The Roots of Wright: Segregation and the Unfamiliar

(10 am – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This is a diary I posted on dkos yesterday.  I am pleased enough with it that I want to make it my first post here on docudharma.  Looking around the site and seeing who is posting here, I recognize a lot of names as people I respect from dkos and have seen a lot less of recently.  So I expect to be here more as a haven from the relentless Obama diaries.  Although this is technically an Obama essay concerning an absurd media “issue,” the point of this diary is to take a look at race, and to make explicit the racism behind the Rev. Wright controversy.  

(But one thing first:  because I can, I want to say right off the top that you have to be an idiot to blithely assume there is no chance that 9/11 was a conspiracy.  Ahhhh!  The smell of freedom.)  

Oh yeah, and thanks to pfiore8 for inviting me here.

So here goes nothing.  Please be kind.

This is the third title for this essay.  The second dkos title was Is Obama White Enough?  But I wanted to make plain here that I’m don’t intend to walk into your lovely blog trailing Obama mania on the sole of my shoe like toilet paper.  This essay is about race.

I don’t know how Barack Obama should have reacted to his media-created dilemma concerning Rev. Wright.  And I’m not going to speculate on the affects his speech may have.  FWIW, my impression is that he continues to be presidential, decisive, and compassionate.  Today’s events have had no effect on my fervent support of his candidacy.

What I want to point out is that the events of yesterday and today highlight the racial divide in our country.  And the ways in which media coverage has sharpened the divide and created conditions likely to foster bitterness on one side and defensiveness on the other.

When it comes to racial harmony, we’ve certainly come a long way baby.  When I grew up in middle Georgia in the 50’s and 60’s, I never once saw a well-dressed or well-spoken black person.  People openly used the word “nigger” and nigger jokes were common-place.  The most insidiously dangerous expression to me at the time was “The only thing worse than a nigger is a nigger-lover.”  The paved street I grew up on went down about three blocks from my house before crossing the railroad tracks.  On the other side of the tracks, the streets became dirt, yards were swept dirt, and driving by the houses, one could see right through the open front doors and on through the open back doors.  Even the dogs seemed to be racist, with “white” dogs barking preferentially at blacks and vice versa.  Sitting in our tree house, just on the “right” side of the tracks, my friends and I could sometimes watch our African American neighbors playing baseball in a dirt lot carved out between the stacks of logs waiting for the sawmill.  The “ball” they used seemed to be a kind of home-made, tape-wrapped invention.  I would watch them and feel very other, wondering about their lives with only a dim appreciation of what they suffered.

I loved the maid who came to clean up our house and cook.  Even though we were very poor, we had a black maid just like everybody else.  When civil rights talk began penetrating Dublin, and when the local police were investigated by the FBI for torturing blacks (I’ll skip the details), my eyes began to open and I would probe Annie Kate for details of her life.  Information was not forthcoming.  She had to be so careful to keep in her place, and I was scaring her by doing things like invite her to ride in the front seat when I drove her home.  She quietly went on to the back seat.  But I did get one remark out of her that I cherish to this day for the exhilarating image it evokes: “This Sunday night I’ll be in church, singing and praying and beating sticks.”  “How exotic,” I wondered.  “What exactly does it mean?”

I could listen to an African American church on the radio on Sunday nights.  The worship bore almost no resemblance to what took place at the well-ordered First Baptist Church.  We enjoyed a terrific music director, who would soothe us with Bach from the organ during collection, then lead the choir in a sublime rendition of the Doxology.  The music was my favorite part of the service, but it was controlled and limited.  On WRXI on Saturday night, I could hear rhythmic, free-form singing going on and on.  Had I not known what it was, I would not have guessed that it was a church service.

Well, I don’t know what goes on in an AA church in Dublin today, but I would bet my bottom dollar that it still differs quite significantly from what happens in the white church across town.  Change has come, but not THAT much change.  On visits to Dublin over the years, the visible changes have gratified me.  The first time I was pleasantly stunned was when I saw black and white children playing pick-up baseball together.  “This is a good thing,” I thought.  Then I would be helped in stores by beautiful, well-dressed and well-spoken black clerks.  “They’re making enough money to take better care of themselves,” I would think with satisfaction.  And acceptance by whites of blacks as being worthy of respect as equals has come a long way in the South, it seems to me.

