“God Damn America” in Black and White
Mr. Blum is a professor of history at San Diego State University and the author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007) and Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005).
Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright are in hot water. Newspapers and news stations across the world have been reporting on Wright’s “inflammatory rhetoric” (as Obama’s campaign is calling it) in 2003 when he called upon his Chicago congregation to reject the hymn “God Bless America” and instead shout “God Damn America.” Wright denounced the United States for historically advocating terrorism for its own purposes, for refusing to offer help to the hopeless, and for oppressing minorities. “God damn American for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” The re-surfacing of these comments has led Obama and his camp to scramble. They are now distancing themselves from Wright and, in reaction, some African Americans feel betrayed by Obama.
What is striking, historically, is that there is nothing new in Wright’s sermon and how often African American perspectives on so-called American Christian nationalism are ignored. It seems that each year, at least a handful of books come out trying to discern whether the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Most recently, this can be seen in Steven Waldman’s Liberating the Founders. But so often historians have approached the topic from the perspective of elite whites, and not the people who were building the nation from its foundation, hoeing the fields and raising the cotton, washing the clothes and preparing the meals. (One exception to this is David Howard-Pitney’s wonderful The African-American Jeremiad.) If we look closely at African American perspectives of Christian nationalism, we find Reverend Wright firmly in a long oppositional and rhetorical tradition.
For hundreds of years, African American leaders have taken the idea of America’s Christian nationalism seriously and turned it against racial discrimination, violence, and imperialism. The tradition goes back at least to the eighteenth century, when Massachusetts slaves called for freedom in the name of Christian teachings that all men are made of one blood. It continued into the antebellum era through the preaching of Richard Allen, the antislavery speeches and writings of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and the militant prose of David Walker in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.
Throughout American history, many African Americans have forged and wielded Christian ideologies and rhetorics to condemn the United States. Prejudice and exploitation proved that America did not deserve God’s blessings; it deserved God’s wrath. They created an oppositional discourse that turned the trope of American “Christian nationhood” around on whites. This tradition continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Depicting civil rights as a sacred obligation, denouncing Jim Crow as anti-Christian, railing against the silence of white Protestant leaders over racial injustice, condemning lynching as immoral, and asserting the virtuousness and holiness of blacks, African Americans claimed that the nation would be truly “Christian” when racism ceased.
Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African Americans denounced discrimination with the rhetoric of Christianity and American Christian nationalism. After revivalist Dwight Moody segregated his evangelical crusades in the 1870s and 1880s, one delegate to the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Annual Conference blasted the evangelist: “His conduct toward the Negroes during his Southern tour has been shameless, and I would not have him preach in a barroom, let alone a church.” Another minister fumed that Moody had “placed caste above Christianity.” Frederick Douglass voiced the dejection and anger felt by many African Americans over revival segregation by contrasting the evangelist’s conventions with those of the agnostic and popular lecturer Robert Ingersoll: “Infidel though Mr. Ingersoll may be called, he never turned his back upon his colored brothers, as did the evangelical Christians of this city [Philadelphia] on the occasion of the late visit of Mr. Moody. Of all the forms of negro hate in this world, save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus.”
Ida B. Wells too attacked Moody, and then turned her sights on lynching. In pamphlets and public addresses against mob murder, she turned the trope of Christian nationhood against whites: “Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation?” she bluntly asked delegates to the National Negro Convention in 1909. To her, the sin of racial murder stained the national identity, for it was not just a southern problem; it was a national evil: “Time was when lynching appeared to be sectional, but now it is national [it is] a blight upon our nation, mocking our laws and disgracing our Christianity.” “Christianity is to be the test,” she told a reporter for Britain’s Westminster Gazette: and I am “prouder to belong to the dark race that is the most practically Christian known to history, than to the white race that in its dealings with us has for centuries shown every quality that is savage, treacherous, and unChristian.”
Frederick Douglass had the same confrontation with racial violence. Lynching confirmed the religious bankruptcy of white America, but he implored African Americans to maintain faith that God would one day bring justice. In a letter to Wells, he attacked America as a sinful and barbarous land for permitting racial violence. “If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.” But alas, true Christianity and morality had, up to this point, failed to change the hearts of white men and women. God, however, had not deserted people of color, and they must not lose heart: “It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven,” Douglass concluded, “yet we must still think, speak and work, and trust in the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.”
