Reverend Wright during his April 13, 2003 sermon.
Barak Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech.
A protest sign from the Madison, Wisconsin Tea Party protest held on April 15, 2009. Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/calistan/
President Barack Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley toast at the “Beer Summit” meeting in the White House’s Rose Garden on July 30, 2009. Cropped from an official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
In that 2003 sermon, Wright was riffing on the unofficial American anthem, “God Bless America,” arguing that it was presumptuous of Americans to ask a good and just God to bless the litany of iniquitous acts he had invoked elsewhere in the sermon (particularly the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement and subsequent oppression of African Americans). Reducing Wright’s rhetorical flourish to a sound bite, the news programs converted a plea for moral rectitude and historical awareness to the equivalent of the jihadist’s cry of “Allahu Akhbar!” (And in the same way, stripped the phrase of every possible purpose and meaning other than to inspire jingoistic hatred.) Wright had chosen the phrase because of its deep cultural resonance, and because, from the daily opening prayers in the Congress to the President’s State of the Union address, the invocation of god’s blessing on our national endeavors has become standard practice in the government of the United States.[open endnotes in new window]
This was a turning point in the 2008 election. Up to this moment, network and cable news coverage of the election, commentators, and many Democrats themselves had joined in a national ritual of self-congratulation. The United States had come of age. We (and the collective plural pronoun resounded loud and clear) were engaged in an election in which a woman and a black man were the front-runners. We basked in virtue. How good we were.
Then came the videos. Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, inveighing against the United States government, calling for god’s wrath to descend upon the good people, the virtuous, self-congratulatory people of the United States, calling upon god to damn America. And our moment was over.
Within a couple of days, Barack Obama would stand in Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and deliver a stirring speech about race in the United States, titled “A More Perfect Union,” one that would be favorably compared to John F. Kennedy’s “Ask Not…” speech. Just as Kennedy had addressed anti-Catholic animosity, so Obama met race head on. He did this by suggesting that we consign Reverend Wright and angry old men like him, who had once had legitimate gripes about the way African Americans have been treated, to the past. To preserve his candidacy, Obama reduced a sermon about the historical sins of the United States to a homily about race, class, and the perfectability of the Union, about acknowledging the past only to leave it behind and move into the future. It was a rhetorically elegant speech, an important and necessary speech, and it was also self-serving.
In 2001 and in 2003, Reverend Wright had woven an intentionally provocative historical tapestry that connected the Middle Passage to the slaughter of Native Americans and the seizure of their land, to the bombing of Hiroshima, and then on to Iraq, suggesting that however heinous the events of September 11, perhaps they derived from more than a blind hatred of an ill-defined “freedom.” In 2008, then-candidate Obama elided this larger historical frame, seeming to address the issue head-on even as he gently and carefully cropped away its larger historical resonances and overtones until, in a campaign that returned endlessly to identity, he gave a speech that was about just about race.
He did this by suggesting that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” If the United States did ignore race, he said, if we did turn away from that individual part of the larger critiques that Wright had mounted, “We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America. To simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality….”
Through this deft rhetorical maneuver—imputing to Wright the very thing he was doing—simplifying a complex history so that he could critique it—Barack Obama drew the frame tighter around himself. He suggested that of course we must remember history, but not in any great detail:
The suggestion that we need not recite the history of racial injustice seems more a command than an observation, as if to say, “this is not a time for self-reflection.” That is, where Reverend Wright had attempted to describe a history that spans generations in order to educate his audience about the events that faced them, for Obama history stretched no further back than to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. And if there were injustice, it was now being passed on by those who suffered it, not by those who had inflicted it—by that angry “earlier generation” epitomized by Reverend Wright. In enumerating his version of history, Obama balanced the wrongs that African Americans have suffered against the successes that have followed, such as education’s advances against its failures fifty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education rulings set out to desegregate schools. He recounted discrimination at the hands of the Federal Housing Authority, and other legal and extra-legal impediments, institutional and actual violence, placed in the path of full participation in the U.S. capitalist system, in the path of the pursuit of property, but only as hurdles to be overcome. Intimating that this had led to what Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called a “culture of poverty,” Obama intoned that these injustices had helped to create a negative response, “a cycle of violence, blight, and neglect that continues to haunt us.”
But what were the spectres of this cycle? Who haunted the American people? The answer was, angry young Black men on street corners, and the angry older Black men such as Reverend Wright who had a hand in creating them, initiating them into a culture of resentment and futile retrospection:
Wright’s anger was a relic of the past and, if heeded, could only engender further bitterness and defeat. But if it were acknowledged as an important relic of the past, it could serve as a gateway to the post-racial future on the brink of which we stood. Within a rhetoric of hope and change, there was no room for a retrospection that led anywhere but into a bright post-racial future. And certainly, there was no room for a backward look that suggested a connection between the rage of poor youth of color in the United States and abroad and the anger of the victims of ongoing U.S. dynastic adventures. A rhetoric of hope and change could not safely entertain such questions, even to critique them. Indeed, to dwell on racial injustice was to perpetuate it, handing down a legacy of anger and disappointment that led not to the White House, but to the Corner.