The Methodist Church in Dublin was torn by a moral quandary during the civil rights era.  The question arose:  what will we do if African Americans (it would have been “negroes” in those days) shows up demanding to attend our church.  Those possessed of a nearly miraculous tolerance for cognitive discord held that there was no room in their Christian church for blacks.  I am proud to say that a significant number of others insisted that the church is open to all humans, a position I make bold to claim is somewhat more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.  This latter group left their church and formed Pine Street Methodist.  My general impression was that the congregation at Pine Street was more likely to be poor, working class, and less well-educated than their “more chosen” former congregation.  They were more likely to express an emotional devotion to the spirit of the church than those they left behind, and more likely to make a sincere effort in include their Lord in their daily living, as opposed to the many others who attended church more for social show than spiritual sustenance.  The Pine Forest Methodists are the same people who are voting for Bush today and are more easily convinced that Obama is a radical Muslim.  But the tragedy of the manipulation of naive and good-hearted people is a discussion for another day.

In the event, the troublesome horde of blacks demanding admission to worship with their white employers never materialized.  In all likelihood, the black population of Dublin never even knew of the agonized racial debate taking place in the white community.  My point being that things are definitely more equal, but not that much more integrated.

In 1966, six incredibly courageous AA students attended my white high school in Dublin.  Before they came, our principal and our superintendent marched us all into the auditorium and gave a coded talk which I could scarcely decipher.  I do remember that it contained the surprisingly honest message that we better work hard if we didn’t want to end up digging ditches.  Apparently, belief in the inferiority of all negroes was more tenuous than the rhetoric would have led one to believe.

Today Dublin has one high school for whites and blacks (and a very large and well-funded Christian charter school on the outskirts of town).  In my day, our all-white band would assemble for town parades.  Next to us would be the all-black band.  The instruments were the same, but our drum major marked time stiffly.  In astonishment, I would watch the all-black band warm up.  My descriptive power is limited, but I’ll just say that they would strut their stuff in a manner that involved trombones pointing this way and that in unison, a drum corps tearing up the skins, and a drum major with a spine of rubber.  It was fun to watch.

A few years ago, I attended a Friday night football game in Dublin.  Well, the same kind of lively physical demonstrations have made it on to the Dublin High School football field in the person of black cheerleaders and black members of the integrated band.  Yet the integration is limited, because in the bleachers black families all sit together in one part of the stands while white families congregate in their area.  Interactions are friendly enough when they occur, and rooting for specific players seems race-free.

All this is to say that there are still very significant cultural differences between the races in the US today.  These differences would cause most blacks to feel ill-at-ease on white turf, even in the welcoming Pine Forest Methodist Church.  And similarly for whites alone in a black setting.  I don’t say “unsafe,” or “hated” as would have been the case in my youth.  And this is progress.  Despite the headlines, there is a lot of goodwill on both sides, even an eagerness to get on with leaving hate and bigotry behind.  Sadly, these impulses are inconvenient to people who are enjoying a higher standard of living than they should, in part by disempowering wide swathes of the voting public.  This disempowerment depends in no small measure on dividing and conquering, and in using primal fears to distract from the issues of real importance.

John McCain is afforded the nuanced respect of not being asked to answer for every statement made by the hate-filled minister who has endorsed him.  John Hagee is understood by white America.  He represents a bigotry and hatred that we whites are very familiar with among our neighbors.  But we don’t want to fight with our neighbors every day.  Knowing them to have some good qualities as we do, we don’t want to completely disown them for some of their beliefs.  After all, this is America, land of the free.  If push comes to shove, we’ll move to our own church and find a way to live and let live.  When it comes to voting, most us recognize bigotry and reject it without needing to call out every loathesome statement made by the bigots in our midst.  And anyway, in some unconscious way, we understand how people might come to feel they way they do about the black or gay “other.”

Obama, and by extension black America, is not allowed such space.  My impression is that Rev. Wright is easily understood and loved by black America.  As Obama has pointed out, he represents an older time and his attitudes are understandable in the context of his age.  His paranoia, if I may employ shorthand to name a complex matter, may not be shared by younger blacks.  The AA man with a good chance of becoming our next president says he does not see the country in the same light as his former minister.  But that is not enough for the established powers.  Unlike Pastor Hagee, Rev. Wright must be completely and utterly rejected and denounced.  There is no room here for neighborly disagreement and mutual toleration in the interests of a harmonic body politic.  It is not enough to marginalize the views of Rev. Wright.  No, Rev. Wright much be kept unambiguously apart from real power in America.

