Sunday, March 16, 2008


What is most interesting about the attention that Pastor Wright is getting is that off the bat, unless someone like Donna Brazile is at the round table with the rest of the pundits everyone is framing the question this way: those comments are nothing short of appalling and how can Obama claim to be the post-race candidate when that’s what his pastor preaches?

Added to this comes the media’s juxtaposition of the Pastor Wright sermons with Geraldine Ferraro’s blatant racist comments. The idea being to express this sense of false outrage by we good people that this level of discourse exists at all. Let us all reject and repudiate these “crazy people” in our midst, who say “crazy racist shit” none of us have any clue about…

It is hypocritical to suggest that a critical strand of American intellectual and and political thought, the notion of black resistance, sustained for a long time by the fiery rhetoric of the black church, is the same as some racist white woman’s assertion that a very competent man running for president is just “lucky to be” black.

It is also hypocritical to pretend that nobody knows what either Ferraro or Wright is doing, that theirs are peripheral ideas when really they are both very different off shoots of American racism that thrive in fact, in every day American dialogue. On the one hand, the idea that black people are victimized in this country. On the other, the idea that au contraire, black people are given free passes in this country.

The defiance of Pastor Wright has very much defined liberation theology everywhere in the world; church and spiritual life have been the nourishment of oppressed people everywhere in the world. Specifically in black American life the statements of most courage and most militancy have come from the spiritual leaders and with good reason because theirs is the work of, as Donna Brazile put it so eloquently, nourishing souls of people who live to be broken down.

She also pointed out that there is a great generation gap here: whereas Obama imagines and in fact, embodies a possible reconciliation, his pastor comes from a generation that relied on vehement recrimination. Recrimination because they had seen the rise and fall of the idea of reconciliation. Context matters.

When one in four black men between (I think) the age of 18 and 24 is or will be incarcerated, Pastor Wright has no cause to stop preaching what he preaches. He falls in line with an American tradition that has produced everything from local leaders like the mayor of Newark, to historical giants like MLK; his are the same roots for almost every aspect of (black) American arts and culture. I offer at the end of this posting, Nina Simone, and ask that we keep her in her proper context, one that includes at least slave narratives, Public Enemy, Spike Lee and the origins of rock n’roll. I mean, what the fuck is everyone shocked about? Didn’t we just have Malcolm’s birthday? Is anger really that inappropriate or unacceptable?

We all know that many people agree with what Geraldine Ferraro said. Suddenly we want to pretend that what that woman said out loud has not been there all along while the first viable black candidate to the American presidency hits the world stage? Most of the Obama criticism has hurt so deeply not for its explicit content--there it most often lacks substance--but for its implicit racism, where it gets traction because it connects with a visceral dark place in the national conscience where the sentiments of Ferraro, pretty much, hold sway. We have been hurt deeply by it and, not incidentally, have been unable to counter it without being muzzled by accusations of playing the race card.

Isn’t that so ironic? Whereas black people have always known to keep their critical race insights in either the privacy of church and home or seasoned with the sugar of comedy or satire or art, precisely because we understand that people like Geraldine Ferraro are more common than we like to pretend, people like Ferraro have never had a problem saying exactly how they felt, also because they understand what they believe is the held belief of many. So we're all basically on the same page folks.

(1963) Nina Simone

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Can't you see it
Can't you feel it
It's all in the air
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it, yet

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer

Don't tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying "Go slow!"

But that's just the trouble
"do it slow"
Washing the windows
"do it slow"
Picking the cotton
"do it slow"
You're just plain rotten
"do it slow"
You're too damn lazy
"do it slow"
The thinking's crazy
"do it slow"
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don't know
I don't know

Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

I made you thought I was kiddin' didn't we

Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more
You keep on saying "Go slow!"
"Go slow!"

But that's just the trouble
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
Mass participation
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
Do things gradually
"do it slow"
But bring more tragedy
"do it slow"
Why don't you see it
Why don't you feel it
I don't know
I don't know

You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

That's it for now! see ya' later

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Love Letter To Michelle

While charges of gender-treason abound all around me, I turn my attention to the kind of woman I actually do admire. I admit that I felt embarrassed when I realized, watching her on Larry King relatively recently, that beyond very superficial consideration of her kick ass fashion and the genuine affection she shares with her husband, I had not paid much attention to the woman who would be First Lady. This to me was yet another strike against the mythology that claims Ultimate Victim Status for Hillary, a woman who, as far so many women are concerned, has been incredibly privileged and powerful (at the very least for being an entrenched and influential part of the government of the biggest world superpower currently engaged in an occupation war). The fact that even I wasn't really paying Michelle Obama any mind strikes me as proof positive that something particularly bitter sits at the bottom of the gender-race cocktail that some of us drink from and some us never taste.

