Of National Lies and Racial Amnesia: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Audacity of Truth

For most white folks, indignation fits about as well as a cardigan sweater accidentally placed in the washer then dried on high heat. Sadly, having long remained silent in the face of (and having even supported) so much injustice over the years in this country — including the genocidal extermination of indigenous persons, the enslavement of Africans, and a century of formal apartheid after abolition — we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.

Yet here we are, many of us at least, in 2008, fuming at the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — Barack Obama’s former pastor, whom Obama credits with having brought him to Christianity — for merely reminding us of those evils about which we have remained so quiet and unconcerned. It is not the crime that bothers us, but the remembrance of it, the unwillingness to let it go: these last words being the first ones uttered by most whites whenever anyone, least of all an “angry black man” like Jeremiah Wright, foists upon us the bill of particulars for several centuries of white supremacy.

But our collective indignation, no matter how bombastically we announce it, cannot drown out the truth. And as much as white America may not be able to hear it (and as much as politics may require Obama to condemn it) let us be clear, Jeremiah Wright fundamentally told the truth.

I know that for some such a comment will seem shocking. After all, didn’t he say that America “got what it deserved” on 9/11? And didn’t he say that black people should be singing “God Damn America” because of its treatment of the African American community throughout the years?

Well actually, no he didn’t.

Wright said not that the attacks of September 11th were justified, but that they were, in effect, predictable. Deploying the imagery of chickens coming home to roost is not to give thanks for the return of the poultry or to endorse such feathered homecoming as a positive good; rather, it is merely to note two things: first, that what goes around, indeed, comes around — a notion with longstanding theological grounding — and secondly, that the United States has indeed engaged in more than enough violence against innocent people to make it just a tad bit hypocritical for us to then evince shock and outrage about an attack on ourselves, as if the latter were unprecedented.

On this last point, Wright’s scholarship is beyond dispute. In addition to the enslavement of Africans, this nation’s leaders slaughtered Indian folk, killed at least half a million in the Philippines (some say more than a million) at the turn of the last century in an attempt to crush the independence movement there, and helped overthrow democratic governments and replace them with vicious dictatorships that butchered and tortured hundreds of thousands in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1965), and Chile (1973), among others. More recently, U.S. sanctions against Iraq after the first Gulf War led to the deaths of at least half a million children there–this, by the admission of former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, who famously claimed in a 1996 television interview that such an outcome had been “worth it.”

And the suggestion that our actions abroad are implicated in terrorist attacks against us is not something said only by the likes of Wright. So, for instance, in Colin Powell’s memoir, he makes it quite clear that the actions of the United States can and have precipitated terrorist atrocities. Referencing the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, in October 1983, in which 241 soldiers were killed, Powell noted that prior to the attack an American aircraft carrier had been “hurling 16-inch shells into the mountains above Beirut…as if we were softening up the beaches…prior to an invasion. What we tend to overlook in such situations is that other people will react much as we would.” And according to the U.S. Department of Defense in its 1997 “Final Report from the Summer Study Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats,” issued in October of that year by the Defense Science Board, “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.” In other words, Wright’s argument about the blowback of American foreign policy is endorsed by the very government he was talking about.

Wright also noted that we killed far more people, far more innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than were killed on 9/11 and “never batted an eye.” Once again, he is correct, first on the math, then on the innocence of the dead (neither city was a significant military target), and finally, on the lack of remorse about the act: Sixty-plus years later most Americans still believe those attacks were justified, that they were needed to end the war and “save American lives.” And this remains true, even though there is ample evidence that the Japanese had signaled their willingness to surrender, and that this willingness was believed by most of our military commanders in the field (including MacArthur and Eisenhower) to be genuine enough so as to make the dropping of atomic weapons unnecessary. Indeed, according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946:

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

So there you have it. But to simply mention these inconvenient facts of history, as Wright has done, is to make one a pariah. We far prefer the logic of George Bush the First, who once said that as President he would “never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”

