Along with the rest of the nation I have listened to the sound-bites of Jeremiah Wright; and have heard the media pundits, conservative & liberal talking-heads characterize his words as “abhorrent”, “deplorable” and “anti-American.” It is true that America has a proud history of democracy and civil liberties. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence have been considered, by many scholars and historians, as two of the greatest documents ever devised by any country or society. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are regarded in history and the world as enduring symbols of freedom. These things are all part of American history, but not the only part. There is another aspect of the U.S., another America if you will, with a history and culture that is just as real as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The disregard of other cultures and peoples is not an anomaly or aberration, but it is a recurring theme in U.S. history. And it is this history that is as much to America’s shame as the aforementioned merits and attributes are to her glory.
Let’s return to that word: “anti-American.” Were the words of Jeremiah Wright really “anti-American?” Let us remember that it was in America that Native Americans were displaced and stripped of their land and their lives; where they experienced their holocaust at the hands of a callous government and greedy settlers; where the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was passed and robbed thousands of Native Americans of their homes and birthright; where they walked the infamous “Trail of Tears;” where they were demonized and called “savage” and “heathen;” where their culture was regarded as primitive and satanic. That was the America the Native American knew. It was in America where the Chinese were harassed and detested; where they were referred to as “craven beasts” and an “inferior race;” where angry mobs shot and killed Chinese workers with impunity at the Rock Springs (Wyoming) Massacre of 1885; where the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted and effectively rescinded the welcome mat to the Chinese who desired to enter this country. That is the America that the Chinese knew.
It was in America that the African was enslaved and dehumanized; where they were sold and bought like cattle in a market; where a U.S. Supreme Court Justice once said: “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect;” where the U.S. Constitution declared African-Americans as 3/5 human. This is the America that Blacks knew. It was in America where Japanese-American citizens, during WWII, were vilified and herded into internment camps; where a Los Angeles Times reporter once wrote (also during WWII): “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched. So a Japanese-American grows up Japanese….. not an American;” where most of the 110,000 Japanese-American citizens who were removed from their homes for reasons of “national security,” were school-age children, infants and young people not yet of voting age. This is the America that the Japanese-American knew and yet America is not rejected or denounced. It was in America where the first involuntary sterilization law, in world history, was passed in Indiana in 1907 (which served as a blueprint for Nazi-Germany’s sterilization program); where people who were deemed “feeble-minded,” “socially-unfit,” and “genetically-inferior;” where over 60,000 people from the passing of the first law in 1907 to the early 1970’s were sterilized against their will; where immigrants (in the 1920’s & 1930’s) from Eastern and Southern Europe were largely characterized as “social-inadequates” and denied U.S. citizenship (at the same time immigration from Western and Northern Europe increased). This is the America that the poor, disenfranchised and defenseless knew, but America is not rejected and denounced.
It was in America that the 20th century version of “The Inquisition” took place---namely McCarthyism; where the label of “communist” was used to bully and berate thousands of American citizens; where an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs, because of their presumed link to communism; where the Bill of Rights received a bloody nose and a black eye by the abuse of U.S. Congressional power divorced from reason. This is the America that progressive and free-thinkers knew. Although I disagree with the choice of words by Jeremiah Wright, I understand them.
I can hear the refrain from those who say: “America’s record of freedom and justice is still better than any other country in the world, so why condemn America?” My answer is twofold: 1) This is not about comparing America to the other countries of the world, but about compelling America to truly live up to the values that it espouses; to the principles that America says it believes in. 2) America receives the degree of condemnation it receives because we hold ourselves up as the standard for liberty and justice. When we do as we ought as a nation it is to our credit or fame and when we fail to, we receive greater criticism than any other country. Why? For the same reason the banker who disparages dishonesty in business and is found to be an embezzler; for the same reason the minister who denounces people who practice “fornication” and cheats on his wife--- one simply cannot be found guilty of the very things they condemn, because they indeed will receive greater blame or criticism. I know the statements that I have made will cause some to say that I am being unfair and unpatriotic. There also may be some who will say that I am dredging up old or ancient history. Then let us consider that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are also getting along in years, yet no one denies their impact on American society today. Some will say that they weren’t around when these centuries and decades-old offenses took place and this is true. However, none of us were around during the Revolutionary War and yet it does not prevent us from waving the flag on the Fourth of July. We cannot choose our national inheritance in slices or pieces; it must be taken as a whole. Therefore it would be historical hypocrisy to suggest that our vices have not impacted our nation every bit as much as our virtues.
