Some Blues for Mr. Charlie: Obama's Moment of Truth

03/21/2008 09:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It probably had to happen. Maybe better now than later. But still profoundly depressing to see that the practical effect of The Speech was to push down Obama's numbers significantly among Democratic voters, according to Gallup.

I do not fault the candidate for campaigning on the premise of a post-racial culture. I do not tax him with naivete. To my knowledge Obama never denied that the old divisions and wounds are real. But it took the firestorm over Jeremiah Wright's sermons to show yet again just how real the wounds are. And, more importantly, just how real white fears and white naivete remain four full decades after the murder of Martin King.

The Speech was brilliant, no doubt. But the Democrats, mostly white, who no longer support Obama want to know why he stayed in that Chicago church. It must be because he really is one of "those" Black people -- one of those with a big chip on their shoulders. Uh-oh.

As it is Good Friday, and as I am a minister (and yes, of Rev. Wright's tribe -- the UCC), let me suggest that white people still want forgiveness without repentance. They only want to hear from Black folk who will tell them not to worry -- that it's okay -- all is forgiven and forgetten. And Obama didn't say in Philadelphia that all is forgotten, nor did he condemn his pastor for having a long memory -- for sharing the collective memory of the terror and suffering experienced by Black people on these shores.

All of this put me in mind of James Baldwin's unforgettable insight that "whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves."

And that, in turn, took me deeper into Baldwin, whose sense of the twinned tragic histories of Black and white Americans remains unsurpassed.

I will simply let Baldwin do the rest of the talking here. As someone once said, the truth will set you free -- but first it will make you damned uncomfortable. Baldwin wanted white people to be released from the burden of their racism. But first he had to tell the truth.

So here is some classic Baldwin to ponder on an Easter weekend, a time when the full reality of human failing meets with the hope of something new:

"I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

"Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable."

"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. "

"People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned."

"The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world's definitions."

"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time."

"There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now."

"No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable."

"Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."

"The future is like heaven -- everyone exalts it, but no one wants to go there now."

"[The Negro past] of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible."

" [Whites] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it....I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be 'accepted' by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this-which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never-the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."

"Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety."

"A liberal: someone who thinks he knows more about your experience than you do."

"Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have."

"People who have been wronged will attempt to right the wrong; they would not be people if they didn't. They can rarely afford to be scrupulous about the means they will use. They will use such means as come to hand. Neither, in the main, will they distinguish one oppressor from another, nor see through to the root principle of their oppression."

"It's no credit to this enormously rich country that there are more oppressive, less decent governments elsewhere. We claim superiority of our institutions. We ought to live up to our own standards, not use misery elsewhere as an endless source of self-gratification and justification. Of course, people tell me all the time in the West that they are trying, they are trying hard. Some have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our blacks, or those in dozens of other countries. People can cry much easier than they can change, a rule of psychology people like me picked up as kids on the street."

"I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is."