The toughest kind of audience member for me is 60-something or a little older. This person was around 20 when Jim Crow was outlawed and white America began listening to black grievances. I find that for certain black people of this time slice, all talk of getting past race or addressing black culture is repellent nonsense. For them, it is still roughly 1966.
These people grew up under segregation, and saw activism and protest usher in a new order. Whites were now good and guilty, and naturally black people enjoyed it I sure would have, after being turned away from Holiday Inns or called “boy.” Just what “black power” really meant was never quite clear. Ultimately, it was a mood, rejecting integration for separate and positive “black” identity.
Many black people who were coming of age at this heady moment developed their identities around this mood. We all seek sources of inner pride; this was one way for a black person to do it circa 1966. For some, what used to be called a “militant” stance against whites became the cognitive and emotional bedrock of who they are, such that it does not change, regardless of whether America does.
This is not all or even most black people in late middle age; it’s a personality type among them. But that type has a pretty consistent range of views. They are fond of plantation metaphors, especially the one analogizing blacks non-militant to “house slaves.” This person is usually a reparations fan, and feels that mainstream schooling “miseducates” black children.
Obviously,the Reverend Jeremiah Wright is right out of central casting — he’s not a unique figure, he’s a type. This was especially clear in his speech to the NAACP on Sunday, in which he presented the startling thesis that black people’s cultural distinctions from whites constitute differences rather than deficiencies as if we still needed to be reminded that “black is beautiful,” with posters of pretty black women with big afros.
This was true to the type: because to them no one has learned anything since 1966, they sense things as novel observations that actually have been commonplaces for decades. I have listened to people put forth the “house slave/field slave” thesis in loving detail, under the genuine impression that the audience is hearing it for the first time.
Hence it makes sense to the Reverend Wright to inform us that African music is a legitimate art form when white Americans younger than him have been buying world beat music in quantity for 20 years, and few Americans need to be taught the value of rhythm when so much modern pop music is founded upon it to an extent largely unknown in the “black power” days. To the Reverend Wright, it’s still 1966.
The ironic thing about these dashiki-era pronouncements is that the separatist ideology means claims about black people that whites would be burned in effigy for even hinting at. Case in point: the Reverend Wright “taught” the NAACP audience that black children are “creative, oral” learners who get information from other people, while whites are ones who are left-brain learners, of the sort given to working in “solitude in a carrel in a Ph.D. program stuffed off somewhere in a corner in absolute quietness.”
I must admit a certain propensity for being “stuffed off somewhere” writing, including having gone through a Ph.D. program. But then, I am lightish brown rather than dark, and so maybe I’ve got some “white” learning genes in me. Goodness — just imagine, say, Diane Ravitch at a podium saying what the Reverend Wright came up with. The idea of black kids as having a genetically distinct learning “style” only makes sense sort of if one is reacting to whites of all walks regularly dismissing black kids as innately stupid. That is, if one is mentally in 1966 when such whites were still around and in their primes.
But this is, in the end, a type. Any black person likely has known countless such people, and the politics are but a sliver of what they are. That Barack Obama would have the Reverend Wright as a pastor did not alarm me. Black pastors do much, much more than talk about white people or September 11.
However, I have seen that most outsiders cannot see it that way. They cannot see that the Reverend Wright’s sermons are performances, rooted in a psychological aspect of the black condition that is unsurprising given the race’s recent history.
As such, now that the Reverend Wright has gone on tour and given us full doses of these professionally alienated postures from another time, it is good to see that Mr. Obama has had the courage to decisively break with him. Sad, too — the man was his pastor, after all. But here is one more way that Mr. Obama is learning what hardball really is.
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