The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama: Pleeze Don't Throw Me In the Briar Patch...

Well, I knew that given the same challenges with a Reverend Wright, I would have found a way to express myself effectively, and turned it to my advantage. At least...I would like to THINK I would. But listening to the speech Obama just gave, and the initial reactions to it, I think of the old "Don't throw me in the briar patch" story. In other words, I just heard a speech that articulates race relations in America as well as I've ever heard it done, and placed it in the context of our history and aspirations. THAT speech was an ass-kicker. And if he'd pulled it out, or anything CLOSE to it in the beginning of his campaign, he would have been accused of "playing the race card." But by letting his opponents, and the press, raise the issue and FORCE him to deal with it...brilliant. No idea if he'd planned to do that, but the guy is a master politician. I think it was about as honest and thoughtful on a volatile subject as you're ever likely to hear in public discourse. Threaded the needle quite nicely.

Now. That said, did it do "the job"? Not for me to say. That's for millions of Americans to decide. I will say that his view of America comes very very close to my own. I promise you that there are old-school radicals on either side who think he went too far, or not far enough. There are blacks invested in thinking America is evil who think he sold out, and whites who think America is stainless who will call him a traitor.
But both of those are insignificant proportions of the population. Most are in the middle, and will weigh his words and decide if they think the America, and the future, that he sees is the same as the one they see, and if they share dreams. That is for them to say. It is absolutely vital that Joe-Bob know that his vote creates a better future for his own children. The Reverend Wright expressed emotions I've heard thousands of times, and in variation, from both sides of the political aisle. They are not mine. America is a great nation, arguably the greatest nation in history (I said arguably--assuming one was inclined to rank such things hierarchically, it would doubtless be a rousing discussion. Hmmm. I wonder what factors would be considered to create such a ranking?), but still its citizens are human beings, and heir to the same failings of flesh and spirit as those in all other nations. I choose to live here, and would fight for her, and die for her, so long as such sacrifice guaranteed her benefits to my children and family.
The anger you heard in Reverend Wright can be understood simply by remembering: anger is a mask over fear. If you cannot grasp what a black man in America might have to be afraid of, you haven't been paying attention.

I couldn't "disown" Wright without disowning half my family, most of my friends, 90% of my acquaintences and almost all public figures who have ever spoken with their conscious or unconscious fears and prejudices and reactions giving voice to painful personal perspectives. Without such discourse, we cannot move forward, and move together toward a common goal...we can only PRETEND to do so, and then act surprised when our coalitions break apart.

I think Obama just stated very clearly who he is in this matter. I can understand someone saying: "that's not for me." But America will elect the leader it deserves, that it has the vision and temperament to elect, whether we like it or not. That's democracy for you. I really, really, wonder what happens next. Where's my popcorn?


Anonymous said...

sullivan's initial take
on the speech
similar to yours

Alas, I cannot give a more considered response right now as I have to get on the road. But I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.

And it was a reflection of faith - deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America - its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union - today, in our time, in our way.

I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

Bill Clinton once said that everything bad in America can be rectified by what is good in America. He was right - and Obama takes that to a new level. And does it with the deepest darkest wound in this country's history.

I love this country. I don't remember loving it or hoping more from it than today.

Lester Spence said...

but whether it "did the job" misses the point. this isn't about someone pulling a lever in the fall. if you were moved by recent events to pull another lever then you're lost anyway.

Pagan Topologist said...

Beautiful, Steve! I wish I had not had to be at work and thus miss Obama's speech. I considered skipping an important faculty meeting to hear it, but I decided I can probably find it on C-SPAN or at least find the text somewhere. I was wondering to myself what he would say as I drove to work this morning; from what you said maybe I was pretty close to the mark in my speculations.

As to the Christianity, Suzanne, I am a bit disturbed about that in all politicians. I think Obama is not one of the Christians who would wish to change this country into a theocracy and attempt to suppress those of us who are not Christians. But it is always a fear of mine that if Christians have the chance, they will want to run this country similarly to how the Taliban ran Afghanistan.

Lester, I am not sure I understand your comment about being "lost anyway."

David Bellamy

Anonymous said...

Obama is still not my candidate for various reasons, but he sure gave a great speech. He definitely has a Reagan like ability to communicate and rally the troops.

Marty S

Steven Barnes said...

Obama is pretty much speaking the truth about being a black American. The only question I consider legitimate and perceptive is: "does he expect others to bear his burden?" I don't hear that.
I think that a Christian from my point of view is someone who lives those principles. Such a person would find commonality with good people of whatever, or no, religion, and not try to force anything on anyone except: "play nicely, children." I mean, really.

