I grew up at Jeremiah Wright’s church. I took my first communion at Trinity United Church of Christ moments after he baptized me. Years later, I’m still verklempt at the reasons why Barack Obama feels the need to resurrect the racial ghost of the minister who married him and baptized his children.
Most recently, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-GA in a much-watched and hotly contested Senate run-off election issued a tweet on November 9, connecting her opponent Raphael Warnock with Wright. Despite a red-hot summer of race-based riots, years later there still appears to be no space to collectively re-imagine the sermons of Wright in the Trump era.
Obama did not avoid his relationship to Trinity in his highly anticipated and recent memoir A Promised Land. He devoted slightly over eight pages to how the surfacing of Wright’s infamous “Godddamn America” sermon affected the campaign. His treatment of how the series of events unfolded is in keeping with the pacing of the rest of the book. However, Obama’s treatment of who Wright is and what he represents lacks context in the same way he accuses Wright of not providing for his own sermonic commentary.
Steeped in the liberation theology tradition, Wright’s sermons over the years preached the belief that God was on the side of the oppressed. Black liberation theology, founded by the late Union Theological Seminary professor James Cone, specifically espoused the idea that God was on the side of Black folks in America. This belief was birthed out of the Black Power movement as a direct response to the domination of Eurocentric theological doctrines that spoke in totalizing terms about God, but ironically never took into account the experiences of those on the colonizing end of the human experience: namely the enslaved Africans and their descendants.
In Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech, he equivocated Wright’s righteous indignation against a country that had defaulted on its promissory note and had given its Black citizens, as Martin Luther King observed, a “bad check,” with his grandmother’s fear of Black men walking down the street. Unequivocally, these two things are not equal. Comparing the corporate sins of a nation over centuries to the prejudices of an individual exemplify Obama’s premier blind spot when it comes to race.
Obama’s approach to race shows a clear preference for the sensibilities of the white working-class over that of Black Americans. In his memoir, he writes that the video of Wright’s sermons played on repeat “provided a more surgical tool to offend Middle America.” Juxtaposed in his retelling of the Wright situation, he speaks of his most famous gaffe “they cling to their guns or religion” referring to white working-class Pennsylvania voters. Obama, taking on an apologetic tone, offers what he wished he would have said softening the sting of those words that still haunt him. Twelve years later, the white working-class voters of Pennsylvania receive a rhetorical reparation. Yet, no olive branch from the first Black president for Black Americans who still suffer the harshest of treatment from this nation’s democratic institutions.
What bothers me most is that 12 years later—after Ferguson, after the 2015 Baltimore uprising, after the creation of Black Lives Matter, after the election of Donald Trump, after Charlottesville, after standoffs over Confederate statues, after the death of George Floyd, after the death of Breonna Taylor—Obama chose to discuss Wright as a campaign obstacle to overcome rather than name the disproportionate racial divide that Wright’s sermons epitomize. While I don’t think Obama’s written words about Wright directly fan the racial flames in the way that Sen. Loeffler is attempting to do, Obama is standing on the sidelines not interested in fetching a water bucket. His decision to deliberate Wright’s dismissal as one of political expediency in his post-presidency is an unfortunate choice and gives credence to the oft-quoted American myth “this is not who we are.” Yet, to the millions of Black and brown citizens, this is exactly who we are.
Admittedly, I am not an objective observer when it comes to the wider society’s treatment of Wright. I was away in seminary in the spring of 2008 and I had to listen to my parents, still members of the church, tell of white supremacist protesters in front of the church on Sunday mornings, metal detectors at the doors because of bomb threats and stories of reporters calling members listed on the sick-and-shut-in prayer list. Wright wasn’t just any Black pastor. He was my pastor. And Obama had done him dirty.
To see Wright and Black liberation theology as merely the other side of an extremist coin with white nationalism on the opposite face is to ignore the asymmetrical ways that race relate to power. Obama’s grandmother’s prejudice was “punching down” in a society that privileges whiteness; Wright’s messages weren’t just inflammatory remarks, but sermons that were “punching up” against white supremacy in a democratic system that still finds new ways to suppress and oppress Black bodies and Black voices. Ultimately, Obama’s reflections on Wright assuage white sensibilities providing an escape hatch for moderates who have misgivings on Black Lives Matter and reparations.
Granted, Obama no longer wields the power of the presidency over such a broad issue as race. Yet his dispositional preference for Middle America is why this nation will be slow to right the historical wrongs committed against its Black and brown people. In fact, such a posture is dangerous. Rather than requiring this nation to live up to its sacred obligation towards its citizens, Obama’s abdication allows the rabid and incendiary tweets of the Sen. Loefflers of this country go unchecked. In turn, Obama’s finger-wagging toward Wright absolves Middle America from its white guilt, allowing the nation’s first Black president to keep its Black citizens in line.
And the American myth continues.