After epic race speech, Black Church still misunderstood

“The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”

The Jeremiah Wright controversy coloring presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign has highlighted this sentiment, which was spoken first by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Underneath the outrage that came from the public surfacing of Wright’s comments is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the Black Church and the significant role that is has played in the lives of African Americans ever since Africans first stepped foot on the American continent. Even worse, national media used the Wright controversy to “racialize” Obama, suggesting that Wright’s uninhibited comments could be used to understand Obama as a black man who belongs to a Black Church.

Although the Black Church is beholden to Christianity and Christian beliefs — to which Africans were not exposed until the influence of white European peoples and culture — it is in appearance, and in spirit, largely different from its white counterparts.

Since its modest beginnings, the church has endured scrutiny, threats of violence and other impediments mostly generated by white Americans, who, during the time of slavery, viewed the religious gatherings of black slaves as threatening to the status quo. Embedded in the scrutiny of Rev. Wright and his ministry is the same accusatorial and hateful rhetoric that white slave owners once used against their slaves’ forms of worship. Sound bytes and decontextualized quotations have portrayed Wright, his former church, and consequently the Black Church at large, as a place of anger, rage and hate, and the American people took the media’s words and representations at face value without fully arming themselves with the facts and knowledge of history.

The Black Church has played an integral role in the lives of African Americans throughout American history; Black Church leaders have proven equally important and influential. Many were writers, polemicists, orators and organizers during the abolitionist, suffrage and temperance movements, not to mention iconic figures during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. The Black Church is a place where African Americans have sought shelter, solace, compassion and companionship during the most dangerous and violent of times; it has functioned as a place of grieving and of healing during the roughest patches of African-American history. It is a place of celebration and joy during moments of triumph and success. The Black Church has been one of the leading support systems for African Americans not only in their spiritual pursuits, but in their educational, economic and political endeavours as well.

The expansive history of the Black Church, however, has been silenced due to a lack of scholarly, historical attention given to the subject and because of the reality that the Rev. King referenced in his quotation above; our churches still remain as segregated as our neighborhoods and schools once were.

The resulting absence of mutual comprehension and understanding between racial-ideological groups also highlights why so many critics called for Obama to go beyond simply denouncing his former pastor’s words and giving his “race speech” in Philadelphia, to cutting all ties with the pastor. His refusal to do so underlines the importance of the Black Church, faith and Christianity to a large segment of the African-American community.

With the disclosure of Wright’s speeches and the revelation of Obama’s relationship to him, the media and the American populous were confronted with one aspect that makes the presidential candidate an identifiably black man in America. But rather than seeing this fact as entirely negative and allowing it to hinder Obama’s possible ascendancy, it should have been seen as a positive testament to his spirituality and capability as a leader. Obama’s situation challenges the American public and its popular media to look beyond a few derisive statements made by the Rev. Wright and to trust that the positive aspects of Christianity and of the Illinois senator’s spirituality will shine through, enhancing his attractiveness as a presidential candidate.

Thameka Thompson is a junior in Silliman College.

Comments

  • heartsurgeon

    "Sound bytes and decontextualized quotations have portrayed Wright, his former church, and consequently the Black Church at large, as a place of anger, rage and hate, and the American people took the media’s words and representations at face value without fully arming themselves with the facts and knowledge of history."

    Oh dear, please cut back on the "decontextualized" in the future..it's rather tiresome. As for sound bytes..this is the YouTube age girl..the Reverend Wright is available for all to see and hear, unedited…and it isn't pretty…

    HIV invented by the white man to kill the black man..and that's the mild stuff that he claims.

    Also, I don't see anyone condemning the "Black Church" at large (what ever that means), all I see is Senator Obama, correctly, condemning Rev. Wright's statements (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23634881/)

    Bigoted, ignorant, and racist statements are not exclusive to "whites" (inspite of what you may believe) and all they do is debase our society, for everyone..

  • A.C.

    While I'm not naive enough to deny that there's a strong racial element in the criticism of Wright and Obama, I think it pales in comparison to two other facts:

    First, in the middle of a heated political campaign, a candidate can't even let out a particularly loud fart without having a headline that night read: "CANDIDATE X POLLUTES THE ENVIRONMENT"

    Second, I think this is one instance in which what was said is more important than who said it. Again, I don't deny that Rev. Wright being a black pastor of a black church played heavily into a lot of the criticism, I just don't think it was as central as the fact that he committed the cardinal sin in modern American society: criticize his country.

    We've seen others (black and white) draw strong criticism for suggesting that U.S. foreign policy led to 9/11 and that the U.S. is a murderous nation.

    We've seen others (black and white) be branded as awful anti-Semites for daring to suggest that Israel doesn't have a 100% moral high ground.

    We've seen others (black and white) be derided for questioning America's moral high ground after what it has done throughout its history to ethnic minorities, etc.

    Well…you get the point. To top it all off, he finished it off with a righteous "God damn America" -- and if anything is more taboo than criticizing the U.S. is suggesting that the invisible man who runs the control room at Fox News really wouldn't like what so many Americans like to think is His favorite nation.