Anonymous said...

"Where's my popcorn?"

Now that's a satement I can wholeheartedly second. Sen. Obama is far and away the best speaker in national politics. He did as good a job explaining his loyalty to Rev. Wright as could be expected and much better than I believed possible. The man is good. He is much more of a unifier than Sen. Clinton. If Sen. Clinton is nominated, there will be a split in the Democratic Party. If Sen. Obama is nominated, the party will largely rally around him. The question mark is whether independents and moderate Republicans will vote for Sen. Obama in November. A lot can and will happen in the next seven months. Where's my popcorn?

Anonymous said...

I read the text of Obama's speech on the NYTimes site.

It is a remarkable speech, one which makes me like Obama even more, and he's very high on my list. He is my preferred candidate of choice.

However, I do not believe that Rev. Wright's comments were of fear. His comments were of anger and frustration. Theologically speaking, they are analogous to Christ overturning the money changers table in the temple.

I remember little of Rev. King's "I have a dream" speech. I was 12 years old when he delivered it. The news gave more seconds and more column inches to WA DC police being given sandwiches with mayo on them than the content of Dr. King's speech. I was in college before I read it all. I have never seen a complete video of it.

There was a profound sense in the little corner of white society that I lived near but not really in, that all those black people on the Washington mall should have been doing something else.

Rev. Wright's comments reflect 45 years or may it's 60 years of frustration with white society. My own minister, who is white as am I (Obama's comment about the most segregated hour of the day is true) has spoken out against empire, racism, Christian fascism, the wars, the president, drugs, alcohol, poverty, sexism, anti-gay sentiment (we have prayed that the United Methodist Church will sanction same-sex marriage in the church), and so on. United Methodists and the United Church of Christ, plus several more congregations are liberal churches. On the whole we are "red letter Christians" who put all or most of the emphasis on the words of Christ (sometimes printed in red) than the words of Paul or the Old Testament.

Rev. Wright is just telling the truth as he sees it. The world shaped his experience and he is reflecting it back. It makes me uncomfortable. It should.

Steven Barnes said...

Please remember: my philosophy is that anger is a way we deal with fear. I've never heard of something anyone got angry about that couldn't be looked at that way (that doesn't mean that I'm right, just that that's the way I make sense of human emotions, and it seems to have worked.) Black people in America have always been outnumbered. In that situation, slights loom large, and genuine prejudice can produce genocide. People in such situations are afraid. You may not care what a toddler thinks about you. What a giant thinks about you is another matter altogether.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I just finished listening to it. The guy speaks well (and I don't mean he's "well spoken") -- so I'm prone to ignoring his superb delivery and drilling down on what he's actually saying, and on more than one occasion I've found the semantic content of a given speech to be pretty much zero ...

Not so here. This was brilliant, not merely on presentation, but on content -- the guy has cojones. He could have played safe, and he swung for the fences. This may be the best speech I've ever seen a politician give. Certainly nothing else comes to mind immediately that compares.

Anonymous said...


I actually harbor very little resentment toward Rev. Wright for the comments he has made. He can say whatever he wants. So can the skinhead white supremecist. However, Sen. Obama is more than savvy enough to know that people are judged not only by their own actions, but by the people they choose as friends and role models. We don't get to choose our family (the weird uncle or the white grandmother who makes racist comments). But, we do choose our friends and role models. Sen. Obama chose Rev. Wright to be a role model. That tells us something about Sen. Obama. The issue now is what Sen. Obama's choice of of Rev. Wright as a role model tells us about Sen. Obama. Sen. Obama's speech is part of his effort to let us know what his association with Rev. Wright reveals about himself.

LaVeda H. Mason said...

I wasn't able to see his speech. I was, however, able to read a transcript, sitting in my car on my laptop.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, I read with growing hope and wonder how he addressed the hopes, fears, frustrations and anger of just about everyone who has ever felt slighted, left behind, put upon because they were different.

Our similarities are greater than our differences, it is true. But our differences are more visible.

And more distracting, especially when you're afraid that your job is going to be outsourced, or that your employment is a zero-sum game... because if it comes down to my choosing between you and me to lose, it's going to be you every time... nothing personal.

What I love about this speech (and this candidate) is that he GETS IT ... it's not a zero sum game at all... we can ALL win, by working together to solve the problems that affect us all.

THIS speech sums up why he's my candidate... I cannot even imagine Hillary making such a speech (especially not with all the underhanded attacks that have gone on under her banner).