So Barack Obama ended “A More Perfect Union” with a homily about a poor young white woman named Ashley who had volunteered for his campaign. Even though they didn’t share a common racial bond, she worked for Obama because she saw in him a vehicle for making things better. And he spoke of a nameless elderly Black man from the same voting district who was not angry [like Reverend Wright], and who had volunteered to help the campaign, not for himself or his kind, but “for Ashley.” He was the past; she was the future. And the healing continued.
Within a couple of months, though, Hillary Clinton would claim that Obama’s support among “hard working Americans, white Americans [was] weakening again,” implying that these people would be more comfortable voting for her. Let the lazy, non-white Americans vote for whom they would — if they could even rouse themselves to vote. When that appeal didn’t work, she reminded voters that, as late as June of 1968, before the Democratic convention in Chicago, Bobby Kennedy, an antiwar candidate favored by minority voters, had been gunned down — suggesting…what? That she was the candidate, by virtue of her whiteness, less likely to be assassinated? Or, that perhaps those hard-working, white Americans had a bit of work to do to clear the path to her candidacy. America’s moment of virtue had surely ended. The virtuous collective plural was a fading memory. (As of this writing, armed militias attend President Obama’s speeches, and not in his defense.)
Seven years earlier, Reverend Wright had spoken about much more than the grievances of African Americans. In that sermon five days after September 11, 2001, he addressed the very notion of terrorism, of the relationship of privilege violently claimed to violence against privilege. In that sermon, which was not featured on the evening news, but which did appear on YouTube, after invoking the genocide of Native Americans, the Atlantic slave trade, on down to the death of Muammar Qadaffi’s daughter, Wright continued:
In order for Barack Obama to soothe a white liberal electorate without turning away from the obvious and important fact of his race, he had to repudiate this analysis as the righteous but outdated anger of an older black man who had suffered at the hands of Jim Crow and Bull Connor, in order that we, his listeners, could move forward into a post-racial future in which those injustices would be righted—if not fully erased—by his election.
These three media objects/events mark distinct moments in time and in space, and it is important to acknowledge their integrity, their articulation of local circumstances. Yet at the same time, they are of a whole fabric. They are the teachable moment that Barack Obama would have us have. The connection between Caché and Europa 2005 is more evident: France is struggling, not only with its colonial past, but with a multilingual and multicultural present and future in the country that gave us the word “chauvinism.” That these two pieces connect to Reverend Wright’s sermons requires reading through the fragments excised, compressed, and recontextualized, and through Barack Obama’s repudiation of them and of the man, to their global frame. However angry Reverend Wright might have seemed, however imprudent and derogatory he might have been in other moments of his public career, at the moments of those sermons he articulated quite clearly a set of connections that link the United States to Europe, and to the history of conquest and colonialism that U.S. popular discourse so often elides. And yet, as much as one may shoo them away, the chickens will come home to roost.
Until recently, a key to that elision—whether in the United States or in France—has been the bourgeois family, the ideal center of national citizenship for generations. The members of this family—usually imagined as ideally white and locally distinct yet globally consonant—only dimly realize that even as our/their moment arrives, carried on the backs of others, it is passing. Searching for itself everywhere, consuming authentic Otherness in order to salve over its feelings of inherent inauthenticity, the bourgeois, almost nearly post-racial family looks to the screen and begins to see itself observed and to its horror, recognized. The vacuous fragility of the Laurent family is only to be witnessed and misrecognized by those like it (never by those upon whom its shaky support depends), those who can sympathize. The spark that set the banlieues on fire always seems to come from some unseen source, from that place where dwells the inarticulate rage of the unassimilable. Like Reverend Wright’s angry words, there is no point in trying to understand it. It can only be a cry of rage and bitterness made by voices refusing to live today in our ongoing moment of triumph, hope and change. The assaults of September 11 were the expression of a bitter hatred of freedom; they had nothing to do with a history of colonialism of which Black American slavery is one part. The banlieues burned because young people don’t think things through, don’t take the long view, only think of themselves and not of the greater social good.
This family trembles, seeing itself being seen by those it has refused to see. We are not safe in our homes; we are not safe in our homeland. From constant peril comes constant rescue, and only in that is the family secure. Difference and distance must be maintained. Armed militias attend Barack Obama’s speeches. The chickens are coming home—so slowly—to roost. It’s not a moment for self-examination, it’s a teachable moment.