    It seems to me that Rev. Wright's comments got criticized so strongly in the media: third, because he's a black man and a lot of people don't like that…second, because he's friends with the most scrutinized person in the world right now…and first, because he said all those awful truths (and they were are truths) that Americans hate to be reminded of.

  • A.C.

    Ok, maybe the AIDS thing is a little much. Then again…who's to say it's not possible? We now know of many dangerous and immoral experiments perpetrated by the U.S. government, military and private corporations. Just as an example: early, dangerous versions of "the pill" were tested on poor women in Puerto Rico. And these are just the things we know about…

    I don't necessarily agree with Rev. Wright's view on AIDS, but I certainly agree with the sentiment behind it: that the U.S. has done some really secretive, awful, immoral things and that racial minorities have often been the victims.

  • heartsurgeon

    Senator Obama saw fit to condemn the statements made by Rev. Wright. If the statements are proper, then why did the Senator condemn them? You've got yourself a logical dilemna here…either the Reverend is correct, or Obama is correct, you can't have it both ways…at least not rationally…

  • Frank

    Do John McCain and the current crop of conservative republicans respect the moral foundation of this country? The U.S. Constitution was actually designed, among other things, to protect the people of America from misguided government.

    U.S. Constitution: Amendment I - Freedom of Religion
    Right now, for the first time ever, your tax dollars are funding religious groups you may not agree with. To add insult to injury, conservative judges have ruled that taxpayers do not have a right to challenge these republican created faith based initiatives!

    Amendment IV - Search and seizure
    Under the guise of court action against abortion, Conservative Republicans had John Ashcroft subpoena all the medical records of literally thousands of women just like you and members of your family. Conservative republicans are invading your privacy every day. Unfortunately for all of us, they don't appear to care about our U.S. constitution, or by extension, the people of our great country.

    Amendment X - Powers of the States and People
    John McCain and conservative republicans have tried consistently to overturn States Laws. They used your tax dollars to destroy the will of the people of Oregon, and the famous "Death with Dignity" law; they lost, but undoubtedly will try again. Conservative republicans and John McCain do not respect States Rights.

    Amendment VIII - Cruel and Unusual punishment
    Would you rather die, or support a government which supported and sanctioned torture? The founding fathers would rather have died, and in fact they were proud to fight and die for our government: A government which specifically outlaws cruel and unusual punishment for very important reasons.

    I am one of millions of people that view this straying from our moral foundations as very bad news for our country. I urge you to keep this in mind in the coming election.

  • Read.
  • YDN Reader

    I was watching Prof. Michael Eric Dyson on BookTV last night discussing Obama's canidacy and the Rev. Wright issue. I think that Obama is a sell-out and he would do and say anything to get elected. As a black woman, he won't get my vote. I won't vote for someone based solely upon the color of his or her skin.
    Rev. Wright may have made some over the top comments, but a lot of what he said was true vis-a-vis American racism. As Dr. Dyson said last night on C-SPan's "In Depth" a lot of black people were confused when Obama condemned Wright's comments and wondered: "What did he[Jeremiah Wright] say that was wrong?" This dichotomy in how African-Americans perceive Wright's comments and how the larger society does, points up to the two Americas that we always hear so much about. We live with racism everyday and white folks just don't see, or want to see it.

  • adc

    Why do we condemn what Reverend Wright said as anti-american, but look the other way when evangelists say things like 9/11 was retribution for America harboring gay people and supporting abortions? Aren't both of them anti-american?

    As opposed to calling Reverend Wright a hate monger, why do we not take notice that many of the things he said (including his HIV comment) are widely held views? I think that was Obama's point in the speech; instead of simply frothing at the mouth after hearing Wright speak, we should consider why his views are widely held among the African American population. I think you'll find answers you don't want to hear.

  • not so

    I just hope that people arent conflating Rev. Wright's comments with sentiments of most African American Christians or church congregations.

    While he expressed some real concerns about racism, oppression and mistreatment in some of the sound bites - his tactics and tone are not altogether common or prevalent in the Black church at large. My biggest fear is that his cursing ('we're tired of this sh*t'), gyrating against the podium (see 'Wright on Bill Clinton) or rather insensitive proclamations about America in the wake of 9/11 might be seen as common or representative of black churchgoers at larget - it simply is not. Had that been any church i've ever been a member of or even visited - the congregation would have been in awe at the disrespect he showed for victims, our country and the sanctity of the pulpit itself. I think obama got it right when he decried Rev. Wright's comments even if im unsure of his somewhat late reaction to comments made over the last decade.

  • A.C.

    I wasn't defending Obama in my previous comments, so I don't think there's any conflict with the fact that I think Rev. Wright is mostly spot on.

    My guess is that Obama agrees with what a lot of Rev. Wright says, and in fact echoes a lot of what Rev. Wright said…he just disapproves of (as #9 says) the way he said them. But surely he believes that American attitude and foreign policy have been problematic or he wouldn't talk so much about changing them. He has said time and again that he believes racism is a problem in America…etc.