Jim Sleeper: Obama in the Wilderness

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

Now you can understand why I wrote Liberal Racism: After 20 years in inner-city Brooklyn, I'd had it watching too many black people and too many white liberals and radicals indulge self-styled"race men" like Jeremiah Wright.

Certainly I was exasperated by the race men themselves - by Johnny Cochran, Hosea Wilson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox, Vernon Mason, Leonard Jeffries, even Derrick Bell, and sometimes Cornel West, and countless other smart, brave, sometimes grand, but also wounded, raving, preening narcissists who cried"Racism Forever!" Some of them styled themselves prophets of white doom and black resurrection, reaping an adulation seldom enjoyed by real prophets, who are heard mainly after their time.

These men weren't all bad. More than once, as I recounted here recently concerning Brooklyn's Rev. William Augustus Jones, I personally gave them the benefit of the doubt and stood up for them. And, sometimes, they did not disappoint. On the contrary, their forbearance and fortitude taught me how deeply the world had disappointed them. Yes, I understood"God Damn America!," but not from those who shouted it for the roar of the crowd.

The more I understood the difference between feeling it and shouting it, the more I despised the shouters for massaging downtrodden people's broken hearts on the way to their wallets, and for drawing in still others whose bitterness, more fine-spun, sought relief in rhetoric that came with a simulacrum of erudition. Yes, watching Wright at the NAACP takes me back to the many demonstrations I witnessed of imagined racial solidarity, wallowing in collective self-doom.

Yet I would reserve a special circle in Hell for those who are gloating and smirking over Obama's pastor's self-immolation.

I had already reserved a circle for guilt-ridden white liberals and opportunistic leftists who supported the sad the politics of racial paroxysm that gripped this country in the 1980s and 1990s. These supporters' own"white" emotional and ideological effusions delivered nothing to poor, upright, faithful blacks, whose souls were rested only when their feet were tired from marching, who spent years on their knees not in church but scrubbing white people's floors to give their children a better chance.

Given the odds most blacks have faced through most of American history, it would be wrong to say that some didn't, in fact, get better chances thanks to the Wrights and even the Farrakhans - to those who ran religious institutions that provided services, solidarity in oppression, and some discipline and hope.

But sometimes this happened almost despite the iconic leaders (think of Farrakhan's Million Man March, which transcended him.) So spare me Wright's bloviations about"the prophetic tradition" of"the" black church. As the historian David Chappell, author of the remarkable A Stone of Hope, reminded me this morning,"the" black church is not"prophetic," claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

The only thing"the" black church is... is black. It has had its prophets but also its imposters and parasites, as has the Roman Catholic and every other prideful church whose supercelestial claims belie some subterranean morals.

Wright himself is a strong, smart, wounded, angry -- and, yes, now perverse -- man. He did not carry his pain very well. Who among us in similar circumstances would do better? Look at the maunderings of the sonorously judgmental, such as the worldly (and wordy) Obama-bashing Leon Wieseltier, who was caught at it and rebuked interestingly by Bernard Avishai. Or look at the historian-cum-Clinton sycophant Sean Wilentz, and others who are smirking or gloating right now over Obama's travails at Wright's hands.

Obama's"Yes we can" speeches summoned memories of those women scrubbing floors, of those scared black churchgoers marching into sunlit Southern courthouse squares, dressed in their Sunday best, shivering in the heat, assured of no safety from federal marshals or God.

Somehow, they summoned the faith-based courage to reenact the Hebrew Exodus myth against the dogs and mobs:"[T]heir very indifference to the issue of success or failure provided the stamina which made success possible," Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1952 of earlier struggles."Sometimes the heroes of the faith perished outside the promised land."

Niebuhr hadn't yet heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had recently been a student absorbing Niebuhr's own admonition that"[t]his paradoxical relation between the possible and the impossible in history proves that the frame of history is wider than the nature-time in which it is grounded. The injunction of Christ: 'Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul' (Matthew 10:28) neatly indicates the dimension of human existence which transcends the basis which human life and history have in nature."

That faith made the protests uncanny and unsettling. King and others opened the hearts of astonished Northern Protestants and Jews whose ancestors had made history of the same Exodus narrative in ages past. Suddenly, it was poor Southern blacks who knew best what the others had forgotten: that the story would unfold only across years of wandering in the wilderness, worship of golden calves, brutal conquests and other perfidies -- including sophistry and charlatanry.

Where in that epic does Jeremiah Wright stand? Even his glib detractors must grant that he would have been marching into the desert away from the fleshpots of Egypt, and it is that side of Wright that Barack Obama came seeking after college.

But even as Obama found what he came seeking, he saw the other side, the man who had become embittered in the wilderness. And now, the dead hand of that past lies like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Obama will survive those, like the tragic Wright, who now would kill the soul if not the body. But whether the rest of us and the American republic will survive those who are smirking and gloating remains to be seen. I'd like to think that since countless blacks stood up to dogs and mobs, we who support Obama can find in ourselves the faith to withstand his cankered, middling detractors.

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