copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Hidden, or fear of a black planet
By Nicholas Sammond
On July 23, 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who is African American, was arrested on the front porch of his home in Cambridge Massachusetts, on charges of disorderly conduct. The professor had yelled at the white police officer who was responding to a neighbor’s call about a suspicious looking man (Gates himself) trying to break into Gates’ home. The charges were soon dropped. Several days later, when asked about the arrest, President Barack Obama suggested that the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly,” setting off a storm of media criticism. Regretting his words, President Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer to join him for a beer and a private conversation about the incident. The President and his aides described the event as a “teachable moment” about race, without specifying exactly who was teaching whom or what might actually be learned. This empty moment of racial panic and its containment recalls the day in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign when he had to repudiate the words of his onetime mentor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, after it came out that Wright had earlier delivered sermons critical of the United States. While the speech that Obama gave was moving and beautifully crafted, it reduced Wright’s complex commentaries on the history of racial oppression and its current expressions to a “teachable moment” about those who cling to outmoded ideas of race and those who do not. Wright’s sermons had been much more than that. They had explored the relationship between racism and colonialism, and between U.S. foreign and domestic policies, in interesting and troubling ways. Given that Barack Obama then reduced them to caricature in order to call for a postracial capitalist United States, “teachable moment” would seem to mean “forgetting.” This brief essay explores three distinct but related moments of race and its erasure, one of which is the Jeremiah Wright incident, with an eye to reclaiming teachable moments from the dustbin of history.
Caché: beheading the chicken
Michael Haneke’s Caché ("Hidden," France 2005) is a story about urban bourgeois anxiety. Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are a successful couple with a handsome teenage son, living in a stylish townhouse in Paris. Georges hosts a television talk show; Anne is a player in the Parisian literary scene. Their life is elegant, graceful, and good. Then, someone begins to videotape their home and to leave the tapes—sometimes accompanied by bloody, childish, violent drawings—on their doorstep. The mystery of who is behind this is never fully resolved, but it reveals discord in the marriage and the family. This seeming invasion of the Laurents’ privacy also spurs Georges to relive a childhood trauma surrounding the betrayal of his boyhood playmate and foster brother, Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an orphan of the brutal 1961 massacre of peaceful Algerian protesters by the French police.
Though we will not learn much of this till later in the film, from its very beginning Caché imposes on us a question that makes this information seem like a series of clues that will help us solve the mystery. The film’s first establishing shot shows a building seen from street level. By convention, we are to understand that both the scene and our relationship to it as neutral observers has been established. But then the shot goes on, and on, and on. We are presented with a decision. Is this an establishing shot or a point of view shot? If a POV, then whose? In an intervening shot from a different angle a man comes out of the same building and looks up the street. Then we are back in the first shot…which then shudders, and the bars of a tape rewinding appear on the screen. We discover we are watching a videotape of the Laurent home…playing on the television in the living room of that home.
This is the question we are offered: “Who’s watching?” It’s the one the film asks us to address. It’s also the wrong question. Although it persists throughout the film and is never fully answered, it obscures the very real relationship between the Laurents’ comfort and security and the eventual immiseration of Majid and his son (Walid Afkir).
A series of scenes describes the problem in miniature. After the film has been going on for a while, we have learned some things. We know that someone is watching the Laurent family. We know that the observation throws the family into crisis and that Anne may be romantically involved with a close friend. We come to know that Georges suspects his boyhood playmate, Majid—whom he coldly betrayed to secure his mother’s love all for himself—of being the voyeur. The scene is set.
Soon Georges receives another tape, which seems to lead him to the voyeur’s apartment. At first, as before, we don’t immediately know that we are watching a tape. We seem to be in a car driving through Paris. We arrive at a nondescript apartment block, pass down a hall, and approach a door marked “47.” Just as we arrive at the door, the shot goes into reverse and the stuttering bars of video rewind appear on the screen. The camera pulls back to show Georges and Anne at home, watching the recording of what we took to be the scene we were watching.
Viewing the tape, Georges and Anne decipher where the apartment is (on Avenue Lenin), and Georges goes to the housing block, arriving at the apartment where his former playmate, Majid (now a middle-aged man) lives. This is the second time we visit the apartment (the first having been on tape). The first time, we approached the door as if we were an unknown protagonist, or walking with him. The second time, we see things from Georges’ perspective. We have his point of view of a maze of low-income apartments that signifies nonwhite poverty, and it seems identical to the first viewpoint. Georges goes to confront his stalker and discovers his former friend, who denies being the voyeur. Georges leaves unsatisfied. Our subsequent visits to this apartment will be different…but not before some intervening scenes in which the family’s internal tensions are brought to the fore.