By the 1890s, after Douglass had seen his vision of a racially egalitarian and integrated United States disappear and a dark cloud of violence and bloodshed descend upon the land, he called down the wrath of God on the nation. Preaching in the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., only one year before his death in 1895, he decried American assertions of Christian nationhood: “We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South.”
The use of Christian nationalism as a critique of white supremacy was widespread. In her 1893 novel Iola Leroy, Frances Harper regularly used her characters to impeach the Christianity of whites and the nation. After the heroine of the tale, Iola Leroy, learns that a southern judge had overturned her mother’s manumission and her parents’ marriage, thus making both Iola and her mother slaves, she cried out, “are these people Christians who made these laws which are robbing us of our inheritance and reducing us to slavery? If this is Christianity I hate and despise it. Would the most cruel heathen do worse?” On another occasion, a northern school principal comments that racism in America proves that it is a “Christian” nation “in name,” but not in spirit. Some African Americans even critiqued the religion of whites unto death. In 1912, while being lynched, Dan Davis implored his assailants to kill him quickly by appealing, perhaps sarcastically, to their faith: “I wish some of you gentlemen would be Christian enough to cut my throat.”
At the turn of the century, W. E. B. Du Bois carried on the tradition of these earlier African American leaders by using religious ideologies, metaphors, idioms, and imagery to challenge white Americans’ beliefs in the sanctity of the nation. Racism, he told students at the Philadelphia Divinity School in 1907, “is a problem not simply of political expediency, [or] of economic success, but a problem above all of religious and social life; and it carries with it not simply a demand for its own solution, but beneath it lies the whole question of the real intent of our civilization: Is this civilization of the United States Christian?” On another occasion, Du Bois recorded praying that the nation could some day become “a civilized Christian state, such as we wish our land to be.”
He also constructed white Americans who sought to hold African Americans down as demons: “I believe in the Devil and his angels, who wantonly work to narrow the opportunity of struggling human beings, especially if they be black, who spit in the faces of the fallen, strike them that cannot strike again, believe the worst and work to prove it, hating the image which their Maker stamped on a brother’s soul.” Du Bois was not the only turn-of-the-century African American to depict whites as demonic. After the lynching of George White in 1906, African Methodist Episcopal Church minister Montrose Thornton attacked whites in the United States: “The white man, in the face of his boasted civilization, stands before my eyes tonight the demon of the world’s races, a monster incarnate,… The white is a heathen, a fiend, a monstrosity before God.”
In 1906, after white mobs in Atlanta attacked African Americans and left a trail of bloodshed throughout the city, Du Bois cried out to God in his “A Litany at Atlanta.” “Listen to us, thy children,” he wrote: “our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery in Thy Sanctuary.” He rejected “turn-the-other-cheek” Christian teachings and beseeched God to smite whites for their evil acts: “When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed – curse them as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done to innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.” Throughout the poem, Du Bois prayed that God would not be silent as so many white Christians had been: “Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb suffering./ Surely Thou, too, art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing!” Du Bois concluded by denouncing America as a land without true faith:
Our voices sink in silence and in night.
Hear us, good Lord!
In night, O God of a godless land!
And obviously, the call for the United States to live up to its so-called Christian nationalism rang in the words of the Civil Rights movement. In Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeao-Christian heritage.”
So when Reverend Wright declared “God Damn America,” he was merely invoking a long tradition of African American criticism. As long as many white Americans claim their nation to be a Christian one, they will continually leave themselves open to this type of reverse critique.
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JD Gent - 3/29/2008
Personally I hope Wright keeps on publically speaking. He is one of the best assets for destoying the presidential bid of that "etremely sexy" (tee-hee) fabian socialt and all around closet marxist, OBAMA
JD Gent - 3/29/2008
U R right on.
JD Gent - 3/29/2008
Obama did what he did with Wright to earn his "I be down for the struggle" credentials. As far as the
Fourth Wrightis concerned. he's merely a nazi in blackface.
JD Gent - 3/29/2008
What he feels is "best" may not be what is right - feelings don't trump objective truth. Also we don't live in the era of Jim crow laws so get over it. The black community needs to get out of this collective mentality and start to think criically about what goes on and about what politicians say. If not, then go over the side of the cliff with the rest of the lemmings.
