April 28, 2008
I just thought it only fair to watch the whole Bill Moyers interview with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose decidedly incendiary remarks had lighted a flame of outrage for those who had their doubts about the validity of the candidacy of Barack Obama.
On Moyers' interview, Wright came across as thoughtful and intelligent, even soft-spoken and personable. Quite the opposite of the ranting fury on the brief sound bite upon which the Clintons and the Republicans were hanging their political hopes. Wright said that he hadn't been speaking in behalf of a political candidate when he gave the fiery sermons from which the two clips were extracted. Moyers played the surrounding paragraphs which gave a clearer context of his remarks.
My Alabama friend, also an Obama supporter, and I have been exchanging fast and furious emails about this latest political dust-up and the television talking heads' misinterpretation of Wright and his effect on Obama. "Haven't they ever been to a black church?" I wrote. Indeed, even many white churches in the South have screaming preachers and passionate congregations. Screaming back what the preacher says is part of the black church experience. (I remember attending a play at the prestigious Alabama Shakespeare Festival [I believe it was A Raisin in the Sun] with a mostly black audience. Well-dressed and affluent, the members of the audience thought nothing of talking out loud to the actors as they went through their roles, and making a certain amount of ambient noise throughout the play. I was huffy until I realized, "They're different. They aren't quiet in church either.")
Which was one of the points Rev. Wright made in his speech to the NAACP last night. Different does not mean deficient. Shall I say I was probably less shocked than so many of my Northern Liberal friends at the tone and content of Wright's words? I found the speech exhilarating -- at last the doors are open and people can talk to each other, just as Obama has suggested in his speech about race. That means black leaders can tell us what they say to their following, and we can listen. We've been telling them our thoughts long enough.
I went to a hardshell Baptist white gospel church in the Florida panhandle when I was in my late teens. There was to be dinner on the grounds after a day of preaching and singing by a gospel quartet. It sounded like a pleasant Sunday diversion. I had never been to such an event before; church to me was the dignified, reserved Presbyterian chapel, at which elegant hymns such as "Be Thou Our Guide" were sung almost inaudibly by the restrained gathering. Here, in the little wooden church, a red-faced, ungrammatical preacher screamed at the top of his lungs, fire and brimstone stuff that scared me almost to death. Then they opened their hymnals and let loose "Amazing Grace" like I had never heard it -- the rafters reverberated with the volume and harmony emanating from that crowd. Even the food was heartfelt and meant to be consumed with gusto and washed down with sweet tea and brotherly love.
"That man can preach," a country lady attending the service remarked, shaking her head in admiration. I think she and many other would say the same -- as many have for years -- about Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
This morning I heard Tucker Carlson say that Wright's speech portends tragedy for Barack Obama's campaign. I don't see it that way. I think the Tucker Carlsons are the tragedy of our nation, missing the point of its very salvation, tight-lipped and flat of affect while the excitement around them goes on, making snide comments when passion and action are called for to fix the crumbling foundation of democracy.
It will take a certain readjustment of our perspective, to be sure, to begin to effect the kind of change the NAACP, Rev. Wright, and Barack Obama are talking about. This is a very painful first step, in which we admit that our respected pundits don't know what they are talking about. That's a good place to start.