Today I was saddened that Barack Obama felt forced to drive a wedge between himself and a man he has respected, and by extension between himself and his African American roots.  Rev. Wright would never have been made Secretary of the Interior, we all know.  Nor will Obama, as President, launch an investigation into the role of the CIA in bringing AIDS to the AA community.  But that is not enough.  The media will not rest until Obama has repeatedly and firmly rejected a nuanced, mutually respectful relationship with the man who married him.  This is sad, disrespectful, and ultimately racist.

The question has become not whether Obama is black enough.  It’s whether he is white enough.  This forceful rejection of a significant part of black culture constitutes disfranchisement of the black community.  How much of white culture today could withstand the unforgiving judgment brought to bear on Rev. Wright?  What percentage of sermons from white pulpits contains rhetoric widely perceived as anathema to some part of our American way?  We live with these contradictions, conflicts, and ambiguities as a necessary part of our free society.  But the media has chosen not to allow space for the particular kinds of contradiction, ambiguity, and conflict natural to the African American community.

I want Obama to be elected.  And I accept that progressive candidates walk a fine line when it comes to allaying the prejudiced fears of an ignorant populace.  People have worked hard to learn to live together, and there is still a lot of work to do before we can truly feel comfortable with each other.  But my sense is that the country as a whole has moved beyond fear-based racism.  Instead of helping the cause, the traditional media is doing everything in its power to exacerbate and mine lingering prejudices.  It is a giant step backward when the black candidate has to announce reassuringly that if white America will let him sit with them in the bleachers, he promises not to bring any of his rowdy friends with him.  

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    • geomoo on May 1, 2008 at 6:42 am

    I’ve been the only white at more than one work place, for example.  I wonder if this type of thing is interesting enough for an extended essay.  Don’t hold back, let me know.

    • RiaD on May 1, 2008 at 7:47 am

    I truly enjoyed reading this essay, you have a wonderful style of writing that just draws me in….it’s most like we’re sittin on the porch drinkin tea! (^.^)

    I recognize so much of the south in your writing….when i first moved to SC (in the 70’s) the Dr. had two doors/two waiting rooms~ one for white, one for black…. the gas stations had three bathrooms~ men, women & blacks…. i got ‘a reputation’ my first week here because i talked to a black boy in the drug store & then sat out front & talked to him & his sister while we all ate ice-cream cones….

    yes, things have changed…mostly for the better… there is even intergration at the HS football games now….the bleachers are mixed…. but i have to wonder if its kinda like the irish….they mix now because the hispanics are sectioned off in their own area….

    i was raised to not care about skin colour or religion or country of origin, etc….but to look inside~ at whether the person was honest, trustworthy, a good neighbor…. i think when we start valuing values above valuables we’ll be back on the correct path…

    thanks for taking the time to post this here….i’m looking forward to more essays from you!

    be sure to check out the pony parties (open threads) you never know what you might find there…usually a bit of community hilarity… always something unexpected & unusual…

    also be sure to hit the ‘series’ link (on the right under DharmaDocs) for most of the ongoing features here….  

    • OPOL on May 1, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    very glad to see you posting here.

  1. Ria is going around the site pointing to this essay because I had missed it previously. I’m just so tired of the sickness in our political system that is driving this Wright controversy that I needed to stop reading about it.

    But you have given us a beautifully written piece on what is really going on here. And I thank you for that. I think this one would rank up there with some of my very favorite essays at DD.

    I grew up in East Texas (almost into Louisiana), and had many of the same childhood experiences with race that you describe. And now, living in the Midwest, I see a whole different form of racism – the one that expects “others” to be like them and then marginalizes out of fear when that isn’t the case.

    That’s exactly what’s happening here with Rev. Wright I think and its been hard for me to watch the position Obama has been put in because of it. And of course, the corporate media is doing a “Dean scream” to exploit the hell out of it all.

    I don’t know how we get beyond all this, other than to keep talking, talking, talking about it – just as you have done here. Thank you!!  

    • kj on May 1, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    everyone assume that Obama was ‘forced’ to say what he said?

    Did Obama say he was forced?

    Isn’t the assumption that Obama is isn’t defining himself, sans ‘forcing,’ just another form of taking power away from a person?

    And it isn’t just the media, it is Rev White himself who is speaking to the nation.  If I were Obama, same as if I’d been John Kerry, and my priest was speaking out, I would have told both of them to sit down and allow me my bully pulpit, they have theirs on Sundays.


    (I’m not an Obama supporter, although I voted for him in our primary.)  

    Great essay, geomoo!  welcome to Docudharma!

