Wednesday, March 19, 2008
It was an eloquent and powerful speech. But Barack Obama's inspirational oratory left one fundamental question unanswered, at least for this white American -- although judging by the reactions I've been hearing on local radio, for many others, as well.
A pastor is not a relative. The thing with relatives is we don't choose them. They just are.
Pastors and places of worship don't work that way. You choose where you go. You listen and decide. You're not born into a church, or if you are, you're free as an adult to choose a new location, if not a new faith.
If Barack Obama heard the anger in his pastor's voice, why did he stay?
If he didn't hear the anger, was he not listening?
If he was listening, why didn't he speak up?
The answer, I think, is that he did. Speaking up is what he is doing in running for president. Offering a different approach than his pastor to the injuries of race and class is what his campaign is actually about. But he has to make that connection. There's still a step he needs to take.
It is clear that this church and this pastor have played an important role in Barack Obama's development as a black American. The son of a white mother, raised by white grandparents, the church clearly became a version of the black family he didn't grow up in. The church, and his life inside it, is part of the answer to the question that used to be posed of whether he was black enough, an inartful way of asking whether he understood what it meant to be black, whether he understood the injuries of race.
That is clearly why the church was so important to Obama that even now he views his pastor as the uncle with whom he might disagree, but would never disown.
But if the church taught him about the pain and injuries of race, made clear what it was like to grow up on the wrong side of every line dividing privilege and access from poverty and denial, what it, and its minister, did not teach him was how to deal with those injuries. His minister's response has been, as all the awful excerpts reveal, tinged with bitterness, anger and resentment. His minister has embraced the very victimization and demonization that Barack Obama, in his speech yesterday and in his campaign at its best, has denounced.
The case for Barack Obama, and ultimately he has to be the one to make it, is that there is a different answer to the injuries of race than the one his pastor offered to their congregation. The answer is not to denounce America, but to embrace it, not to embrace victimization, but to denounce it.
Barack Obama doesn't want to denounce his pastor, his uncle, but in a way, he already has, both by running for president and by the way he has run. He just needs to say that loud and clear, and not because whites want him to, but because his failure to do so obscures a strength of his campaign for which he deserves credit.
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