A New Perspective On His Role In The 2008 Presidential Election
I recently had a chance to hear a sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright at Bethel AME Church in Los Angeles. His selection was titled "Looks Can Be Deceiving", and just as he's done throughout his ministry, Rev. Wright laid the foundation for his message on the firm soil of African culture. He spoke specifically of our ancient storytelling tradition, focusing on the way African narratives taught lessons that often involved using our minds to prevail over impossible odds.
As I listened to his inspiring message, I couldn't help but think about our new president, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., and the barriers and obstacles he overcame to bring his new administration into being. Because regardless of what he accomplishes in office, President Obama's victory will go down in history as a perfect example of one of our own using his mind to conquer the seemingly impossible.
As we look back on this historic event in years to come, we will remember the opponents so brilliantly set-aside during the election process. We will laugh at memories of the winking lady maverick and we'll pity the thought of a plumber's assistant who spoke for the materially rich while being so poor that he couldn't pay his taxes. But beyond those sideshows, in more serious moments of reflection, we will think about Rev. Wright.
The sad reality is that in most cases when we think of him, we will do so in a distorted and dysfunctional media contrived context that ignores his brilliance and forty-plus year legacy of service and struggle for this nation and the African American community. Most of us will remember him as the man who almost single-handedly cost President Obama the election. After all, that's the conversation we were having in most corners of our community before, and particularly after, his presentation at the National Press Club.
That same conversation was taking place in pro-Obama media circles during that time, and I can't help but wonder if we allowed the media to influence our thoughts in that regard. Perhaps our ancient spiritual insight has been compromised by centuries of oppression and deception combined with distorted media reports and sound bites taken out of context. Most of us would argue against that point, but who can say for sure?
I can proudly say that I never agreed with the media or the majority of my people on this point. In the applied spirit of our ancestor's teachings and Rev. Wright's message about how "looks can be deceiving," I am on record for having shared a different perspective in the days after he left the Press Club podium.
I argued then that Rev. Wright's words and deeds served Barack's best interests whether he were to win or lose the upcoming election. Most people didn't immediately appreciate my analysis, so I had the pleasure of explaining myself several times.
At the outset I took the firm position that Rev. Wright was obligated to speak his own truth without primary regard for its impact on the election or his ongoing relationship with the most prominent of those whom he has "brought… to God". I argued that if Team Obama couldn't prevail in the wake of Rev. Wright's spoken truth, they would never survive the varied truths and lies they were guaranteed to face during a potential Obama administration.
Then, too, since all objective analyses agreed that Barack was the most qualified candidate by far, I added that if he lost the election, it would mean one of two things. Most obviously, it would mean that America still wasn't ready for an African American president of even the highest caliber. And by no fault of his own, the media positioned Rev. Wright to become a scapegoat to mask that reality should it come to pass. In spite of the fact that it did not, Rev. Wright's involuntary role in the campaign did a lot to help Barack measure the racial attitude of the nation.
On the other hand, and on a deeper spiritual level, an Obama loss could have been interpreted to mean that fate was determined to prevent a Black man from taking leadership responsibility for a country in crisis and near collapse after being horribly steered off course for centuries by White male leaders of a different moral fiber.
But when this episode was hot in the news, our people had little tolerance for a discussion around the possibility that Obama might lose, so I shared that perspective in very limited company. There was much more interest–and ultimately positive response–to my position relating to an eventual Obama victory.
So I assured anyone who would listen to me that Rev. Wright's words and deeds would help Obama toward ultimate victory because they "gave (him) the scissors that he needed to cut the cord with Rev. Wright," thereby releasing our new president from the only political liability that had any potential to derail his campaign.
A friend with a certain measure of access assured me that while my analysis was compelling, it didn't reflect the reality as it happened. I was told with great confidence that there was no way that Rev. Wright deliberately sacrificed his relationship with Barack in an attempt to help him to victory.
Instead of responding by debating the issue, I responded by saying: "That may be true, but you do know that Rev. Wright is a man of God, don't you? He is all at once a conscious, subconscious, and even unconscious servant of the Most High who submits to divine will even in his sleep."
I then said, "If you believe that Barack has been called by God to lead this country,"– as this friend and many others have declared–"then you must believe that all things contributing to that reality are from God." I added that, "Rev. Wright might not yet understand what came over him at the National Press Club. But if Barack wins this election, we'll know that he was chosen to play the role that he did to help bring it into being," while making a considerable sacrifice in the process.
After a pause and a smile, our discussion ended with, "Well, I guess I can't argue with that, but we'll see."
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that after Barack ended his relationship with Rev. Wright, his campaign gained new momentum. Voters who were still on the fence began leaning toward him, the opposition was positioned for defeat, and the African American community felt vindicated in its support for the ongoing and undue criticism of one who has served them so well. We all felt relieved, except perhaps, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But as we've heard so many of our ministers say, "daylight comes in the morning," and in spite of all efforts to the contrary, America just recently celebrated the inauguration of its first African American president. Those who will are left to consider the reality of Rev. Wright's role in aiding that outcome. But my position is clear and it remains as it was in the beginning–without Rev. Wright, we may not have a President Obama. For that reason, I maintain that instead of holding Rev. Wright at a distance, President Obama should offer him a warm, thankful embrace, and I truly hope he will in no more than four to eight years.
For now, the world is left waiting impatiently to see what will be harvested from the people's collective efforts. For our part, we must think critically and act diligently to determine if President Obama has true and sustained moral "wisdom that is fully adequate to govern (our nation and inspire) the world." (Odu Ifa 78:1) If he does not, we must hold him accountable in the most meaningful ways. After all, as our Yoruba ancestors teach in a verse from their sacred text quoted above, true moral wisdom in leadership is the first requirement for creating the good world that we all want and deserve to live in.
As I witnessed during his sermon, after a much needed vacation the Honorable Jeremiah Wright has returned to doing what he has been called to do–teaching and inspiring the people, speaking truth to power, and doing good in the world while reminding African American people that we come from an ancient and majestic legacy that can lead us to every kind of victory if we would only tap deeper into it.
As another one of our great leaders and master teacher, Dr. Maulana Karenga, so often states, Rev. Wright helps to remind African American people that we are not "ghetto denizens" rightfully relegated to being "a footnote and forgotten casualty of our oppressor's history. We are descendants of the people who first stood upright, spoke the first human truth, and taught the world what was good and beautiful. We are bearers and custodians of a great and mighty legacy worthy of the name African, and we have a right and responsibility to use and build on its best thought and practice, not simply as a reference, but as an expansive resource for constant exchange with the world."
"This is our task if we are to help remake the world and make it good," and we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his sacrifice and chosen status toward that end, and for being a living model of "strength, dignity, and determination" in these days where men of that distinction are too few and too far between.
In closing, we say "asante sana" (thank you very much) to you Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., "and compared to the many times that we say thank you, the grains of sand on the seashore are few."