Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Elephant in the Room: Obama on Race

I'm warning you right now. This is long.




Before my dad, Sean Connery, was a pastor he was a high school teacher. He taught a class called "Modern Problems". This was the 60s, so you can imagine some of the topics. As "black power" was birthed out of the civil rights movement, Dad took the controversial step of inviting a leader from the Portland chapter of the Black Panthers to address his class. (And yes, he nearly lost his job over it). He tells of this young man coming to his class and giving a passionate and sometimes angry speech to the mostly white class but how during the Q&A he softened, allowing for some genuine dialogue.

But that wasn't enough for Sean. He knew that the conversations he was having with his students about race were being conducted in a white context. He wanted to broaden their understanding and so he gave them the option of going with him to services, with the permission of the pastor, at the largest black church in Portland. (He made this trek for at for at least 3 years straight, each year the group of students growing larger).

I remember going with him. First of all, for the first time I felt different, a little puddle of white in a sea of black. I remember feeling awkward and uncomfortable. But even as I, as we, stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, we were welcomed and literally embraced by the church members.

It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. The church was packed, for one thing, with hundreds of people filling the pews. I was astonished by the fashion, the very definition of "Sunday best". These people weren't just dressed in nice clothes, like the folks at my church. They were decked out: the men in gorgeous 3 piece suits and swell ties, the women in vibrant dresses with jackets, scarves and huge hats. I can still see one woman in a lemon yellow suit, large feathers bouncing on her veiled hat.

Church started with prayer. A loooooong prayer. (Sean said it clocked at 25 minutes). A prayer during which the deacon thanked God for everything, from the pillow on which he laid his head to the floor he stepped on when he got out of bed; a prayer of detailed gratitude.

Then there was music. I knew the hymns, but I'd never heard them like this. They would start slow and soulful and then cascade into rich, spirited gospel. There were drums and bass guitars. The pianist would go from standard gospel playing to full-on rocking as the choir swayed as one. Then, to my wondering eyes, came the dancing. Mennonites don't dance under any circumstance. Now I was surrounded by people who were, at a minimum, standing and swaying with the rhythm. Other parishioners would be in the aisles dancing and clapping, singing along or lifting their hands toward heaven. There was a wildness to it that I didn't understand, a passion I'd never seen. Dancing for Jesus? People did that?

Somehow the pastor would bring all this under control for his sermon. But the worship experience was hardly sedate. People called out "amen" and "praise Jesus" as he spoke. They applauded, laughed and shouted. The pastor would make a point and say, "Can I have an 'amen'?" and the whole congregation would call it back to him. It was interactive worship.

I remember something else. I remember the pastor at one point looking straight at my daddy and calling him "brother". What I didn't remember was the context. Sean says that he was railing at his people for dying their hair and doing other things to try and be "more white". He was, clearly, urging them to embrace their heritage, to be proud of who they were and telling them not to pander. He wasn't trying to suggest there was anything wrong with white folk being white but he wanted to instill pride in his own people. It was appropriate for him to do so because in that church, on Sunday, his ministry was to black people. He knew they had to go out from their sanctuary (literally) and live in a white world for 6 more days until they could again find some respite in a place built on their culture, their experience, their way of doing things.

It's important to understand that.

I don't talk about race much because, like a lot of progressives, it makes me uncomfortable. I prefer to focus on how far we've come. One day I was hugging a little girl who sometimes rides in my car pool and one of her classmates asked, "Is that your mommy?" Rosie is dark as a bar of bittersweet chocolate. That another child could think I could be Rosie's mother was one of those signs to me that we are living in a different society, one where the next generation, at least, has the chance to get some of this stuff more right than we have.

But racial and cultural identity are real. So is the racism and prejudice that come with it. So is white privilege and anger and all the rest of it. I think Barack Obama was hopeful that his candidacy could be about something other than race because he would prefer to think, as do I, that we are more or less passed "all that". Barack and I can be sweetly naive like that. But when the hateful words of his former pastor came to light the issue came up. Of course it did. Because however uncomfortable it makes any of us, it is always right there, just below the surface. Race is the elephant in the room and just like a dysfunctional family that ignores Uncle So and So's unfortunate behavior at holiday, Americans try to ignore it.

Obama couldn't ignore it anymore. He had to address it head on. Now, he could have done the politically expedient thing: denounce Wright's words, dismiss him from his campaign and move on. That's the formula for these situations, which happen in nearly every political campaign. But Obama knew that Wright's comments required more than that formula so yesterday, steps from the Liberty Bell, he faced it in an eloquent (well, duh) and straightforward way. He did it with courage and resolution.