JD Gent - 3/29/2008
Enough with the false justifications for "black anger." Blacks in America live better in America than any other country, especially countries with black leadership. Instead of complaining they ought to thank God that in His providence He allowed them to come to this country. Having traveled abroad, especially in 3rd world countries, I can testify that a majority of the populace from these countries would gladly trade places with and become "oppressed" like American blacks. And speaking about anger , I also have anger over the the countless productive, law-abiding white citizens which have cold blooedly been slaughtered by dreadlock wearing, no job working, mid-night basketball playing, skinning and grinning "impoverished black yutes." A recent couple of cases in mind would be the 2 female college coeds murdered by 2 black scumbags. These 2 girls were doing something with their lives other than shooting out welfare babies and putting gold in their mouth.
JD Gent - 3/29/2008
Wright is the the perfect example of what ails the black community: blame everyone else for their problems. Moral decadence, not past slavery, acoounts for this breakdown in black society. If Wright or any other "oppressed" black male/female doesn't like this country then pack up your gold grills, illegitimate kids..etc and go back to africa.
JD Gent - 3/29/2008
1st: which blacks can truly state that they would be better off in Africa than in the USA.
2nd:past slavery is not the cause of problems in the black community-bad morals are the problem: out of wedlock birth rates; crime, irresponsibility, no self ciscipline...etc
3rd: blacks are quickly becoming a "minority" minority. Latinos, along with asians,are becoming the
majority minority. The only true allies blacks have are whites and jews but this relationship is in danger of becoming non-existent if blacks don't stop their race-baiting, I'm moraly superior politics. And by the way, blacks can hate America all they want. But before doing so, they should remember that their ethnic groups contributes more to the negative than the positive in this country..i.e. crime, welfare rolss, drop-out rate..etc.
Joseph Mutik - 3/21/2008
And Obama condoned his pastor views for 20 years.
Yes Obama is a very high quality human being. I am sure he can be a good president of the University of Chicago.
Ralph E. Luker - 3/21/2008
Jeremiah Wright doesn't "hate Jews," he's not a racist (white people are more than welcome to attend and/or join his church) and it's very strange to be talking about whether America is "ready" for a black President. When will *you* be ready to have a President of the quality of Barack Obama?
Felisha Wimsatt - 3/19/2008
Why is it that whenever a black man tries to do what he feels is best for his people, his people turn against him? Have we become exactly what the white man wanted? Has anyone taken the time to read Jim Crow's writings? At some point we need to stop being jealous of one another and support one another. What Rev. Wright said should have any bearing on what happens with Mr. Obama. "The crab in the barrel" syndrome seems to be what some black people want our legacy to be. Be happy when your fellow man rises above all to the top of the pile. Don't pull him back down to the street going nowhere. Pray for him and be proud. Don't let another person's belief be yours just because it is easier to join the crowd. You need to learn that you will never be a part of some crowds no matter who you con. Learn to be a leader yourself and build your own following. In the mean time, stop sitting on the back row judging others. Be the winner you were born to be. Let this man do his thang.
Charles Lee Geshekter - 3/19/2008
It is only surprising that someone like this with extra time on his hands imagines that frothing, seething, accusatory venom will magically expedite his day of reckoning.
I just scolded myself for even wasting 30 seconds responding to such mindless blather as his, although I admit it was amusing to see his temper tantrum on display here. I'm sure there will be more.
omar ibrahim baker - 3/19/2008
-Is it really surprising that the descendants of a community that was uprooted to be enslaved should hate the grand children of their up rooters and enslavers?
-Is it really surprising that the grand children of slaves, who have blatantly suffered a great deal, even after the abolition and until very recently, should hate the society/community/nation that has prospered on their slave labour?
-Is it really surprising that the minority that was called upon to fight and die for a nation should hate the nation that mobilized them to fight and die in segregated units and then buried their dead in segregated graveyards ??
-Is it really surprising that the ethnic minority that has enjoyed least, and often enjoyed none, of the bounty that America offers and can offer should hate America?
-Is it really surprising that that same minority, a majority of which lives in relative substandard conditions, but concurrently lives in very close proximity to a more affluent majority that flaunts the trappings of its wealth as a matter of routine should hate that society ??
-Is it really surprising that the "under class" should hate the, relative, upper class(es) with which it has to compete on an uneven playfield to achieve a similar life?
-Is it really surprising to hate a nation wallowing in the mores of the consumer society par excellence while leading a life of relative deprivation??
I find that NONE of that is surprising particularly that the mark of Cain on the faces of that unfortunate minority is, literally, indelible!
It is only natural, inevitable and human!