(Before receiving this tape, though, Georges dreams of Majid’s exile. His dream displaces his betrayal of his friend, linking it to the horror of watching Majid kill a chicken in the courtyard of his family’s country home. In the dream, a young Majid beheads a chicken and his face is spattered in blood. He then turns, hatchet in hand, and walks young Georges backward until Georges’ back is against the courtyard wall, staring impassively at Georges (and at us) with blood on his face, slowly raising the hatchet…and the adult Georges wakens from his nightmare. We are to understand that this is the lie that Georges told, that Majid threatened his life, which caused his parents to send his friend away.)
As it becomes clear that Georges suspects more about the identity of their voyeur than he is letting on to his friends and family, he and Anne begin to bicker. In one scene, they argue about secrecy and honesty as silent images of Mideast violence play on a television in the background. This conflict comes to a head when their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), disappears without a trace. Suddenly, the external threat invades their home: they suspect a kidnapping. Georges contacts the police, and with them he barges into Majid’s home looking for his son. On this trip, too, we follow behind them down the hall and to the apartment door—a member of the raiding party. Majid and his son are arrested even though there is no evidence connecting them to Pierrot’s disappearance.
Finally, Pierrot shows up, having merely spent the night at a friend’s home. When Anne confronts her son, he accuses his mother of infidelity. That is why he disappeared: the external threat recedes to a more mundane Oedipal conflict which is seemingly tidily resolved when Anne reassures him that she is not in love with anyone but him and his father. The threat is deflected and the home’s sanctity uneasily restored.
The rather conventional narrative here is that of the white, bourgeois family threatened by forces internal and external, and this family is offered as the seemingly natural choice for our identification. The internal threat is infidelity and marital discord; the external threat is an unknown and potentially violent voyeur. The mechanism meant to insure our identification is suture, the repetitive loss of phallic power and its return, which film theory tells us continuity practices provide us when each edit wrenches us from the place where we are, demanding that we do our part to find our way back into the narrative. Here, that mechanism is troubled by the uncertainty of knowing whether what we see comes through the camera’s omniscient eye or the voyeuristic videotaping of the unseen stalker. Just was we are unsure whether Pierrot’s disappearance derives from family discord or from an unknown enemy, so we lose confidence in the apparatus of identification, and the whole narrative machine shudders for an instant: is this a family, or a symptom?[open endnotes in new window]
Then we revisit the suburban apartment block to which Georges has returned to confront his suspected observer one more time. We enter the apartment, and without any of the usual warnings that the conventions of classical narrative promise us, foreshadowings that usually prepare us for impending threats to our suturing, Majid suddenly and horribly slits his throat right in front of Georges and in front of us, his blood spurting up the wall behind him. He is dead. Just like that.
But let’s rewind a moment. The film does not this time offer us the same approach to the apartment. This time when the seeming protagonist of the film, Georges, approaches the door, we are waiting for him there, more closely occupying the subject position of a resident in the apartment building, witnessing the arrival of the bourgeois white man. We actually have been prepared for what is about to unfold. We have been being prepared throughout the film—if and only if we question the expected subject position we are coyly offered at its beginning—if we hold in abeyance the whole mechanism of identification that moves the narrative forward.
This returns us to the scene of the younger Georges’ betrayal of Majid, in which he accuses Majid of threatening him. Fearing for their son’s safety, his parents deny the Algerian boy a place in Georges’ white, bourgeois family and send him away to an orphanage, to an instrument of the very state complicit in his parents’ murder. Caché implicates us in the domestic horror of France’s brutal and violent colonial oppression of Algeria by urging us to identify with the symptom of that oppression—the bourgeois family that avoids seeing its comfort as in any way linked to past colonial violence, or that is aware of it only as a potential threat to its imagined wholeness—while hinting that this identification is not a given, an always already of narrative. It is a structuring assumption. In case we don’t get it, after Georges leaves his boyhood friend dead in his apartment he…goes to the movies. He doesn’t call for help from a neighbor. He doesn’t call the police. He just leaves. In a shot following the suicide, we see him leaving the theatre, as if we were across the street observing him. That is his response to the absolute horror he has witnessed: to go to the movies. As have we.
Much has been made of Caché’s final shot, just before the credit sequence—particularly of the shifts in racial consciousness at which it seems to hint. A static shot takes in the front steps of a high school. The shot seems clumsy, amateurish; it is taken over the roof of a car. Is it another of the videos? Children come and go. Looking closely, we spot Pierrot on the steps, talking to friends. After a few moments, someone who could be Majid’s son comes up to him and takes him aside, talks with him heatedly, but they part with a smile. Did this precede the horror we just witnessed? Or does it follow, signaling a generational shift in attitudes? But that is more of the same misdirection as the question we seemingly are asked at the film’s beginning; it’s not an answer. The ending says, in effect, “Look closely: here’s the answer you wanted, the one you need to remain whole. Take it. It’s the answer to the wrong question, which is what you really want, anyway. Go, and be satisfied in yourself: you have been re-established.”
