I regret to admit I did not hear Senator Obama’s speech on race when he gave it. But what I heard of it on the news channels afterwards gave me a sense of its impact, even though, as I learned later, the sound bytes did it no justice. Reading the entire speech the next day, and re-reading it, has left me wondering what politician out there – black, white, brown or green with envy – would not wish he or she had given it? And who in America could miss the message, the challenge, the soul it envelops?
Unfortunately the earlier remarks of the Senator’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, a close friend and mentor, provided a maddening kind of static in the minds of many in Obama’s audience. Maddening more than frightening because that static has been with us a long time and will continue to be; it is just that the volume had been upped.
Though it is difficult to say that Pastor Wright’s rhetoric, based on the excerpts I have heard, has a valid place in our nation’s dialogue on racial issues, I believe it does. And I believe it underlines the core issues in Senator Obama’s speech. Let me explain.
Barack Obama’s rhetoric is generally lofty and idealistic, speaking of faith in our country, a “more perfect union,” hope and change – a “Yes, we can!” rallying cry for his run to the White House. Jeremiah Wright’s voice grounds him and all of us to the realities of the anger and frustrations that define the static mentioned above. His voice is a voice that needs hearing, even as some cringe at its excesses.
Fortunately, Pastor Wright’s is an in-house rhetoric – or has been until now. I find it comfortable to believe – without knowing the man though knowing his role – that his business is healing, not wounding or warring. He is a pastor, not a politician. By giving voice to the feelings of his people, in the context of his church, person and faith, he seeks to bind the wounds of prejudice and history.
I may be wrong, but I am willing to take that chance. Here is why. Senator Obama has stood by Pastor Wright throughout this controversy. He has known him as friend for more than 20 years. Some believe that as a politician, the Senator should have distanced himself from his pastor years ago. He did not, and has not. Reading his speech, even with the static at full volume, I find credibility and a quality of character that tells me why.
November is eight months distant. The dialogue ahead will concern other complex issues: the economy, the war, health care, immigration. Hopefully, for the moment, The Speech and its static have solidified a place for the racial problems among us in both parties’ platforms.