And no, Wright didn’t say blacks should literally be walking around singing “God Damn America.” He was merely suggesting that blacks owe little moral allegiance to a nation that has treated so many of them for so long as undeserving of dignity and respect, and which even now locks up hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders of color (especially for drug possession), even while whites who do the same crimes (and according to the data, when it comes to drugs, more often in fact), are walking around free. His reference to God in that sermon was more about what God will do to such a nation, than it was about what should or shouldn’t happen. It was a comment derived from, and fully in keeping with, the black prophetic tradition, and although one can surely disagree with the theology (I do, actually, and don’t believe that any God either blesses or condemns nation states for their actions), the statement itself was no call for blacks to turn on America. If anything, it was a demand that America earn the respect of black people, something the evidence and history suggests it has yet to do.

Finally, although one can certainly disagree with Wright about his suggestion that the government created AIDS to get rid of black folks — and I do, for instance, having seen no evidence to indicate the accuracy of such a claim — it is worth pointing out that Wright isn’t the only one who has said this. In fact, none other than Bill Cosby (perhaps white America’s favorite black man) proffered his belief in the very same thing back in the early ’90s in an interview on CNN, when he said that AIDS may well have been created to get rid of people whom the government deemed “undesirable” including gays and racial minorities. Given the history of government experimentation on black people — from the testing of unsterile surgical procedures on slave women in the 1800s to the Tuskegee experiments, which lasted from the ’30s to the early ’70s (during which time black men infected with syphilis were falsely told they were receiving treatment and then studied to determine the effects of the disease), to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of black and indigenous women throughout the twentieth century — black suspicions about the willingness of elites to harm or kill them is far from mere paranoia. And given the CIA’s publicly acknowledged MK ULTRA program of the 1950s and 1960s, during which the government released a virus in San Francisco Bay to determine its effectiveness as a weapon, exposed citizens in a Long Island suburb to a whooping cough epidemic for the same purpose, and gave unwitting hospital patients doses of LSD to gauge its effect on the human brain (all of this documented in congressional testimony and by former CIA officials dating back three decades), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that some might believe the United States capable of such deviousness again.

While past misdeeds and conspiracies on the part of government elites hardly prove that old patterns are necessarily repeating themselves, so too is it absurd to think that such leopards as these have changed their spots simply because pages on a calendar have turned, or the hands on the clock have moved, and thus, we are to presume an evolution on their part to a more enlightened and less predatory state. Of course, those attacking Wright for his statements about AIDS have not, themselves, likely examined any of the evidence for or against the proposition that the government deliberately created the virus. They are merely demanding that such a thought is incomprehensible, as if the United States government is literally, because of some inherent goodness or moral calibration, incapable of such a thing: this, despite the historical evidence of what we’ve done in the recent past; in their own lifetimes, in fact.

So that’s the truth of the matter: Wright made one comment that is highly arguable (the one about AIDS), but which has also been voiced by none other than the guy who sells us Jell-O Puddin’ Pops and has been making us feel good these past few years by lecturing the black poor about their pathologies; another (the God Damn America reference) that was horribly misinterpreted and stripped of all context; and then another (regarding the killing of innocents by our military and intelligence agencies) that was demonstrably accurate. And for this, he is pilloried and made into a virtual enemy of the state; for this, Barack Obama may lose the support of just enough white folks to cost him the Democratic nomination, and/or the Presidency; all of it, because Jeremiah Wright, unlike most preachers opted for truth. If he had been one of those “prosperity ministers” who says Jesus wants nothing so much as for you to be rich, that would have been fine. Had he been a retread bigot like Falwell was, or Pat Robertson is — and as for Robertson, let’s remember that several years ago he suggested that exploding a nuclear weapon inside the State Department would be the answer to the nation’s problems — he might have been criticized, but he would have remained in good standing and surely not have damaged a Presidential candidate in this way. But unlike those characters, Jeremiah Wright refused to feed his parishioners lies.

What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock (though they surely already knew it), is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color was, for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as ten thousand in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in that period’s equivalent of the Congressional Record), millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that “everything changed.” To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when their homes in Northern Mexico were swallowed up in a massive land grab, annexed into a newly engorged United States, thanks to a war of conquest initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently, it was absolutely normal in fact.

