In 1962, in connection with the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the celebrated black writer, James Baldwin wrote a dedicatory letter to his nephew on how to survive and deal with living with white racism in America. It was published as an Essay in New York Magazine under the caption "The Fire Next Time". Baldwin wrote:
A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man's equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
My esteemed brother Dr. Cornell West writes about Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" saying that "(he) spoke the deep truth that democratic individuality demands that white Americans give up their deliberate ignorance and willful blindness about the weight of white supremacy in America. Only then can a genuine democratic community emerge in America."
Not since James Baldwin's famous quote from the Ralph Stanley Blues' Hymn, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time" has America been so consumed in a national discussion about race.
The reappearance of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in the national media with an interview by Bill Moyers, a weekend speech in Detroit at an NAACP conference of some 10,000 and his recent speech at the National Press Club opening a two day theology and Church meeting in Washington, DC, has reignited this discussion and its impact on the presidential campaign of Senator Obama.
To some, the "political" consequences of Rev. Wright's comments on Obama have been the principal, if not their exclusive, concern. Some persons, like Eric Deggans, in an article earlier today in the Huffington Post, said it would be the "the race-based bullet" coming from the "friendly fire" of Rev. Wright that could prevent Senator Obama from winning the Democratic nomination.
Aside from whether or not Democratic primary voters believe Senator Obama can effectively address their day-to-day concerns with high gas prices, rising foreclosures, absence of affordable health insurance and ending the war in Iraq, the underlying issue, uncomfortably presented by Rev. Wright, is the reality of race relations in America.
"Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life....
"Almost no genre of popular culture goes untouched by race."
"Black-white relations became the central issue in the Civil War...was the principal focus of Reconstruction after the Civil War; America's failure to allow African American equal rights led eventually to the struggle for civil rights a century later."(Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Lowen)
Race relations in American is the 800-pound gorilla in our national living room that most politicians have been unwilling or too afraid to acknowledge or discuss.
The media and political pundits reaction to the remarks of Rev. Wright is an unambiguous reminder that white America remains seriously afflicted with amnesia with respect to its treatment of African Americans throughout most of our history.
Rather than condemning Rev. Wright I commend him for refocusing the issue of race in America within a more relevant contemporary framework: A conference on the role of the Church in America, its organization, community work and its theology. The Church and its companion teaching of the gospel of Christianity was the centerpiece of leadership provided by Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Dr. King's abiding faith in the ultimate decency and fairness of most of white America that enabled him to build a successful coalition for the elimination of institutional segregation and the most egregious forms of white supremacy and racism in the United States.
It may be that America will look back at this election and conclude that we owe a great debt to Rev. Wright. However painful the rebirth and perfection of a new 21st-century America may seem now, ultimately he may be the unheralded, indeed unpopular, "hero" who enabled us to reembark on a new journey of recovery for social justice, initiated earlier by Dr. King, the greatest moral leader in our country in the 20th century.
The millions of white people who have voted for Senator Obama in the democratic primaries may be telling us something that we are unable to "hear" and understand. They just might be saying, in spite of all of the negative media and a political pundits, the time has come when they want to finally cross over the bridge to a new 21st century based on a color/race-irrelevant and multiracial society.
Clarence B. Jones is a former lawyer and draft speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr and author of What Would Martin Say?, published by Harper Collins. Currently he is a Scholar in Residence/Visiting Professor at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University.
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