Two Wongs Don't Make a Wright (politics)
A couple months ago I was in my car and happened to turn on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terri Gross. Much to my surprise, the guest was someone I knew in high school, Dwight Hopkins. He’s currently a professor of theology at the University of Chicago and attends the same Trinity church as Barack Obama from time to time. He was on the show to put some perspective on what was then the beginning of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Mostly, he explained that things like “God Damn America” were taken out of context. Essentially, he pointed out that Wright was using “Damn” as a verb not an “adjective” and that the sermon itself was about what America had done wrong in God’s eyes and what it would need to do for God to love America. It made some sense to me. America is no more “damn” proof than any other country. One is not righteous simply because one is American. Just for perspective, Martin Luther King’s next sermon before his assassination was titled something like “How America Could Go to Hell”.
I didn’t know Dwight Hopkins well when we were in high school together in Massachusetts. I'm not even sure he'd remember me. My freshman year, I was the guy who kept the scorebook for the basketball teams. He was a sophomore and the captain of the JV basketball team. That should tell you where we both stood in the social pecking order at a boys school. His senior year, I happened to have an electric typewriter. He offered to pay me to help him type his application to Harvard. I told him I’d just do it for him., partly because I wanted to see how someone else would fill out an application to Harvard and I figured Dwight was going to get in. I never applied and likely would never have gotten in.
Obviously, without me he would never have gone on to Harvard, Union Seminary, and doctoral work in South Africa to work with Desmond Tutu. What can I say? I guess I should have known then that I would wind up blogging, because I would volunteer to type things. Somewhere in there as well, Dwight did in his knee and so he didn’t get to be a star athlete at the school. I’ve sometimes wondered what role that might have played in the direction he wound up taking.
When people find out that I went to a boarding school in New England, they tend to assume a lot of things about the place. In fact, it was the first time in my life that I got to know African-Americans well. The school had about two hundred students and around fifteen black students. A couple came from relatively wealthy families, most came through a program known as A Better Chance (ABC) that identified talented minority youth and then seeded them into what had then been the breeding grounds for the “power elite”. John Kerrey (St. Paul’s) and George W. Bush (Andover) were both products of those places along with the Kennedys (Caroline came to one of our mixers once). Barack went to the Hawaiian equivalent Punahou. Deval Patrick (Milton) the current governor of Massachussetts was a product of ABC. I honestly don’t remember if Dwight was an ABC kid, but there was a group of them in my school from Richmond, Virginia and that’s where he was from.
One aspect of a small boarding school is that one has much closer contact with a greater range of people than one would at a typical public high school. Post-desegregation many public schools stayed internally segregated through ability-based tracking. Many of my college friends went to these sorts of public high schools which often had large numbers of blacks, latinos, etc. in them, but they were never in the same class with them nor did they even share a meal with them. At my school, you got to know pretty much everyone in your class at least minimally well.
I’ve only really tracked down two members of my class on my own since we graduated. Both of them were ABC kids. Fascinatingly, both had ultimately returned to the black community. One was in Harlem and the other was in Prince George’s County, Maryland, parts of which are almost exclusively black and middle to upper middle class at the same time. It reminded me of a perfectly understandable phenomenon at the school. When they had the chance (we could sit where we wanted at breakfast and on some other occasions), the black students sat together at a table in the far corner of the cafeteria.
It wasn’t written in stone that others couldn’t sit there, but there was sort of an informal understanding. My take is that they simply wanted to feel like something other than the isolated black guy from time to time. Being one of the few Asians there (times have now changed so that large numbers of Asians go to these schools), I envied their having the option to congregate in some fashion.
There were some real challenges in this enforced “fraternity” that I think were very hard for anyone at the time to grasp. Most of the black students there came from the city. Occasionally a black student would manage to find his way there from some very rural place and there was an assumption that he’d fit in with the other black guys. There was one such fellow in my class who lasted about a year and a quarter. He had some other issues, but the biggest problem was that he was clueless about the norms of the school and all of the school was clueless about him. He liked to use big words and had learned to use them more or less defensively, he wasn’t all that athletic, and he had no idea what was socially acceptable. The black students there didn’t quite know how to deal with him either. Eventually he got sent back home to North Carolina and that was followed by rumors that he’d had some sort of nervous breakdown. No one seems to know what happened to him.