And so we go on, in the narrative that makes sense to us, that makes sense of us.
Cinetract: in the banlieues circa 2005
Shortly after the Parisian banlieues caught fire in 2005, a video circulated on YouTube, and in film festivals. It begins with a black screen, on which flashes the number “1,” then “Europa 2005/27 Octobre.” A static shot takes in a wall in what appears to be a European, Francophone city. We suspect it is Francophone because there is a sign on the wall, in a script like graffiti, that reads, “STOP! NE RISQUE PAS TA VIE” (“Stop! Don’t risk your life!”). The camera hesitates here. In the background, there is the sound of wind, and of traffic. The camera pans to the right, up the street, to a dead end: a large building sits behind green metal gates topped with barbed wire. Another sign on the gates, also in “graffiti” script, yells, “STOP!” Its graphics seem to warn of eletrocution. The camera pans to a gated home with high-voltage power lines running behind it. A dog barks. There is a cut to a long shot of the building behind the gates. The camera pans left, following the wall, past latticework that looks vaguely Asian. Trees bearing pink flowers line the road. The dog barks again. Superimposed over the image appear the words, “Chambre a gaz/Chaise éléctrique.” The dog barks furiously. The screen goes black. Pause. The number “2” appears. The scene repeats. This will happen three more times, and the last time the camera will stop panning right before it gets to the gated home. Everything else will be the same—except that the light appears different each time, the time of day seems to change.
The video is by Jean-Marie Straub and the (now late) Danièle Huillet. They had been commissioned by an Italian TV show to celebrate Roberto Rossellini’s 100th birthday by imagining a moment in the life or death of Ingrid Bergman’s character in Europa ‘51 (1952). In that film, Bergman’s wealthy character comes to terms with the death of her son through encounters with the poor of Rome that are facilitated by a Communist friend. Straub and Huillet’s interpretation makes no direct reference to the film, beyond the title. Instead, it commemorates the day and place where two teenage Parisians, fifteen-year-old Bouna Traoré (from a family of Mauritanian origin) and seventeen-year-old Zyed Benna (from a family of Tunisian origin), were killed in a police sweep in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The boys died attempting to hide from the police in an electrical transformer. The wall we see in the video surrounds that transformer. Many news outlets in France, Algeria, and elsewhere, would mark these young men’s deaths as the spark that triggered the riots that surged across France in the fall of 2005.
As with the video that weaves through Caché, the narrative of this piece is unspoken. To have any sense of what you are seeing, beyond its seeming mundanity, you have to know what that date means: October 27, 2005. You have to know that two young boys died that day, and that their deaths are linked to uprisings by poor youth of color across Europe, violent burning protests against an existence that at times seems hopeless and marginal. Even with that knowledge, you are faced with ambiguity. Symbolically, the boys’ death suggests the futility of confrontation with the raw power of the state, of those mechanisms that convert that raw power into something called utility: this is the mechanism of the colonial process made material, and it is lethal. But that reading is cold. Two young men died; they weren’t symbols, they were people, they had their own material reality. They were teenagers whose life experience had led them to fear the police force and to expect its officers to treat them as less than human. Run to ground like prey, they died on October 27, 2005. In a state that forswears the death penalty as barbaric, Straub and Huillet suggest, by the only words besides “October” in the video—“electric chair” and “gas chamber”—that some are still condemned by that state to die. To Europeans, the words “gas chamber” suggest the Holocaust, the systematic murder of ethnic others by people made more European through that act of savagery. Then Interior Minister and now President Nicolas Sarkozy would call the youth who rioted, who identified with those who died, “scum.”
Silence. The boys who died on that night had fled the police to avoid being detained in a random search, to be forced to produce their identity papers. This, in a state that until 1999 had refused to acknowledge its colonial war on Algeria, choosing to refer to it instead as a “security operation” to “restore order.” This, in a state that still struggles to voice its own contrition, that still disenfranchises “non-native” workers. No, not silence—traffic and the sound of barking dogs. And written words punctuated by exclamation points, a wall silently shouting a warning or threat of death.
Faced with death, we return, again, and again, to the aesthetic. The dead-end street. The wall that blocks our progress. The words, done in a script that imitates tagging, that feigns a connection to a subculture even as it acts as an instrument in its regulation. The panning back and forth, up and down the street evokes the movement of a security camera. Or, mimicking the shaking of the head, it makes a gesture of mute disbelief. Or, the act of reading and re-reading the scene, an attempt to make sense of something that refuses easy reading. There is no one here with whom to identify. There seems to be no one here at all: the bodies of Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna were found only when they caused a power failure that darkened the area.