Michelle Obama was on Larry King and I watched and was in genuine awe. I think for all her husband's charisma, she by far exhibits more: more power, more strength, more fight and more poise. She is that rare creature that is only loved by those whom she would have love her, while he is the creature that everyone falls in love with. It's clear which quality is best for a national leader--his, but it's also clear which quality makes me proud to be a woman--hers. You see, Michelle Obama is loved by those who have long held a fundamental belief in their personhood and a commitment to the protection of that belief when pretty much the history of the world has been a string of vicious attacks on it. To me she, even more than he, communicates self-possession and an adamant refusal to cede the slightest inch to the notion that she somehow belongs in some exceptional, Other reality. More impressive is that she does it without appearing to be posturing. I don't mean that she is cocky, and I don't just mean that she is confident. I mean that she IS herself completely. We all know that women are made vessels, and targets, for all sorts of shenanigans in the big patriarchical circus. We all know the ways that projecting gets even trickier for women of color. Even more specific for black American women in America. When you see Michelle Obama and really look at her and listen to her and see her countenance, it seems to me a challenge to find room for projections, open ended sentences one could give predictable ends, meanings one could arbitrarily derive and crazy racist/sexist fantasias one could enact: she's the fully constituted person she is and you're just talking to her. When she was swiftboated anti-patriotic by the right wingers, she actually had said this was the first time she was proud of this country. These are her words and though they may have called up the swiftboating, stating them plainly and fearlessly as she did also called up something else: context. Many understood exactly what she did and did not mean. I regret the need for this cliché, but she is (powerfully) real. And not only that, she is fully aware of the necessity of her realness-in fact, she is deploying it against all.

On Larry King that night she was fantastically self-assured and when he asked the typical question of "are you ready to be the first black first lady", she barely allowed him to finish before cutting him off to answer, simply,

“I’m who I am I. I’m ready for it. That’s who I am.”

Larry King didn’t get it and many other people probably don't get that this is a very significant way to phrase that answer. She intends in that phrase, to say, of course I am ready to be first black woman anything. She is answering Larry King, and also answering this curious, skeptical, possibly ill-intended and certainly ill-instructed public. She is answering a whole historical narrative about who she is and filling up her own space. She is, without any drama, making a critical point that is rather profound. She is explaining that she was born ready for the fact that for most of what's worth fighting for and living for--be it the integrity of her body, her education, an adequate measure of respect or even the White House; be it daily survival or grandest aspiration--if she got there, she'd likely be first. And if not first, one of very few. That was true when she got good grades and a good education early on, and true when she graduated high school, and true when she got into Princeton, and true when she got into Harvard, and true when she got her first job, and true when she got her last job, and true when she quit it to help her husband run for highest office in the land. Her not being ready to be first then, same as for me and and so many like me that I love and admire, would have been tantamount to not being ready to be much of anything.

I won't even do a disclaimer here and say maybe I am overthinking this because frankly, I've been damn near drowned in some of the most exotically toxic essentialist gender critiques for my support for Obama in recent days. Those interlocutors-all women, all white, all Hillary's age--have not pulled any punches or spared any romance or even sobered any of their thinking on the matter, and so I won't either. I've fought the nefarious pull of suspect identity politics in this election as best as I could because I stand firm on the conviction that it is lazy and a remedy akin to the effect that old antiobiotics have on new strands of TB--while shit was potent once today the organism it fights has evolved and adapted and we need new medicine. I held out and but having recently been pulled back by the fabricated Obama backlash cum Hillary surge, I now feel entitled to say this: it makes me giddy, from my toes to my ears, and it makes my heart skip a beat, to think that this barely 200-year old country, once one of the most brutal slave societies known, could soon have its First Lady, its feminine icon, its '08 Jackie O. be one Michelle O.(if judging by last night's superb battle royale black number with the punctuating white pearls, I think she’s indeed ready).

We have long understood who he and what his arrival on the scene means but we’ve not spent enough time talking about the fact that along with him, she would come as well. The First Lady to be is a black American woman whose Africa is not the appealing, up-by-bootstraps Kenyan immigrant story but slavery, whose biography did not take her from Hawaii to Indonesia to Kansas but grounded her in that typical American city by way of the South experience, whose persona is called the familiar names (your New Yorker politesse may say "mordant" or "stone-faced" but others will say more colorful things soon enough). Michelle Obama is a woman whose blackness is that fait accompli, that known target, that common place this whole mess is about anyway, that black American blackness.

...One of the women with whom I recently disagreed about my choosing Obama said to me, by way of friendly critique, that this election had the country "working through some serious subconscious stuff". To that I say, you have no fucking idea.