  2. i may have read you wrong, but i wanted to make sure you felt free to write a candidate essay if that’s what you choose.  your intro implied that you felt a purely candidate essay might not be appropriate..

    …and there is plenty of healthy discussion of candidates here…just not a blogswarm of pros vs. cons trying to run each other out of town.  there have even been pro mccain essays

    this is an amazing first contribution….way to set the bar high for yourself 😉  !!  

  3. and glad your here.

  4. This is a diary by the kind of person who imagines they are liberal. A person who should not write about “race” because they have absolutely …no experience….other than the experience of growing up APART from any kind of variety in terms of “race’ and so they imagine all the “differences” there are between people who happen to have a skin color variation that they imagine is different from their own and therefore they are “different”…..

    This is the typical liberal who is actually quite conservative and mainstream.

    He imagines the country has moved beyond fear based racism while revealing all his own prejudices.

    He wants Obama to be elected. That will make him feel he isn’t a racist.

    The culture is racist. You cannot escape your own culture. If you are not aware of your own racism….then you are not really anything more than a zombie.

    And it doesn’t just have to do with racism. The culture …in fact almost all human cultures are very distrubed, distorted and built on the madness and history of the psychological damages to those growing up in them through the centuries.

    People believe in myth.

    Like this guy.

  5.  Geomoo wrote a diary or “comment” and I think it is written quite innocently and without any awareness.

    Geomoo said:

    I would watch them and feel very other, wondering about their lives with only a dim appreciation of what they suffered.

    How do you know they suffered? Why do you assume that? Could it be that their childhoods were much happier than your own? Can you really tell from your porch or are you just making an assumption?


    I loved the maid who came to clean up our house and cook.  Even though we were very poor, we had a black maid just like everybody else.

    You say you “loved” the maid…and I’m not sure what you mean by that….and it sounds like you were curious about this person and asked her some questions which you thought made her feel uncomfortable…and that’s really a great thing to do because then you find something out you didn’t know and it indicates you wanted to understand.

    But…did you know any of her children…(if she had children) her last name….her husband(if she was married)…had you ever been to her house? Do you know how much she was paid?

    So….we can say if the answer is no….that in all liklihood…you may not have known her well at all.

    An interesting thing to do is to imagine how she might have felt about you and your family. You can’t ask her now, I assume.  But in your memory there may be clues. Anything is possible. You might think about what your family said about her…maybe she asked for more money or some money in advance one time…who knows…..Just try to imagine ALL the wide variety of feelings this person may have had about you and your family. That wide variety could be from love to hate couldn’t it?

    Geomoo said:

    As Obama has pointed out, he (Rev. Wright) represents an older time and his attitudes are understandable in the context of his age.  His paranoia, if I may employ shorthand to name a complex matter, may not be shared by younger blacks.

    Why do you think Rev. Wright is paranoid? Why do you think “younger blacks” may not share his attitudes? What are “younger blacks”?

    What is a “black” person…..Geomoo….what is a “black” person?

  6. and I join in the welcome, most of the time we are excellent to each other.  I found much to think about and another point to start with when trying to bring enlightenment to the good but so-very-non-progressive people out here in the wilds of west Texas.  You can’t shout anyone into agreement with you, the best I hope for is to ask the right questions to get people to thinking.  These people are not raging racists, it is a much more subtle fear of the other that drives their exclusionary behavior.  I believe most of them would reassess if they could actually feel the harm that they are doing.  

    • TomP on May 1, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    There are actual leftists here.  You’ll feel at home.  There is actual dialogue and conversation here.  You’ll notice the difference.  

  7. component to this media frenzy, it’s liberalism. Rev Wright is not a right wing conservative preacher, he’s a liberal. Ezra Klein has a good piece on this aspect of the Wright controversy and how it ties into the Obama’s unpatriotic themes I hear. White rightwing preachers can spew hate about gays, lefties and anybody who questions that God is on our side, but God forbid that a preacher talk about social justice.…      

    • RiaD on May 1, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    for letting anger overtake me in your essay…

    please forgive me


  8. Geomoo!!  I enjoyed your diary and subsequent comments.

    An unrelated question…you are talking about Dublin, GA, aren’t you?

    I married a man from Dublin and lived there for a year or so.  I’m from Memphis and raised in a surprisingly non-racist family (considering the location).  Around 1964 I visited Dublin, met my future husband, married and worked in Dublin.  I came home from work one day and told my husband I had invited a co-worker for dinner.  He recognized the co-worker by name, looked almost scared and said “you can’t invite a colored to dinner!!”  I said ‘why not?’  He reminded me that I was not in Memphis where, even if it wasn’t totally acceptable to mix with ‘coloreds’ there was an amount of anonymity that wasn’t to be found in Dublin.

