Thursday, March 27, 2008

A More Perfect Union

I have finally watched Barack Obama's speech on race from a week ago. I was waiting until I felt like I could absorb it all. What I've realized about Spring Break is that I wasn't going to feel rested and productive on the first day. It took me almost 5 days to realize that. Luckily, I have practice listening to my body and every time my brain said, "You really should be hitting that to-do list," I checked first with my soul to see how it was feeling. Until today, it kept telling me, "Not yet. Can't we quilt just a little bit more?"

So, Barack. If you haven't watched this speech yet, please find the 45 minutes you'll need to sit down with it, sometimes stopping and backing up to hear something again.

If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I love African American culture and try to expose myself to as much of it as possible, working to reconcile and assist from an inherited place of privilege in the least paternalistic way that I can. I fail a lot of the time.

A little while ago I wrote a post about Things White People Like, and my friend Mike pointed out that he wasn't sure why he didn't find it as funny as I did. I've been thinking about how to explain that. I think that it has become such a phenomenon because it names us. The day after I added Threadless to my online profile as something I liked, Stuff White People Like described the evaluation criteria white people use for determining whether a t-shirt is valuable or not. I laughed because I think I'm so unique in my tastes, but they described them exactly, down to saying that Threadless was one of the only acceptable new t-shirt sources. This sinking laughter from being named comes from my realization that the ways in which I see myself are more closely identified with my race and class than they are with my faith or my ideology. Mike, as a pastor, has learned to see himself as a follower of Jesus rather than a white guy and his life reflects this.  I makes me wonder how my life would change if I based my decisions on the latter rather than the former.

Barack Obama's speech was so powerful a) because Aaron Sorkin must have written it and b) because it names us. It names the anger of the black community and the resentment of the white community. It names my tendency to get distracted by the media from the issues that really matter:
We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.
Barack Obama's speech is so powerful because he suggests that we don't have to do that.  We don't have to be who we have always been, identified with our race rather than our hope. He suggests that we can change the system, evolve, emerge from the dichotomous thinking of the modern era and shape our world systemically to reflect the new reality of our post-modern thinking. Brian McLaren describes this shift to post-modernism in Everything Must Change using the Civil Rights movement as an object lesson:
For the first time, millions of white people around the world had to look back and face how their ancestors had treated non-white people, [which was] not in shame and secrecy, but openly . . . without a second thought. Now they were having to entertain those second thoughts."
The second thoughts are post-modern thinking. The world has gotten so small that we realize no one (including us) can conquer it all and make everyone think the same, so we have to make room for different ideas to exist in the same space.  

This is what the emerging church is trying to do as well.  I've mentioned before that a couple of months ago, Pastor Phil Jackson told me that the African American church has been emerging for a long time because it had to.  This is what Barack describes when he describes his church, Trinity UCC: 
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
What Barack is describing is a post-modern church: a church full of contradictions and truth found through different people being considered equal to each other in the eyes of God and in the face of society that tells them otherwise.  

I have long been jealous of black people's ability to overcome class and acknowledge the humanity of each other in any situation. In my school building, the black professors stop by and have brief conversations with the security guards, the cleaning lady stands with the dean of admissions and laughs about something. I always feel so colonial when I try to small talk with with non-white people outside of my socio-economic class. My friend Jess said that she always loved it that when she was growing up a young black girl in Cleveland, her dad would nod slightly to any black man he passed on the streets. She said it gave her such a sense of of kinship with other black people.

I felt a kinship with Barack when he talked about his white grandmother: 
I can no more disown [Reverend Wright] than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
My grandma talks about "the blacks." My grandfather actually still used the word "colored." But my grandfather also ran an integrated YMCA for 30 years and insisted on sportsmanship above all else, even race. Even Grandpa was post-modern, holding opposing viewpoints in tension within his life.

I was extremely grateful for Barack's eloquent summary on how the racism of the past has affected both white communities and black communities today. My friend Don pointed out to me Wednesday that perhaps I might not have gotten an interview for the Mayor's Office internship because I referred to certain citizens of Chicago as "under-resourced" and "under-served" rather than "poor" or "at-risk."  He pointed out to me that my reader might wonder who I thought was supposed to be resourcing and serving those people? Could it be the Mayor of the past 16 years? Or his father before him? I am grateful that Barack was equally unwilling (although possibly less unwitting) to play politics and told the truth of the history of oppression and effects. Of course, it also makes last week's Onion headline all the more funny:

We live in a society in which the stereotype for a black guy is that he is begging on the street to support himself and this reality make a good joke because a black guy can also run for president.  As our society realizes more and more that it is post-modern, we give up our ideas of absolutes: there is no distinct right and wrong, there is no black and white.  It is wrong to abort babies AND it is wrong to make that decision for someone else.  It is right to help developing nations through free trade agreements AND free trade agreements hurt those same nations.  Black men are overwhelmingly caught in the cycle of poverty and despair AND a black man might very well be our next president.

As Barack said, this will never be a perfect nation but it can be perfected.  It will never reach an absolute state of perfection but it can be a more perfect union.  This is beautiful expression of the human condition: that we are not God but instead broken creatures in need of God and able to seek help from God.  We are capable of being more perfect but never capable of being completely perfect.  And this is what makes America and God's entire creation great.

1 comment:

Mike Clawson said...

"Mike, as a pastor, has learned to see himself as a follower of Jesus rather than a white guy and his life reflects this."

Thanks, but you give me too much credit. I think the real reason I don't "get" that site is simply because I've never been a part of the small sub-section of white culture that it describes. I don't get the joke because, with a few exceptions, I don't really fit its descriptions of white people.

Good post tho'. :)