were so many white Southerners in the streets of Knoxville celebrating the death of that n- loving president. (If you don't believe me check out the brilliant new documentary on ESPN, Black Magic. It contains both first person accounts of this, and archival footage.) Across the American south there was a large, vocal minority of the white population that saw Kennedy's death as the justified result of his stance on civil rights. It was not a stretch at that time to say that racist white anger, fear, and paranoia led either directly or indirectly to Kennedy's assassination, even if such an assertion is less credible today.

In order to understand the statement by Wright quoted above, yanked as it is out of his context, you have to have some appreciation of its use of Malcolm X. Just as Malcolm X linked an American tragedy to American sin, Wright is doing the same thing. But instead of pulling a Jerry Falwell, he is coming from a very different, more prophetic tradition.

The New York Times piece linked to above provided some space for Wright to explain his words, to place them gently back into the context from which they were yanked:

Asked in an interview last March to explain the sermon, Mr. Wright said he had been questioning the country’s desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, counseling his congregants to look inward instead.

Immediately after the attacks, the country’s response was “to pay back and kill,” he said. But before it got “holier than thou,” he said, the nation should have considered how its own policies had led to the events of that day.

The quote in question from Rev. Wright, like the Malcolm X quote to which it points, has been interpreted as saying something sinister, like America deserved to be the victim of a terrorist attack, like the attack was somehow justified. But placed in this context, neither Wright nor Malcolm X are saying any such thing. They are offering explanations, not justifications. They are using their prophetic voices to note the connection between a horrific event and social, economic, and political policies that create the landscape within which that event takes place.

If America were not such a violently racist country, built on the backs of slaves, over the corpses of the native population, it may not have produced the conditions in which John F. Kennedy was killed, and in which many white racists celebrated his death. This is Malcolm X's point.

In the same vein, Wright says, "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards." If we had not done this, then the necessary conditions for the attacks on September 11 may not have been met. This does not justify those attacks. But neither does it let us blindly ignore our own corporate participation in them.

This is not hate speech, it is prophetic speech, in line both with the prophets of ancient Israel and the prophetic tradition of black preaching. It may grate on our ears, but listening to it and taking it seriously may just do us a world of good.

(My next post will concern what I mean by the prophetic tradition.)


Update: 3-19-08, 1:27 pm

Finally having some time to check on some of the blogs I like, I saw this excellent post by Liam. It is similarly concerned with Wright's statements, but does perhaps an even better job critically examining them and placing them in context. More importantly, Liam's focus is slightly broader than mine, and so he addresses multiple statements rather than the single one I parsed out here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Beautiful Post

I haven't been blogging lately, for the usual reasons. Add to that some logistical issues (my house was built in 1941, and the electricity to my basement office is on the fritz) and a recently intensified search for a PhD program (things are getting serious!) and I've all but abandoned the blogosphere.

But I had a little bit of goofing off time this morning, so I visited the usual suspects on my sidebar. There I find this beautiful post at Debunking Christianity. As a deeply if unconventionally religious person, I've found much of the content at that blog more than a little off-putting. It is argumentative (not such a bad thing), but in an oft antagonistic way, too often mirroring the combative evangelical strategies of the worst elements in Christian fundamentalism.

On the other hand, I have a great deal of respect for that blog's founder, John W. Loftus, who despite his occasionally prickly Internet persona, strikes me as a throughly decent and kind human being, who is also an excellent communicator and critical thinker. So, even though I often leave in a huff (especially after reading posts that John didn't write, or after reading the comments left by evangelicals attempt to convert a blog-community of atheists and agnostics) I keep returning to the site, hoping to be as pleasantly surprised as I was this morning.

The post, written by Shygetz, explores the social function of communities of faith, expressly separating that function from any creedal commitments. It does so in the form of a story about how the author - an ex-Methodist turned atheist and freethinker - and his wife - a secular Jew - joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation out of concern for the social well-being of their three year old daughter.

While I am no atheist, I appreciate the need to separate the various social and communal functions of any particular community of faith from their creedal commitments. This in part stems from my understanding of faith, which is distinct from belief, but it also comes from the deep disconnect between my own theological commitments and the various creeds of my tradition. If being part of a community of faith meant simply believing what the rest of that community confesses, all communities of faith would be both exceedingly small and theologically impoverished, and I may not be a part of any of them.

As such, I was encouraged to read Shygetz post, and happy for him that he has found a community in which he can find himself.

Check out his post.