Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal
Today, I was a guest on Doni Glover’s show on WOLB. When we finished our conversation on the air, I stumbled into their lunchroom. Everyone was glued to CNN listening to Obama’s speech on race. I sat down. I became glued to the TV, to the words Obama was speaking to us all.
I don’t know how many of you heard it, but you can watch and read it here. I have never heard a politician running for office talk about race in that manner. He tackled it head on.
We live in a nation where race has always been at the root of our social and political discussion. Race is at the root of our national persona. It is complex, very complex. Our generation, our race, our region, our gender, and our exposure other races define our feelings and sense of race as a nation. Barak Obama clearly understands the complexity of race in America. My own sense of him is that growing up as a Black child raised by a socially and politically open white mother, with conservative white grandparents in a white world, with an African father whom he did know, defined his own search for racial identity in America. He lived in other cultures and saw race not just through the lens of Black and White but through Asian worlds that most non-Asian-Americans ever touch. This is a life journey that took him, and continues to take him, wrestling with race through all its American complexities.
America needs to have this conversation with itself. Maybe Barak Obama is the only one, at the moment, who is able to create this conversation among ourselves.
I really understood what he was saying about his minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. White America easily dismisses Reverend Wright because they identify his words with the words of Farrakhan. Most of us in the white world have to be willing to admit that this visceral reaction is what motivates us to become angry at the words of Reverend Wright.
Obama said he could no more turn against Reverend Wright than he could his white grandmother. He said Reverend Wright came out of a generation that grew up in segregation and in the face of outright racial hatred in America. He is still a distrustful and angry man. He also said how much he learned about his faith and life from Rev. Wright.
Obama went on to say how much his white Kansas rural-raised grandmother loved him. How much she loved this Black child in her life but how he cringed at her racist remarks.
This is life in America. This is an America where love and family cross all those lines. This is an America that must have a conversation with itself.
When Obama turned his conversation to the white working class of America and its frustrations, it was clear that he understands the anger of white working class Americans who feels like Black folks are getting a free ride, while they worked for everything they have. He understands how that is all wrapped around the economic conditions they face with factories closing, mortgage foreclosures, and crumbling public schools that intensify the anger around race.
He understands the responsibility Black America must take for itself. He called on Black fathers to come home to their children while understanding the devastation and desperation of life in the Black inner city streets of America.
He also understands that to get beyond race we need to have more than just a conversation with ourselves as Americans. We need to rebuild our economy so that it supports stability and equality. A nation rebuilding its infrastructure, breeding and teaching creative minds, a nation at work with decent paying jobs, a system that provides health care for all its citizens, and public schools where we feel safe and confident sending our children, just might allow us to go beyond race. A movement fighting for this America has the power to transcend race.
I hope and pray that Big Media in America will do this speech and this conversation justice. I am not optimistic but will jump for joy if proven wrong. Let’s see what sound bites they use from this magnificent speech.
Let’s see if the rabid hosts of hot talk television and radio and the knee-jerk response columnists can keep their powder dry. Let’s see if they can stop to think for a moment and help us have this conversation.
I was sitting with a dear friend at lunch (yeah, I can have lunch these days – what a novel idea) who said his liberal Jewish mother and her friends could not vote for Obama if he defended Rev Wright’s words.
The first thing that came to my mind was, how short our memories are. His Mom is obviously part of my Dad’s generation. I remember growing up in a world where we Jews lived in our neighborhoods apart from the rest. It was because of discrimination against us and by our own choice to live among one another. Non Jews were not trusted not to be anti-Semitic until we were satisfied they were not. Goyim jokes (jokes about those who were not Jews) abounded in the community. I grew up with cousins with numbers on their arms tattooed on by their Nazi torturers in concentration camps. I knew that at any moment they .. the proverbial they .. could turn on us before sunset. There is a distrust born of being a discriminated against minority.
You overcome it, you go beyond it, you fight against it, both in society and within your own being. It is a complex thing. I, too, understand the anger in Rev. Wright and in other dear friends of mine. I don’t agree with it. Race is both deep and superficial. It means nothing in the reality of existence but it defines our every move in America.
President Clinton’s conversation on race when he was in the White House was superficial, elitist and detached. Maybe now we can have a conversation based in the material reality of our everyday lives. Obama’s words were eloquent but eloquence is not enough. If he wins, he must build the America he preaches about. If he loses, he has to build the movement he talks about. Words of beauty will only take us so far.
I hope the substance is as powerful as the speech. We will see.