Thursday, March 20, 2008

Our Continued Spiritual Strivings

I have thought long and hard about writing this post. I've read several other bloggers' comments, had heated discussions with colleagues, friends and family, but I must admit here at the outset, I am still feeling conflicted about Barack Obama's speech Tuesday in Philadelphia where addressed the issue of race.

As most, I found Barack Obama's speech moving and indeed timely. He was brilliant in addressing the issues that he did. His use of black anger/rage and the discussion of white backlash was likely the most poignant part of the speech. He had to address, and give context to, the firery rhetoric that comes from the pulpit of the black church. Also, he was able to give some voice to the prophetic nature of African American's abiding faith and spirituality, no matter what religion is used as the vessel for the message (not that one needs religion as a vessel).

African American culture is an expressive one that is joyous, celebratory, cynical, increasingly creative, and also humorous (see Bro. Dick Gregory). Many other adjectives can be used to describe it, but above all one must understand the context for our frustration and rage. It is born out of a contested experience of pain and oppression. An experience that began in the American context on the shores of Virginia in 1619 (though the trans-Atlantic slave trade started in 1442).

In the timeless, Souls of Blackfolk, W.E.B. DuBois begins his treatise by analyzing and explaining African American "spiritual strivings". He poses the question to himself and to African Americans, "How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word...And yet being a problem is a strange experience--." That "experience" is part of the double-consciousness that he later goes on to elucidate. Even before DuBois wrote about the "double-consciousness" blackfolk had been living it for generations (and still do). That is the essence of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright's frustration as well as the black community in general. "One ever feels his twoness--, " DuBois affirms, "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

To further interrogate the Black Church and its pulpit, I thought it necessary to reference another classic text, Black Theology of Liberation, by theologian James Cone. Prof. Cone proclaims "If Black Theology is going to speak to the condition of black people, it cannot ignore the history of white inhumanity committed against them." Additionally, the African American experience is much more than what was done to us by our captors. The history of Americans of African decent encompasses the entirety of this nation and IS this nation.

White America must realize that the liberation theology espoused by Wright is also very republican (lower case "r") and not in any way shape or form anarchist. It is patriotic, but also provides the tough love that is found in the prophetic voice. Wright's critique of America is no different that King's view of Vietnam. On April 4, 1967 in a speech entitled, "Beyond Vietnam" King mentions that he could not tell young men in the ghettos of America not to solve their problems with violence when the very country they lived in made it a point to use violence as a tool of diplomacy. King soberly comments,

"I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."

For that same reason Wright could not be silent either, and I am glad that Obama did not "reject or denounce" his mentor.

Regardless, even as eloquent as Obama's message was, there was something missing for me. What exactly I am not quite sure. Maybe it was me looking for the frustration and rage that I had about him having to be put in a place to have the "discussion on race" in the first place. This is not to say that we should not be talking about this, but it should be "we" and not just Barack. That "we" should be the nation and not just a candidate for the executive office.

I grow so sick and utterly tired of African Americans having to explain to whitefolks who we are and how we think. When Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson, and even the renowned Billy Graham have made incendiary comments that are no different than the rhetoric you might hear at a Ku Klux Klan rally there is no moral outcry. There is no distancing of notable members from their flocks. However, as soon as African Americans affirm their pride in our very humanity there must be a complete explanation.

Anytime there is some self affirming aspect of our culture that says, "I'm Black and I'm PROUD!", from the anthem by James Brown to the salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics, white America withdraws to the same fears or "Negrophobia" that permeated the consciousness of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia when he got wind of Gabriel Prosser's rebellion. That same "Negrophobia" sees contemporary African American progress as a "zero sum" game (as Obama also briefly touched on). No one has called Clinton's Methodist congregation to the carpet about performing same sex unions. Nor has anyone said a word to the imperial president, George W. Bush about distancing himself from Prescott Bush, his grandfather who was a financier of Adolf Hilter's blitzkrieg attack on England. I do not expect Clinton to leave her church or Bush to renounce his grandfather. These situations are much more complicated and not as "black and white" as media would have Americans to believe.

Yet African Americans very "spiritual strivings" must continually be on trial. In the back of my mind I can almost hear Brother Marcus Garvey shouting, "Up you mighty race! Accomplish what you will!" I hope and pray the Obama presses on and continues fighting against those who would see him fail.

America must understand that the notion of egalitarianism found in the Constitution will not come at any high physical cost. The only cost will be of humility and respect for the brotherhood of man. Yes, it will be a struggle, but until this nation admits that it has blood on its hands we will continue to meander in the murky waters of denial and suffocate trying to breathe in the toxic fumes of hubris. Cone, in an interview with Bill Moyers mentioned that America wants to see itself as "innocent" and he is right. Even though Obama is not a direct decedent of the transplanted Africans brought to these shores he still represents the folly of race in this country and how it continually operates to undermine this nation's spirit. One day we will learn that Rome did not fall from outside invasion, but the empire eroded from within.

"The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land."
-W.E.B. DuBois,
Souls of Blackfolk, p. 8.


Blackwatch said...

Bro. Mitchell,

I must say this is as eloquent response that I have read thus far. I too, can relate to the notion that though Bro. Obama's speech was eloquent, honest and courageous, it was frustrating that he HAD to make the speech and that White Americans don't see the need to enter into a dialog with SELF-AFFIRMING African-Americans.

I also felt that what was missing was a loud response from others in mainstream society to really critically assess Black Liberation Theology.Too many are dismissing it off hand. It is not unpatriotic hate speech, but indeed self affirming and as relevant a theology that we have in this country. Too often, the revolutionary message of Jesus is co-opted by state power to maintain status quo rather than critically assess our spiritual, and I dare say social strivings.

Again, very eloquent, insightful and passioante response.

Bro. Spears

negrointellectual said...

Bro. Spears,

I am humbled by your words and also thankful for your keen insight during my undergraduate years in Columbia. When I get finished with my comprehensive exams we really must catch up. Thanks too for checking out my blog.

Visionary Journey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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