But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.

This is what James Baldwin was talking about in his classic 1972 work, No Name in the Street, wherein he noted:

White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded–about themselves and the world they live in. White people have managed to get through their entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky: a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac.

And so we were shocked in 1987, when Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall declined to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution, because, as he noted, most of that history had been one of overt racism and injustice, and to his way of thinking, the only history worth celebrating had been that of the past two or three decades.

We were shocked to learn that black people actually believed that a white cop who was a documented racist might frame a black man, and we’re shocked to learn that lots of black folks still perceive the U.S. as a racist nation. We’re literally stunned that people who say they experience discrimination regularly and who have the social science research to back them up actually think that those experiences and that data might actually say something about the nation in which they reside. Imagine.

Whites are easily shocked by what we see and hear from Pastor Wright and Trinity Church, because what we see and hear so thoroughly challenges our understanding of who we are as a nation. But black people have never, for the most part, believed in the imagery of the “shining city on a hill,” for they have never had the option of looking at their nation and ignoring the mountain-sized warts still dotting its face when it comes to race. Black people do not, in the main, get misty-eyed at the sight of the flag the way white people do — and this is true even for millions of black veterans — for they understand that the nation for whom that flag waves is still not fully committed to their own equality. They have a harder time singing those tunes that white people seem so eager to belt out, like “God Bless America,” for they know that whites sang those words loudly and proudly even as they were enforcing Jim Crow segregation, rioting against blacks who dared move into previously white neighborhoods, throwing rocks at Dr. King and then cheering, as so many did, when they heard the news that he had been assassinated.

Whites refuse to remember (or perhaps have never learned) that which black folks cannot afford to forget. I’ve seen white people stunned to the point of paralysis when they learn the truth about lynchings in this country, when they discover that such events were not just a couple of good ol’ boys with a truck and a rope hauling some black guy out to the tree, hanging him, and letting him swing there. They had never been told that lynchings were often community events, advertised in papers as “Negro Barbecues,” involving hundreds or even thousands of whites, who would join in the fun, eat chicken salad and drink sweet tea, all while the black victims of their depravity were being hanged, then shot, then burned, and then having their body parts cut off, to be handed out to onlookers. They are stunned to learn that postcards of the events were traded as souvenirs, and that very few whites, including members of their own families did or said anything to stop it.

Rather than knowing about and confronting the ugliness of our past, whites take steps to excise the less flattering aspects of our history so that we need not be bothered with them. So, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, site of an orgy of violence against the black community in 1921, city officials literally went into the town library and removed all reference to the mass killings in the Greenwood district from the papers with a razor blade: an excising of truth and an assault on memory that would remain unchanged for over seventy years.

Most white people desire, or perhaps even require, the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a reinjury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense, and what few if any white Americans appear capable of grasping at present, is that all those classic television programs like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best and The Andy Griffith Show portrayed an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real. These iconographic representations of life in the U.S. are worse than selective, worse than false; they are assaults to the humanity and memory of black people, who were being savagely oppressed even as June Cleaver did housework in heels and laughed about the hilarious hijinks of Beaver and Larry Mondello.

These portraits of America are certifiable evidence of how disconnected white folks were — and to the extent we still love them and view them as representations of the “good old days” to which we wish we could return, still are — from those men and women of color with whom we have long shared a nation. Just two months before Leave it to Beaver debuted, proposed civil rights legislation was killed thanks to Strom Thurmond’s twenty-four hour filibuster speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. One month prior, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus called out the National Guard to block black students from entering Little Rock Central High, and nine days before America was introduced to the Cleavers, and the comforting image of national life they represented, those black students were finally allowed to enter, amid the screams of enraged, unhinged, viciously bigoted white people, who saw nothing wrong with calling children niggers in front of cameras. That was America of the 1950s: a brutal, racist reality for millions, not the sanitized version into which so many escape thanks to the miracle of syndication, which merely allows white people to relive a lie, year after year after year. It is the lie of national innocence: a condition delivered stillborn at the founding of the nation, but which the nation’s white majority chose to believe was still breathing, despite all evidence to the contrary.

