I've engaged in and overheard several more conversations on Wright this week. I've thought a lot about why Reverend Wright's words aren't only "problematic" and sometimes perhaps "ignorant" but also "threatening" and "scary," why Obama's "faith" in him makes Obama a terrible unknown (though Obama's two books give strong clues), why there's some sort of implication of a "betrayal" to come.
I really think the real fear has little to do with Reverend Wright himself, and little to do with Barack Obama's faith or personal judgment, but plenty to do with perceived racial allegiances and everything to do with Obama's mixed race body.
It's all too familiar -- on some level scenes from D.W.Griffith's Birth of a Nation play on the screens of white American brains. I've read since that the racist subtext of the Clinton 3am commercial and its connection to Griffith's film/primal white American anxieties did not go unnoticed (New York Times 3/11/2008 -- I'm only a bit behind). The Clinton campaign willingly traded anxieties about the ability of a female president to respond to a crisis for more insidious anxieties about the possibility that a black president might betray "us." The suffragists should not have been impressed.
For those whose memory of Griffith's revisionist history of Reconstruction America is dim, Birth of a Nation adapts a novel The Clansman with the titular character and those of his ilk as the original American heroes. After post-Civil War blacks are freed, they take advantage of the misplaced generosity of the North, engaging in debauchery. Worse, a black militia forms and determines to take over the south.
Silas Lynch ("the mulatto"), the mentee of traitor to his race and powerful politician Stoneman, organizes "his people", who not only vote but also gain office. Scenes of whites judged by all-black juries and shoeless black senators ensue (as well as famous attempted rape scenes). The white minority is disempowered and nearly disenfranchised, certainly disheartened. Miscegenation is legalized; the real horror is revealed. Only the newly formed Klan can restore order (once they discover the power of the white sheet to terrorize small children on the beach) . . .
Birth of a Nation and its images linger like a national nightmare hanging vaguely on after awakening.
I've heard the argument that Obama is not "black enough," a charge he dealt with throughout his life and in part by attending Reverend Wright's church as a means of connecting with the African American community from which he had been largely excluded by his upbringing. Now the charge is that, with ties to a Black Liberation Theologist, (explained in a Forbes Q&A with a writer on BLT) he is "too black," that he not only believes in racial equality but also, like the black militia of the Birth of a Nation, believes that black people have not only the same right to walk on the sidewalk as white people but also the right to shove whites off.
I want to talk about the economy, taxes, trillion dollar wars, health care, poverty, education, Clinton, McCain, Obama -- but we can't do that with lingering nightmares from the birth of this nation. (And be honest -- don't you kind of feel like someone is keeping us distracted on purpose?)