    This is not to say that Memphis wasn’t racist, only that in Memphis it wasn’t as openly displayed.

    It does seem to me that racism is more openly displayed and more socially acceptable (in Memphis) now than it was 30 or so years ago.

  9. Now. Geomoo…I’m not picking on you….lets look at some things you said:

    “To put a fine point on the difficulties inherent in reaching out across the racial divide, I’ll tell this story.  One day I was chatting with my neighbor, and he invited me to a party at their place.  It was obvious that this was not something he was just doing lightly–that it was a significant matter to him to make an overture to his white neighbor.  He reassured me that “They would make everyone leave their guns and knives at the door.”  This reassurance was made innocently, almost sweetly, but I will admit that it failed to put me at ease.  I still regret that I didn’t have the guts to go to that party because it might have been some small step toward healing the racial divide.”

    Why didn’t you go to the party? Seriously. What “guts” are required to go to a party? I wasn’t there but it sounds like the person you talked to was joking about the guns and knives…but it didn’t put you at ease. What bothered you about the party? What did you Imagine might happen?

    You missed an opportunity…not to heal the “racial divide” but for yourself. To have an experience. Who knows you might have met someone there and fallen in love…or something else. Maybe something bad and something good might have happened. Maybe it would be a very boring party…or lots of fun.

    I thought it was great that you asked the maid about the trouble in town.

    A good exercise for anyone is to talk to people. If you are concerned about you “racism” talk to the people …anywhere…anytime ….and discuss your actual feelings…it will be awkward at first but you can get better at it….Do it 10 times and you will get pretty good at it I bet. Try it.  

    Here’s another thing you said:

    ” The first time I was pleasantly stunned was when I saw black and white children playing pick-up baseball together.  “This is a good thing,” I thought.  Then I would be helped in stores by beautiful, well-dressed and well-spoken black clerks.  “They’re making enough money to take better care of themselves,” I would think with satisfaction.  And acceptance by whites of blacks as being worthy of respect as equals has come a long way in the South, it seems to me.”

    I understand you are from the South. But it doesn’t matter where you are from. It’s very corny sounding, frankly. It sounds like it was written by a very old person who lived in the early 1950’s. It’s laden with assumptions and prejudice that just jumps up and bites you all over.

    Now….as far as my racism goes. I have racist feelings everyday. I am a very prejudice person. I’m prejudiced about everything. I have no apology to make.

    I have brought this up many times on the internet and there are never any takers. White people don’t want to admit they have prejudices or racist feelings…neither do other “colored” people.

    What bothers me …and this is what i find on many of the blogs….I don’t know this one very well….it seems ….I think….better than whatever blogs I read…it seems….but what bother’s me is that people have these images of themselves as being “liberal” or not racist…or a “good” person or some such stuff…and people are easily offended by any criticism if it isn’t prefaced with a pre apology….So much so that it seems quite apparent to me that “liberals”….are really very conservative people….maybe not on this blog…certainly on a PRO CIA, Pro War blog like Booman and on Daily Kos,  and on a very conservative My Left Wing….these are filled with very conservative people who imagine they are “liberals”….

    Anyway….Racism…can be identified very simply within yourself…it’s a feeling toward another person…that pops up without any need for thought …based …I think… on skin color.

    If you want to understand racism….you have to understand that it’s first a feeling….And if you have the feeling and deny it…then you are in big trouble…because it’s not going to only be racist feelings your denying….it will be much more important feelings that are directly affecting you life.

    Now after I have said something like this there are the usual responses….like

    “Yes we are all racists, it’s part of our culture” etc, etc….but no one wants to talk about it in depth….I can….but I’m not sure I want to…..

    It’s an interesting issue that never really gets talked about becuase few people are willing to look at themselves critically without all these qualifications etc.

    Geomoo I don’t think you answered my questions very well.

  10. But then again I do hold the issue of race is a premier Illuminati prime directive destruct American meme.  It is always elevated in status in M$M which We know comes directly out of CIA think tanks.

    Try something different.  A book about the obsolete concept of nations.

    In the remaining years of my life when a questionaire prompts me to reveal my ethnicity, race, sexual orientation I intent to check the box……

    Fuck You.

    We are “equal” so why assign me to your assholian “post 911 world” permanent record database.

    Fuck you again.

    The Nazis were really into that shit, were they not.

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