No, it is not the pastor who distorts history: Nick at Nite and your teenager’s textbooks do that. It is not he who casts aspersions upon “this great country” as Barack Obama put it in his public denunciations of him; it is the historic leadership of the nation that has cast aspersions upon it; it is they who have cheapened it, who have made gaudy and vile the promise of American democracy by defiling it with lies. They engage in a patriotism that is pathological in its implications, that asks of those who adhere to it not merely a love of country but the turning of one’s nation into an idol to be worshipped, if not literally, then at least in terms of consequence.

It is they — the flag-lapel-pin wearing leaders of this land — who bring shame to the country with their nonsensical suggestions that we are always noble in warfare, always well-intended, and although we occasionally make mistakes, we are never the ones to blame for anything. Nothing that happens to us has anything to do with us at all. It is always about them. They are evil, crazy, fanatical, hate our freedoms, and are jealous of our prosperity. When individuals prattle on in this manner we diagnose them as narcissistic, as deluded. When nations do it — when our nation does — we celebrate it as though it were the very model of rational and informed citizenship.

So what can we say about a nation that values lies more than it loves truth? A place where adherence to sincerely believed and internalized fictions allows one to rise to the highest offices in the land, and to earn the respect of millions, while a willingness to challenge those fictions and offer a more accurate counter-narrative earns one nothing but contempt, derision, indeed outright hatred? We can say this: Such a place is signing its its own death warrant. And we can say this too: Such a place is missing the only and last opportunity it may ever have to make things right, to live up to its professed ideals. And we must say this: Such a place can never move forward, because we have yet to fully address and come to terms with that which lies behind.

What can we say about a nation where white preachers can lie every week from their pulpits without so much as having to worry that their lies might be noticed by the shiny white faces in their pews, while black preachers who tell one after another essential truth are demonized, not only for the stridency of their tone –which needless to say scares white folks, who have long preferred a style of praise and worship resembling nothing so much as a coma — but for merely calling bullshit on those whose lies are swallowed whole?

And yes, I said it: White preachers lie. In fact, they lie with a skill, fluidity, and precision unparalleled in the history of either preaching or lying, both of which histories stretch back a ways and have often overlapped. They lie every Sunday, as they talk about a Savior they have chosen to represent dishonestly as a white man, in every picture to be found of him in their tabernacles, every children’s story book in their Sunday Schools, every Christmas card they’ll send to relatives and friends this December. But to lie about Jesus, about the one they consider God — to bear false witness as to who this man was and what he looked like — is apparently no cause for concern.

Nor is it a problem for these preachers to teach and preach that those who don’t believe as they believe are going to hell. Despite the fact that such a belief casts aspersions upon God that are so profound as to defy belief — after all, they imply that God is so fundamentally evil that he would burn non-believers in a lake of eternal fire — many of the white folks who now condemn Jeremiah Wright welcome that theology of hate. Indeed, back when President Bush was the Governor of Texas, he endorsed this kind of thinking, responding to a question about whether Jews were going to go to hell by saying that unless you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, the Bible made it pretty clear that indeed, hell was where you’d be heading.

So you can curse God in this way — and to imply such hate on God’s part is surely to curse him — and in effect, curse those who aren’t Christians, and no one says anything. That isn’t considered bigoted. That isn’t considered beyond the pale of polite society. People are not disqualified from becoming President in the minds of millions because they go to a church that says that kind of thing every single week, or because they believe it themselves. And millions do believe it, and see nothing wrong with it whatsoever.

So white folks are mad at Jeremiah Wright because he challenges their views about their country. Meanwhile, those same white folks, and their ministers and priests, every week put forth a false image of the God Jeremiah Wright serves, and yet it is whites who feel we have the right to be offended.

Pardon me, but something is wrong here, and whatever it is, is not to be found at Trinity United Church of Christ.

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