One cannot let patriotic fervor and nationalistic sentiments blind us to the total scope of American history. Mingled with the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” are the signs that say: “colored” and “white.” Fused with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” are the laws and policies throughout American history that dictated that we were anything but equal. We must understand that America stands as a paradox of realities. And if we understand that, then it isn’t very difficult to understand the words and tone of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Disagree with his ultimate conclusions or the tenor of his sermons, if you will, but it should not prevent us from an honest and open accounting of American history. Let it further be understood and recognized that Jeremiah Wright enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in the Navy during a time when Black churches were being bombed and burned to the ground; when Blacks were being killed and brutalized for trying to exercise their right to vote; when Blacks were being told where they could and could not live and all with the complicity or indifference of the government at all levels. The common belief is that our enlisted men and women protect and defend the liberties that we enjoy which means that Reverend Wright was ensuring rights that he as a Black man did not even benefit from. His story is not uncommon (we see in the movie Tuskegee Airmen that Black officers in WWII had to give up their seats on a train to German POW’s in the South). After the wars, in 1918 and in the 1940s, some Black veterans who would not take off their uniforms were lynched. They had been out in the world, fought for their country, handled weapons, been accepted abroad in a way they never had been at home, and had a different idea of their humanity than Jim Crow would have recognized. Lynching was used as a method to remind Blacks of who they still were. They had survived the bullets and bombs over and in Germany, Italy, France and the thanks for their patriotism and sacrifice were a tree and a rope and their bodies swinging between heaven and earth. And yet they still enlisted and fought and served. To have your humanity questioned while you wore the uniform and to have your patriotism impugned by those who never served is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.
In this Presidential election year, I have often reflected on the relationships of past U.S. Presidents and America’s communities of color (and in particular, the African-American community). I must admit that my reflections have produced frustration on some occasions and confusion at other times. Many of the Presidents that have been deemed great by the historical scholars and critics were clearly and unabashedly racist. The whole of American history has not yet been told in my opinion. The glossing over of some things, the rewriting of others and the complete omission of many historical facts; has left this country woefully ignorant of its own history and the history of its leading figures. I am not a babe in the woods nor am I a political novice; I realize that none of our political leaders have been saints. Nevertheless, that should not excuse us from critical thought and insight as we examine the history of this nation.
Thomas Jefferson for all intents and purposes is considered the chief architect of our present democracy; who called slavery a “national sin” and fathered children by one of his slaves and helped pen the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” However, Jefferson’s belief in the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” did not extend to Blacks. Further still, his belief in the humanity of Blacks is in question. Jefferson reveals his sentiments in Notes on the State of Virginia by referring to blacks as lazy, slow, unable to reason, lacking in imagination and even spoke of their “unsightly appearance.” To quote noted historian John Hope Franklin: “Unfortunately and tragically, I would say that in a sense Thomas Jefferson personifies the United States and its history. We have the contradictions that began as early as the 17th century and that persist today. And it's no surprise that one of the great icons of all times personifies in his own life these contradictions.” And knowing this does not cause our celebrated third President to be rejected or denounced.
Abraham Lincoln has long been considered the “Great Emancipator” and “Savior of the Union.” His stature in American history has been cemented by the outcome of the Civil War and his now famous Gettysburg Address. I remember learning in school the words: “Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Those profound words are contradicted by other, more ominous words of Lincoln when he said: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Fourth Debate with Stephen Douglas at Charleston, Illinois; September 18, 1858). And, no, Abraham Lincoln is not rejected or denounced
Even LBJ, the architect of the Great Society and the catalyst of groundbreaking work and legislation on civil rights was not immune. After King’s now famous speech in opposition to the Vietnam conflict, he was referred to by President Johnson from that moment on as “that n-word preacher.” For this, he has not been rejected and denounced.
I feel at times that I, as a Black man and citizen of the United States of America, am supposed to put my reasoning faculties and my knowledge of American history on hold and join in the mindless and rehearsed chorus of praise for U.S. Presidents and a government that either greatly undervalued or flat out denied the humanity of my ancestors (both my Native & African-American ancestors). I have heard the explanation “they were merely men of their times” too many times to count. What if the targets of historical American prejudice looked like you? What if you were the consistent and constant mark of governmental and societal oppression and discrimination? Would you be as inclined to consider them “great” men? Would you rush to sing God Bless America? Dear reader, I have another question for you: Have you ever considered anyone great who called you lazy, ignorant, ugly or inferior? And yet many in this country take it for granted that ALL Americans should view these men as legendary and noble. The contributions of people of color in building this country cannot be denied or overlooked. America would not exist without their blood, sweat and tears; but historically, what gratitude has this country’s Presidents shown for these contributions? This is what makes Presidential election years such a precarious time for traditionally underrepresented groups. That is the conflict of Blacks and other historically oppressed groups in this country. Recipients, yet not full recipients, of the liberties and opportunities of America; and sufferers of its greatest injustices.
So if in the face of this preponderance of evidence America is not denounced or rejected; if in spite of the sins mentioned we still call for context; if we conclude that these transgressions are only part of the story and not the whole; then why is this same standard not applied to Reverend Wright? The historical and public record shows us that America, at times, tried to damn her darker-skinned children long before the pastor damned it. If I can, with immense joy, recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence; if I can, with passion, embrace the truths contained in the Gettysburg Address; if I as a Black & Native-American man, when I enlisted in the USMC, could hold up my right hand and take an oath to defend a Constitution and a nation that has, over the centuries, not always protected and defended me, then what is America’s problem?