My classmate who did make it through who ultimately led a colorful life of his own (he wound up on the street at one point) said that no one there really understood what it felt like when he came from Bedford as the “brightest kid around” to a place where he always felt like the village idiot. He was the first classmate there to invite me home. I think my parents had some image of me getting invited home to visit some version of the Kennedys. I went to Bedford Stuyvesant instead and spent a Thanksgiving there. I remember we spent much of the time in M’s cramped bedroom watching Knicks games on a black and white television. He didn’t tell me until thirty five years later that his stepdad was beating him up constantly and/or smoking pot. He’d never have revealed anything like that to the school. Another rather interesting bit is that both of the friends I tracked down had a sibling who didn’t get the golden ticket. In both cases, their siblings wound up in blue collar work that paid them more money. So the golden ticket wasn’t all that golden in certain ways or they just didn’t care that much about money once they lived among those who had it. Oddly, the ABC kid in our class who’d become a doctor was another student who left the school early.
M also mentioned that he used to wander Greenwich Village on vacations and he would spot one of our teachers coming out of gay bars there. The teacher would pretend not to recognize him for obvious reasons. Again, it was nothing that he shared with anyone at school at the time. One of the other strange phenomena was that a large percentage of the teachers were gay. I just didn’t notice at the time.
Anyway, I did live to see the day when a black man (Obama’s as white as he is black of course) would be a serious candidate for president. It just happens that we have the tie of being part of that generation where minorities got access in various ways to what were once exclusive schools. It’s strange and fascinating to me that Obama’s “blackness” is now being identified as the pastor of his church, Jeremiah Wright. It’s perhaps even more fascinating (especially to me) that one of the people the media called on to explain Black Liberation Theology is also the product of this fascinating attempt to improve race relations from the seventies.
When I was working in the non-profit world a few years ago, one of the funnier things would be that I’d run into peers from various agencies and community groups who also happened to be black, latino, Asian or some mixture of these things. I can’t tell you how many times they turned out to be graduates of one of the prep schools then gone on to some relatively prestigious college. Perhaps the oddest aspect of that was in places like Anacostia and Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia they were both insiders and foreigners in these places. They couldn’t embrace the big money world and felt some sort of draw to working in communities they didn’t exactly grow up in.
There’s a long history of white America being uncomfortable with black anger, perhaps especially when it gets tied to religious belief. At one time Malcolm X and his embrace of Islam was thought to be the scariest man in America. It’s also no coincidence that his contemporary Martin Luther King was a reverend. Both were shot, one by black men and one by a white man. Black liberation theology, Wright is a product of it, came directly out of the black power movement of the sixties and apparently started with an ad in the New York Times in 1966.
The basic idea was that you take the tenets of the Christian faith and harmonize them with the civil rights movement. In particular it insists that improving conditions for those who are poor and black are deeply Christian principles. Like Obama, I can’t endorse the more extreme things that Reverend Wright said in his most recent speeches. At the same time, I have to object to the way the black church is being vilified, marginalized, and made to appear sinister and paranoid through one man’s more extreme statements.
Eight years ago, it was mostly white evangelicals who were seen as the key to the presidential election. Somehow George W. Bush even appeared at Bob Jones University, a place whose founder had far more radical ideas than Reverend Wright. John McCain has been endorsed by a Texas preacher whose notions about Catholics and others are well out of the mainstream. While Bush’s speech at Bob Jones did get media attention, why isn’t the comparison being brought up more now? In the meantime, why is everyone focusing on the sound bytes and ignoring the broader purpose of the church Obama attends? Pre-Wright brouhaha, Obama used to quote Lincoln’s take on God,
“My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”
Can someone just point out that Reverend Wright’s general point about America has been exactly that? America is not a good country simply because it is America. America must be a good country by being one that’s fair, just, and dedicated to the welfare of all of its people.
As people who have had the experience of growing up on the racial margins of America yet who had the privilege of being exposed to the most elite realms of America’s non-public educational system, both Barack Obama and Dwight Hopkins likely had the opportunity to slip into that world and more or less leave the one they came from behind. Instead, they both felt some compulsion to make it better and even more accessible. It doesn’t shock me that they’ve sought out a Church dedicated to that notion. In fact, I admire them for it. They’re black men who came back (in Obama’s case) to the black church because they believe in making America a better country not because they secretly hate it or damn it.
Labels: A Better Chance Barack Obama