Context matters. The words of Rev. Wright matter within the context of the black experience in America. Obama's denunciation of those words matter within the larger context of his experience with that church and that pastor. Unfortunately, the way news is reported in this country means that the context isn't going to be in play. News organizations are going to cull the sound bites that suit their agenda. If they are for Obama it'll sound good, if they're against him the selected bits will stir the pot further. That's seriously unfortunate because yesterday Barack Obama gave a speech that every American should hear, a speech that in it's entirety has the potential to actually get us talking about race in a meaningful way. It was, I dare say, a speech whose time is long overdue.

I fully understand that you can't drop everything and watch this right now. The run time is nearly 40 minutes. But I'm asking you to keep it in mind and when you've got some time, maybe later tonight, between say, dinner and whatever passes for must-see-TV for you on a Wednesday, watch this. At the very least, take 10 minutes and read the transcript.

One of the reasons I support Barack Obama is because I sincerely believe he is the right guy for this moment in our history. America, which has never been perfect, has never strayed so far from her ideals as we have in the last 7 years. But there is a promise in our founding documents that we should seek to reclaim and Barack Obama has what it takes to embolden ordinary Americans like me to engage more fully in that process. That he has emerged to push us in that direction is simply a beautiful, beautiful thing.

That is all. Tomorrow I'll do something completely light and fluffy.

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24 Comments:

Anonymous Mom opined...

Excellent. Insightful.

The elephant is definitely smaller, or at least more clearly seen for what it is.

I'm proud, I am.

March 19, 2008 10:31 AM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

Thanks, DJ. And it was nice to chat with you and daddy this morning.

March 19, 2008 10:34 AM  
Blogger Eric opined...

Wow Just Wow. I can't watch the speech at work but I read it.
I got tears at "I'm here for Ashely"

Did you know Barak Wrote that speech himself?

He is exactly the leader this country needs at this hour.
Exactly

March 19, 2008 11:14 AM  
Blogger Buck opined...

I am so glad you wrote this. After his speech, I'm totally on board with Obama.

March 19, 2008 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous opined...

Ba Ha Ha Ha (Note no W)

The right "guy"? Am finaly to "Family" the last chapter in the book "Auadacity of Hope". I hear rumors youve been tryin to read it too. Not easy.

Why was it bloggers who brought this up and not the right wing press. Certainly theres plenty of them. It was the liberal comics who seem to have gottenit right. Barrack needs to listen to Jon Stewart and Steven Cobert. He better.

T Y S

{As I was saying earlier - we need you to make a few slight changes and publish a book - you go girl)

Peace

:+}

March 19, 2008 12:36 PM  
Blogger sageweb opined...

I watched this yesterday, I have been very interested in this whole thing since it broke. Religion and politicians scare me. I wish they were not allowed to mix. Saying that I thought the speech was good, but I still have issues with him. I hope the church, any church ever sways him in important decisions if he does become our next president.

March 19, 2008 12:44 PM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

Well, of course he did, honey. And I agree. Obviously.

No way, Buck. Score one for the home team!

"Audacity of Hope" is a challenge, Anonyba, but worth it. And yeah, he's the right "guy", as opposed to Hillary, who would be the right "gal". Except I don't think she is. For now.

Sageweb, I think that's one of the things I like about Obama...he doesn't mix religion and politics in that fearful way that the right has been doing. His faith informs his politics, of course, but he doesn't need everyone to get on board with his religion. Big difference. Truth is, part of the reason I consider myself a Democrat and not a Republican is because I see more of a link between the gospel values I hold dear and the historical record of the Democrats for being on the side of the poor and minorities. Doesn't mean I believe God is a Democrat, though.

That didn't make sense, did it?

March 19, 2008 1:33 PM  
Blogger Eric opined...

Actually God was for Pat Paulsen and when Pat never got the nomination God just got out of politics altogether.

March 19, 2008 2:58 PM  
Blogger Kimberly Ann opined...

I have been impressed with Barak since I heard him speak at the Dems convention awhile back. I appreciate his thoughts, his point of view, his ability to literally unite both white and black Americans. He inspires me and I hope with all my heart he will lead us forward. But I'm still saddened by his association with Rev. Wright. Baptism of his kids, marrying his wife, all of that has meaning. But so do the words that Wright spoke. This issue is so very complicated but really should be very simple. I hope someday it will be simple for all the kids yet to come.

