I started thinking about writing a post-Philadelphia Obama blog, and I recalled several mystic chords of my own. My born-again grandmother with anti-Semitic opinions, my own childhood near disintegrating South Baltimore in the 70s, and Dr. Acklyn Lunch‘s class at UMBC.
I’m amazed Dr. Lynch is still so animated, so passionate after these decades. Some might find the clip confrontational, or over-the-top. I always thought the man was inspiring. I had to hold my ground in his African-American Studies class, and he gave me plenty of rope. My classmates had families richer than my own, and, for a university vacillating between )% and 18% minority enrollment, they treated the campus like a consolation prize for all those alumni donations. Lynch’s was the second-most difficult class I ever took, the most difficult being a Critical Thinking class taught by another African-American teacher, Roye Templeton. His orations—and, week after week was like this—never ceased to be inspiring. It’s not like I went out and became African-American, though. I just left the classroom struggling with life with a little more awareness.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Amazingly, I never read Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., or George Jackson, men who lived in my lifetime, before I so naively entered Dr. Lynch’s class. I never knew both Malcolm and Martin, men Dr. Lynch met—and the former he refused to join to head south from Harvard to campaign for civil rights in the Deep South. Or, like a hook in Lynch’s oration, how it was that both reconciled their views before they both were assassinated. The steamroller killing us wasn’t the blood in our veins, but the economics in our society. America still has not read its own history.
Bob Wright and Mickey Kaus demonstrate how two white guys can can’t even have a polite discussion about race in America. Firstly, I don’t want to elect a president of the Democratic party, but of most Americans. TNR‘s Barron YoungSmith rebuts Kaus’ conservative talking point on welfare reform. And, all that cant about Senator Obama’s chutzpah? Don’t take my word for it, when so many others have disagreed. All this pomposity reminds me of a quote from a Shelby Foote interview about the need for fighting the Civil War (and, read what he also has to say about emancipation):
And indeed, the differences were so sharp, especially by the extremists on both sides: the Abolitionists in the North and the Fire-eaters in the South. The differences were so sharp that there was scarcely any way to settle it except fighting. Just as two men can get so angry at each other, the only way to settle a thing is to step out in the alley and have a fistfight. People don’t do that much any more. They’re more apt to take some blind-side swing at somebody instead of a real fight. But I think there probably wasn’t any other way to settle it. Now if we were the superior creatures we claim to be as Americans, we would not have fought that war, but we’re not that superior by a long shot.
Only there’s no "we", no, none of us, or them, and even you are not perfect. James Garney and Amy Sullivan might understand that fallibility.
That desire for a more challenging faith helps explain the appeal of Trinity, despite its potential for controversy. The church, which has ministered to poor South Side families and Oprah Winfrey alike, isn’t fringe, but neither is it a likely home for someone plotting a political career in Chicago. "If you’re black and you’re trying to get ahead in politics, you’re not going to join Trinity," says Dwight Hopkins, a Trinity member who is also a professor at U. of C.’s Divinity School. "Not because it’s radical — it isn’t radical in its context. But it would be safer to join a North Side ecumenical church — the sort of place where people are quiet. They stand up, sit down, listen and leave."
As Obama’s political career blossomed, he could have quietly left Trinity for one of those more staid black churches, but he chose to stay. In his speech, he said he disagreed with Wright strongly, and yet he didn’t leave the church (or even criticize his pastor until Wright’s sermons became a campaign issue). He didn’t explain why he stayed, but by trying to show black and white resentment as the backdrop for Wright’s comments, Obama suggested that his response to controversy isn’t to walk out of the room but to try to understand what’s fueling the fire. He also drew a distinction between political advice and spiritual guidance, arguing that many Americans know what it’s like to disagree with something their pastor or priest or rabbi says.
By asking voters to understand the context of Wright’s anger, though, Obama is counting on voters to accept nuance in an arena that almost always rewards simplicity over complexity. Politicians tend to offer deliberately banal choices: Either we move forward or we fall backward, either we let the economy falter or we help it grow, either we succumb to our enemies or we defeat them — the choice is up to you, America! Obama’s formulation was different. Explicitly asking Americans to grapple with racial divisions and then transcend them — that’s a bolder, riskier request.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, and I don’t knock Senator Clinton for it. But, there’s something to say for the resolute who stay true to themselves, take chances, and aim not to win, just change everyone around them. Leaders do that.