Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Healing and Hope with Obama

Healing and Hope with Obama:
Negotiating Race, Racism and Reconciliation
Dr. Maulana Karenga

Some of us are sufficiently satisfied just to share space and special
moments with them, to have them turn and tell us something nice, to
smile at us without racial arrogance, paternalism, maternalism or
studied meanness, and to have them concede our humanity and spend an
afternoon with us doing tennis, herbal tea and small talk. And then
there are those among us who want and demand only respect in personal
encounters, justice in social exchange and an equitable sharing of
societal wealth and power. We do not seek public office or White praise
and, like Malcolm, we make a clear distinction between being responsible
to our people and responsible to those in power. We know that often to
be responsible to our people requires us to be outrageously
irresponsible in the eyes of our oppressor. As we say in Us, it is a
good thing to be criticized and condemned by the oppressor. For it
raises and reinforces the ethical distinction and division between us
and them.
It has been part of the burden and heaviness of our history, then, that
we as an oppressed people have had to produce and at least partially
support people among us who would see some measure of humanity in our
oppressor and try to bring out that humanity and save them and us from
the savagery masquerading for centuries as civilization. They have
counseled them like King, empathized with them like Oprah, racially
identified with them like Obama and reminded them like Langston Hughes
and most of us that we, too, sing and celebrate America. And this, too,
has been our burden and obligation: that some of us must be ever on the
battleground for something better, fighting fiercely to hold onto
hard-won gains and advance ever forward in the ongoing struggle for an
expanded realm of human freedom and human flourishing in society and the
Everyone must concede Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech was historic in
content and consequence if rightly read and approached. But it was not
without its flaws and problematic character. He did what he could,
working with what he had, in the context of the media-driven right-wing
thrust to undercut his campaign for the presidency and in the process
call into question the legitimacy, not just of Black liberation
theology, but also of the Black church itself, as a historically
community-and-culturally-based institution. The beneficial consequences
of his speech depend on a real, long and hard look at the realities of
White racial dominance and the rejection of any attempt to equate our
oppression with the unease of those who carry it out, or support or
benefit from it.
Furthermore, it’s untrue and an uncalled-for concession to Whites who
might need it, to reductively portray Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his
generation as trapped in the past with “memories of humiliation, doubt,
fear, anger and bitterness.” This is obviously bad and bogus history.
For this is a generation which refused to be humbled, who did not doubt
the rightness of their cause nor the victory of their struggle, whose
rightful concern about White violence was counterbalanced by courage,
whose anger was righteous, and whose moral and spiritual groundedness
was a shield and shelter against the racist bitterness and bloody
resistance to our struggle for freedom and justice from the other side.
It is this generation that expanded the realm of human freedom and
provided a moral vision, vocabulary and model of struggle that resounded
and still resonates around the world. The memories of this generation
are of Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Joseph
Lowery, and Martin and Coretta Scott King, and of the reaffirmation of
our social justice tradition and our Africanness and the commitment to
struggle this represented.
Another problem here is that Obama talks about America, i.e., the U.S.,
as if it is a living self-existing being, granting blessings because of
its loving and nurturing nature. But the U.S. did not give freely; our
people fought to open up this space and to expand the realm of freedom
and possibility in this country. And they did it, not because they
engaged in self-blessing and self-congratulatory conversation about this
country, but because they took it to task, courageously confronted it
and dared to change it.
Also, Obama represents a tendency of those who believe a declaration of
“newly” discovered disorders and damaged psyches among Black people is
liberating or at least required to put Whites at ease. Thus, he says
that the Black “church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the
fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance, the struggles and success,
the love and yes the bitterness and bias that make up the Black
experience in America.” This is at best awkward and uncalled for and
would most likely not be a way his advisors would counsel him to speak
of a Jewish synagogue or even a Catholic church. Mom Mabley’s “We do
crimes too” is not appropriate here. And it certainly does not explain
his relationship, as he claims with Rev. Wright, unless there’s some
mystery in it we’ve missed.
Symptomatic of almost every liberal’s audacity to hope is an
accompanying problem of denial of the continuing realities not simply of
race, but more fundamentally of racism. Thus, Obama denies that racism
is endemic to U.S. society, i.e., native and constantly present, and
conflates race with racism. But contrary to popular belief and
persistent hope, racism is here in raw and redressed form, brutally
evident in the attenuated life chances and life conditions of peoples of
color. And this rough racist reality in no way resembles the racial
discomfort, insecurity and unease that Obama asks empathy for. Human
empathy is one thing, claiming moral equivalence of oppression and
unease and failing to deal with the difference is a whole ‘nother thing.
We clearly need a new vision of justice and democracy, one in which we
are not what Malcolm calls “victims of democracy”, a racial arrangement
in which “we, the people” are defined as White; justice is determined by
wealth and power; and the future of our people depends on the patronage
and petitioned kindness of White folks. No, this is not what Harriet
Tubman lifted us out of enslavement for, what Frederick Douglass and
Fannie Lou Hamer sacrificed so much for; nor for what Malcolm, Martin
and millions more were martyred. Ours is a more expansive view of human
freedom and human flourishing, and we cannot and must not accept
anything less than that which our history and humanity demand of us.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor of Black Studies, California State
University-Long Beach, Chair of The Organization Us, Creator of Kwanzaa,
and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture,
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