March 19, 2008 3:36 PM  
Blogger TWISI opined...

Now I know why you are such a great mom.... you had great parents.

After reading the speech yesterday I forwarded the text to my right-wing wack job brother, who i love more than life, and asked him just to read it.

His response.... it would be nice if life could be the way he (Obama) envisions it.

My response, if WE believe it.... it will happen.

thanks for a beautiful post.

March 19, 2008 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous opined...

Ba Ha Ha Ha (Note no W)

Hhhhmmmm, If it had been Hillary, who and how many would be calling for her to quit the race and support the opposition?

Peace

:+}

March 19, 2008 4:26 PM  
Blogger Jason Boskey opined...

The church speaks for more people than the money...

What you described is exactly the same experience I have had

in a black church

and in a movie theatre.

You speak of the need to understand that in the context, the preacher was speaking in a black church, and to a black congregation. I'm down with that.

However, how is someone to realize that if behavior is appropriate in church of all places, that the same behavior is not appropriate in other places?

Hillary couldn't give this speech, mr/ms anonymous. The speech would have no credibility coming from her.

Of course, that is why McCain has pulled ahead of both Obama (6pts) and Clinton (8pts.) Hillary keeps looking for new ways to show the American people that no matter what they think, she should be president.

March 19, 2008 5:07 PM  
Blogger Sling opined...

I couldn't get the video to play,so I read the transcript.
..and then I read it again.
No easy task for these old eyes,but I wanted to experience the moment,because I'm certain that Obama's words on this occasion,at this moment in history,will one day be held in the same regard as those of Lincoln,or Churchill,or King,or Kennedy,or (insert brilliant orator here)..
Words that end up carved in stone,or cast in bronze,because they answer to
the better angels of our nature.
Thanks for the hook up Rainey. :)

March 19, 2008 5:27 PM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

So true, honey.

March 19, 2008 5:33 PM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

KA, but that's what I really appreciated about the speech. Obama points out, quite clearly, that Wright's words, while coming from a place of righteous anger, also are flawed because they are spoken with a belief that America is static, unable to ever move from that one sore spot. Obama's belief is that it, that we, CAN move forward. But we have to do it by honestly facing the problem and not sweeping it under the rug anymore.

I don't think the problem is ever going to be simple but what Obama did, which most of us don't typically do, is address it from both sides now, acknowledging the pain and anger without suggesting that staying there is something anyone is entitled to. It's the fundamental power of that speech and of his candidacy, if you ask me.

Which you didn't.

Twisi, they are pretty rockin' for old people. And I think you capture the essence of the whole Obama thing perfectly with your observation. Really, can anyone disagree? No. The willingness to step off the page and actually do something, that's the genius of it.

Actually, that's pretty much the genius of living any kind of authentic life but that's probably a post for another day.

Yes. We can.

Anonyba, Hillary could never give this speech because it isn't her fight. The reason she should quit the race is because she doesn't have the votes. Although there are still 10 more contests. We'll see, won't we?

Bosk, I hear things in my church all the time that are specific to my belief system but don't necessarily translate in the wider world. What church does, for me, is inform my conscience so I can go out into that world and try to bear some light. People might not get where it's coming from but that's not the point. I've also been in church and heard things I truly don't believe (like the time a guest priest basically told us that a vote for Kerry was a vote against God). People have to make choices. But the point is, context matters and context is something most of us don't trouble with. Wright's comments are devisive and wrong and Obama said that. But they also can't be just dismissed out of hand because of the legacy behind them. I think that was the point.

As for numbers, pft. It's a long way between March and November. I'm not worried at the moment. Once moms and dads and grandparents start copping to the fact that McCain is going to send their precious babies to Iraq in perpetuity, I think the numbers are gonna change. That and a host of other things, particularly if McCain keeps up with his lockstep with Bush. THAT is not going to win him this election.

Sling, buddy, I am all about the hookup. Now give me a whiskey. This stuff is wearin' me out!

March 19, 2008 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous opined...

Ba Ha Ha Ha (Note no W)

As a flower-child-of-the-love-generation I can say for sure that you misunderstood me completely. The worst thing about the Rev Wrights speech was that he continues to blame others for his problems giving them the power of changing him and denying himself and his peoples the power to change themselves and their place within our society.

Obama misses this completly too. I have little doubt that I have contributed more to black children than allthe peoples who have read your blog put together.

As for my comment that if Hillary had gotten involved in such a scandal (not made a speech) uhh
well she didnt have to for you to jump on her and condemn her now did she.