There is no one with whom to identify. The narratives available, and which inevitably unfolded as the riots were covered in the press, could only describe the youth raging across the country as a symptom of post-colonial disenfranchisement, a condition for which no cure has been articulated. They epitomized the neither here nor there: born in France but marked always as members of immigrant communities. Visible, yes; identifiable, no.
The Reverend Wright speaks: “The chickens come home to roost.”
On September 16, 2001, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright delivered a sermon to his congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, Illinois. In that sermon, he cautioned his congregants about the rush to war, the rush to vengeance, particularly in god’s name:
"We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents….violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrrorism begets terrorism…. What should our response be? I asked the Lord that question Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday…. The Lord showed me that this is a time for self-examination…."
But he also inveighed against the hypocrisy of an U.S. population that had visited its own suffering on others, and he did so in no uncertain terms, citing the former United States Ambassador to Iraq, Edward Peck, who was himself invoking Malcolm X—on Fox News—who had said: “America’s chickens are coming home to roost!”
Wright elaborated on this statement, arguing,
“We took this country, by terror, away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Commanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism. We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with Stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Qaddafi’s home and killed his child. ‘Blessed are those who bash your children’s head against a rock.’ “ [Here, Wright is paraphrasing Psalm 137, verse 9.]
Trinity is a megachurch—with thousands of congregants and multiple services—so it isn’t surprising that the sermons are videotaped. It is not uncommon in large churches such as Trinity that tapes are provided for shut-in congregants or as inspirational sale items. These videos went largely unremarked for over seven years until it became apparent that Senator Barack Obama, a black man and a member of the Trinity congregation who had once called Reverend Wright his mentor, might become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Then, a very long, very involved sermon—which linked the attacks of September 11, 2001, to U.S. involvement in the history of Black slavery and to its colonial activities both domestic and international—was mashed together with another of Wright’s sermons, from April 13, 2003, and then reduced to sound bites, the one of which most played was:
“God damn America!”
Over and over on cable news, and on broadcast, too:
“God damn America!”
“God damn America!”
“God damn America!”
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.
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:
“Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point…. We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow….”
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:
“This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African Americans of his generation grew up…. What’s amazing is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but how many men and women overcame the odds, how many people were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them. But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it, those who were ultimately defeated in one way or another by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations: those young men or increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those Blacks who did make it, questions of race and of racism continue to define their world view in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and bitterness of those years.”
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:
“We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy, killed hundreds of hard-working people, mothers and fathers who left home to go that day not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki! And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon…and we never batted an eye. Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school—civilians, not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans and now we are indignant!? Because the stuff we have done overseas has been brought home into our own front yard! America’s chickens…are coming home…to roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism…a white ambassodor said that y’all not a black militant…. This is a time for self-examination….”
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.
3. For pictures of the two young men, and articles on the incident, see, for instance,
4. In the United States, on the other hand, the gas chamber has been considered a more humane alternative to its predecessors, hanging or the electric chair. My thanks to Chuck Kleinhans for pointing out this distinction.
5. YouTube has removed the link to Wright’s 9/16/01 speech, but an audio version exists at
Another representative blog defending Trinity Church may be found at
(These sites are provided for access to relevant material; the author and editors take no position on or responsibility for other content on them). The YouTube video of Wright’s April 2003 sermon is at
6. The Middle Passage refers to the capture and enslavement of African peoples by Europeans and Americans.
7. The speech may be found at
8. Kiely, Kathy and Jill Lawrence, “Clinton Makes Case for Wide Appeal.” USA Today 7 May 2008.
9. Thrush, Glen. “Clinton Apologizes for RFK Remark.” Loa Angeles Times, 24 May 2008.
10. The whole sermon has since been removed from YouTube, but audio versions still circulate freely. See note above. This essay makes no judgment about the totality of Reverend Wright’s thought. It is concerned solely with his sermons of 2001 and 2003, and with Barack Obama’s response to him.
11. For a more detailed discussion of the use of race and of language in relation to Reverend Wright in the 2008 campaign, see Herman, Edward S. and David Peterson, “Jeremiah Wright in the Propaganda System.” Monthly Review (September 2008).
12. For images of some of those armed protesters, see, for instance,
13. This essay was prepared with support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto. Thanks to Chuck Kleinhans for his detailed and very constructive criticism, to Anna McCarthy for her supportive and constructive feedback on early versions of this piece, and to Aubrey Anable for close reading and very valuable comments on later drafts. Thanks also to Christopher Heron for his keen eye and invaluable assistance in obtaining and organizing the images for this essay.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.