We may have witnessed the seminal moment of this campaign in this speech.

Lester Spence said...

in comments left here and a couple of other places i noted that obama missed a moment to take the wright incident and move INTO that energy, using it to deal with larger themes of racism, of privilege, of economic hardship, of patriotism.

i didn't think he had the heart to pull the trigger.

i am so glad i was wrong.

this was the greatest campaign speech of the modern political era. and if we think of the reagan speech in philadelphia, mississippi as one bookend, perhaps we can think of this as the other.

Anonymous said...

I've only read the transcript, but this was brilliant. He has managed to capture the concerns of both sides in a way that is astonishing. Even if his candidacy ends up going nowhere (which I highly doubt), he's done a great thing for America.

Josh Jasper said...

Steve: my philosophy is that anger is a way we deal with fear.

I agree. But what gets me is how often people who're getting angry and expressing that anger are shut down by people who fear someone like an angry black minister, with real reasons to be angry. The words may not have been justified, but he anger? Who among us can tell Wright that he had no right or reason to be angry?

Sometimes anger is a positive motivating force. It's the actions that it can motivate that need considering.

Frank said...

Lester Spence

but whether it "did the job" misses the point. this isn't about someone pulling a lever in the fall. if you were moved by recent events to pull another lever then you're lost anyway.

I agree. I won't be voting for Obama for a whole host of reasons not related to race, but I read his speech and I think it was a landmark piece of oratory.

And it was inspiring, and honest, and painful, and hopeful.

And you know what? He's right. I too know people like Rev Wright and they ain't black.

But they aren't my friends either.

And that will ultimately be the problem for many.

Josh Jasper said...

And you know what? He's right. I too know people like Rev Wright and they ain't black.

But they aren't my friends either.

And that will ultimately be the problem for many.

The Republican candidate is "friends" with people who's blamed gay people for Hurricane Katrina. In fact, John McCain is "proud to have Pastor John Hagee's support.'

I get why Rev. Wright is angry at white people, at American policy , and even why, wrong though he is, he suspects the US government for conspiring about AIDS (I refer to the Tuskegee experiments) . I really do. But Hagee? I have no idea why he's so angry at gay people. But McCain is not repudiating Hagee's comments. Obama repudiated Wright's comments, and didn't keep him on at the campaign even in his ceremonial role.

Unknown said...

I'd have to go hunting for the text of JFK's speech about being Catholic and running for president, but I imagine the energy is very similar to this speech.

Unknown said...

Here's the Kennedy speech. It's a short one, and the energy, the phrasing, even many of the concerns, are the same. (Sadly, the issues that Kennedy felt were more important than his being Catholic are many of the same that Obama feels are more important than his being black - poor schools, poor medical care, etc. Not a lot has changed.)

sharleen higa said...

November will mark my second presidential election since I turned 18. I feel so privileged to be a part of this campaign, and to be able to witness and be moved by this amazing and historic speech.

As a member of a notoriously apathetic generation (read: extremely likely to participate in a student demonstration to walk out of a calculus class, but rather unlikely to be educated voters), I've been bristling at Hillary's criticisms of Obama's oratory ability. As if the ability to inspire hope were somehow a bad thing. I loved how subtly Obama addressed it in the closing lines of his speech today:

"By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start."

No, Hillary, we young people who are flocking to the polling places in record numbers are not stupid. We know that there is a difference between words and actions. But "to inspire," "to motivate," and "to give hope" are actions too. And this is where we start.

I am thrilled, I am buzzing with excitement.... Uncle Steve, won't you share that popcorn with me?

Khyron said...

The honesty and clarity of Obama's vision of where we stand today, and the way that he focused his own (well controlled) anger on those who try to distract from the real issues, were what got to me. I never expected to see anything this healthy within politics at this level.

I need to get my composure back now, because I need to get back to my office job helping people solve much simpler problems.

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting point:

-- "When Senator Obama's preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father -- Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer -- denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.

Every Sunday thousands of right wing white preachers (following in my father's footsteps) rail against America's sins from tens of thousands of pulpits. They tell us that America is complicit in the "murder of the unborn," has become "Sodom" by coddling gays, and that our public schools are sinful places full of evolutionists and sex educators hell-bent on corrupting children. They say, as my dad often did, that we are, "under the judgment of God." They call America evil and warn of immanent destruction. By comparison Obama's minister's shouted "controversial" comments were mild. All he said was that God should damn America for our racism and violence and that no one had ever used the N-word about Hillary Clinton.
" --

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