As a flower-child-esrth-lover what is the reputation of tadays social justice leadership? Are they aware of the shift toward inclusionism versus esclusionism which I have spoken to you about on several occaisions? Not if you read the book. Ignorrance is no way to achieve justice. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." (Rev. M> L. King)

Peace

:+}

March 19, 2008 7:28 PM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

Anonyba, I don't think Obama missed the point at all. In fact, he identified the point in a way that is all too lacking in most discourse in America.

And while your contributions to disadvantaged children are completely admirable, you do need to understand that a great many of my readers are people of equal goodwill who hope and work to make the world a better place. Love ya and all, but I can't let you diss my peeps.

And Hills has plenty of her own baggage, most of which she carries with a credible amount of grace, though I say it. The point, I think, is that Obama had to say something about Wright but he decided not to take the easy way out and instead used it as a platform for addressing the broader issue. And for that I give him a tremendous amount of credit.

Peace back atcha.

March 19, 2008 8:18 PM  
Blogger Sling opined...

Well,hell...
I don't know from contributions,but it's always Autumn in my family tree.
Literally.
Hey!..Tommorow is the first day of Spring!..
Here's to New Hope!..(and a shot of Maker's Mark to you Rainey} ;)

March 19, 2008 10:19 PM  
Blogger Mom opined...

the man is truly eloquent. He is saying something very important very well.I do hope he wins this thing.

March 19, 2008 10:20 PM  
Blogger kingba opined...

SUPERB blog, Lorraine. THANKS.
And, yes, this is probably THE speech so far of the presidential campaign and yet, we have had quite a few god ones (including post-Iowa Edwards (swan song) and post-Iowa Obama.

March 20, 2008 2:59 AM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

Mmmmmm, Maker's Mark.....


And you know what I really like about his eloquence, Mom? He genuinely believes what he says. It's just so refreshing to not be pandered or talked down to by a leader. (claps little hands in glee just thinking about President Obama)

Why, thank you, Kingba and I agree...the speech making coming out of this election is reaching a new high and we still have a way to go. Marvelous, really, when you think about it...we're overdue for some decent oratory. (And leadership).

March 20, 2008 6:36 AM  
Blogger Ex-Shammickite opined...

When younger son was little he went to nursery school and his teacher, Uncle Paul, was black.
When we went back at age 10 for a school reunion, he said to me in a surprised voice afterwards "Uncle Paul is black!" He hadn't noticed that before!

March 20, 2008 9:14 AM  
Blogger Lorraine opined...

Ex-S, a)thanks for stopping by and 2) reminds me of a time The Child told me she thought "black" was a silly word. When I asked her why she said, "Because Jackie's skin is like chocolate and Haily's looks like cafe au lait and Evan's is kinda like cocoa"...she saw the shades of color but she couldn't connect it to one kind of identity. And of course, there is such a thing as racial identity and culture and all that but the point is there's something to the innocent way children look at it all that could be a lesson to the rest of us.

March 20, 2008 3:29 PM  
Blogger more cowbell opined...

His speech was brilliant -- I'd wondered how in the world he'd pull it off. As you said, this has started a conversation that is long overdue, but a real conversation, with more than the usual soundbites, assumptions and biases.

I respect him so much for not doing the easy (advisable?) thing and severing his connection to Rev.Wright as a person - he separated the soundbites from the man, from his history with the man, from the racial history in the US.

I've been off the net for a while, and didn't finish writing about this, but hearing his speech go out to a mainstream audience, hearing him address the history behind that anger that White people fear (because we don't understand), hearing him give examples that White people could relate to so they could maybe see things in a different way than the way the system has taught us to ... I was very proud of him, it was historical.

Credit to your pops for stepping out of his comfort zone and trying to give kids a different view than they'd usually have, especially during that time. You nailed it with the fact that it can be very uncomfortable for White folks to talk about race -- it's easier just not to do it, not to make a "mistake", not to be misunderstood. Being White, we can choose not to address it. Rev.Wright's congregation doesn't get that choice.

I actually believe that Obama knows full well we are nowhere near being past it, but we are where we are, thanks to an ugly history, and I believe that he is absolutely the person to start us stepping forward, to bring about some understanding around this issue. It won't be cured in 4/8 years, but if this one speech raised awareness, can you imagine what 1 or 2 presidential terms could do?

Also, thank you for addressing the anonycomments. (sorry to go on, I get all whoo-hoo around Obama-talk. You know how it goes.)

March 28, 2008 1:44 PM  

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