D N Richards - 3/19/2008
Obama's Minister Committed "Treason" But When My Father Said the Same Thing He Was a Republican Hero
Irene Solnik - 3/19/2008
Why have two groups(blacks and Jews) both suffering hatred and discrimination grown apart? I don't have an answer. I do however have an opinion. Language. When derogatory language is commonly used, children internalize it. I have had to insist no one use insulting remarks in front of my children. I don't want them to internalize bigotry; nor would I allow my children to sit week after week and hear a man, their father idolizes, use bigoted and inappropriate language. Why did OBama? Why was this question not asked of him? Why appoint this hate filled man to his campaign. Why wait all these years to denounce hate? Unless or until I get answers, my vote will go to Hillary or I'll stay home.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/19/2008
This country may have "evolved," but I'm willing to bet "God Bless America" will still trump "God Damn America" every time. The Democratic Party is likely to be hit by a sledge hammer in November.
John D. Beatty - 3/19/2008
When will people wake up and smell the phosphorus? ALL of this is a smokescreen to keep the real issues of GOVERNANCE out of the public eye. THe media plays the race, gender, and class cards as much as possible just so we DON'T have to talk about who's really running the government because, if the voters knew, they'd pitch the oxygen bandits out into the street, elections or not.
IGNORE THIS NONSENSE, people. Who benefits from all this noise? It certainly isn't the voters.
Joseph Mutik - 3/19/2008
I've read somewhere that Barak Obama had to join this kind of racist black church because a brilliant, Harvard educated, having a white mother, black candidate can't win the black vote of today.
I believe that the time for a black president of the U.S. will come when the first priority for the black community will be knowledge and education (not religious education).
Joseph Mutik - 3/18/2008
Not liberals but Jews were the people who helped the legal fight of NAACP. What the Jews got in exchange is hatred.
The very smart and well educated Obama and Michelle can't say that during their 20 years connection with Wright they didn't know what's going on in his preachings. The church where Jeremiah Wright is preaching is the biggest in Chicago and Obama joined it for political reasons but I am sure there are other big churches in Chicago without hateful preaching and where Jews are not blamed for the problems of the world.
John R. Maass - 3/18/2008
Not just the "hot" stuff...when he claims that the govt gave blacks drugs in order to incarcerate them, or that the three strikes rule is aimed solely at blacks, that is not just hot rhetoric, it is silly and something Obama must distance himself from. In fact he really ought to have done so long ago, and the fact that he listened to it for 20 yrs and is only now backing off from it is what his problem is now.
William J. Stepp - 3/18/2008
It seems to me that liberals are usually accused of hating America in the context of anti-war statements they make. Their conservative critics conflate an anti-war message with an anti-American nation one.
To the extent this charge is made in discussions of war and foreign policy, it has nothing to do with race or racism.
There is no justification for the reverend's rhetoric. Obama was right to denounce his message. Hate the sin, love the sinner and all.
Clark Kristofor Olson-Smith - 3/18/2008
White liberals may have been more faithful to American ideals than those who have accused them of "hating America." All the same, white liberals have been less than faithful to blacks, historically and presently.
White liberal support for civil rights fizzled as soon as Martin Luther King, Jr. took the movement north. And since then, white liberals have been all too happy to pat themselves on the back while ignoring the continued suffering of blacks in America. Where were white liberals while the urban black poor where ghettoized? When drug-use was criminalized? When de jure desegregation became de facto segregation? When No Child Left Behind was passed? When the Iraq War was authorized?
If white liberals stood unwaveringly on the side of the black oppressed, then Barak Obama would not need to denounce Rev. Wright's statements. Instead, this story of the "long tradition of African American criticism" would be familiar to all (if not accepted and celebrated by all). And the the present justification for Rev. Wright's words would be clear.
Rick Shenkman - 3/17/2008
Liberals are often accused of hating America. (See David Horowitz, etc.)
But what they really are often guilty of is nothing more than channeling black rage at historic white racism.
Knowing that blacks have been badly treated in America, white liberals have chosen to stand with blacks rather than with the people who oppressed blacks.
This article helps make clear why it was important to stand with blacks during the days of slavery and segregation. If that opened liberals to the charge of "hating America," so be it.
But who was being more faithful to the American ideals?
All the same, now that slavery and legally sanctioned segregation have been consigned to the dustbin of history, as they say, the question arises as to whether the rhetoric from the past, rhetoric sanctioned by the use of Du Bois and others, is appropriate today.
In the context of current American politics there can't be much justification for the hot rhetoric the reverend used.
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- Olivia Remie Constable, director of the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame since 2009, passes away
- Arizona Historical Society soon could be history
- Yale's Donald Kagan says students need to study Western civilization