Thursday, March 20, 2008


There has been a lot of talk lately about Barack Obama and his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For the most part, this talk has followed the logic of neoliberalism, which sees all political problems, in the final analysis, as technical (rather than complicated mixtures of ethical, ideological and historical dilemmas, which they typically are). Thus, I think the declaration that finally Obama has opted to talk to America about the issue of race as if Americans are grown-ups (to paraphrase Jon Stewart), is premature.

Thinking about race like a grown-up means acknowledging the hurts of history without moving prematurely to a phony feel-good resolution. From the evidence I have seen, Rev. Wright is a much more sophisticated, brave, and lucid student of race in America than Obama, even at Obama's most impressive moments of oratory. American historians find Wright's claims uncontroversial. Why won't American media seriously consider the merits of Wright's claims?

Once the media decided that Wright was going to be a problem for Obama, the only question for pundits, critics, and the Obama campaign itself was how best to control the damage. Lost in this rush to evaluate how well Obama has performed public contrition and denunciation of Wright are larger questions. For instance, why are African American politicians asked to publicly negotiate their relationships to radical intellectuals when whites are not? The whole affair has brought back unwelcome memories of the early 1990s, when as a teen I became accustomed to seeing African American leaders regularly called on by smug white neocons to publicly denounce every fringe NOI cleric, hip-hop artist, and Afrocentrist scholar that could be discovered in the United States, an obligation demanded of no other group. Of course, the notion that Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant whites should likewise have been forced to answer for every extremist on their mailing lists, boards of directors, and bookshelves would have struck the members of the American establishment as absurd. The recent coverage of Obama and Wright suggests that no lessons were learned from this ugly chapter.

Why am I writing about the Obama/Wright controversy on a blog devoted primarily to music? Because Wright's oratory resonates with the last fifty years of African American popular music, both sacred and secular. Assuming that we can read snippets of "incendiary" speech, deprived of their context and musicality, and pass judgments on Wright's message, makes no sense. Just as bourgeois rap critics have not yet learned to listen to hip-hop as a contradictory gestalt that scrambles the logic of Western aesthetics intentionally, so critics of Wright's sermons appear not to believe that the form (the sermon), context (religious worship at a particular historical conjuncture), and larger literary and aesthetic tradition (African American oratory writ large) matter in evaluating his "message" (as if it was necessarily unitary, as if it was not collectively and collaboratively produced, as if irony and hyperbole are categories applicable only to James Joyce, not African American religious speech)...

The Wright speech that has garnered the most attention pivots on the phrase, "God damn America." Looking at the way this phrase appears in context, the primary motivation appears to be the mass incarceration of African Americans over the last 30 years, a tragedy and crime that mocks America's self-image as steadily progressing towards racial equality, and indeed as a just society. I would be surprised if any reader of Ruth Gilmore's Golden Gulag, Sasha Abramsky's American Furies, Marie Gottschalk's The Prison and the Gallows, or the work of Angela Davis, Loic Wacquant, Dylan Rodriguez, or Alan Gomez on the carceral state could come to a contrary position.

I am sure that the suggestion that 9/11 represented America's "chickens coming home to roost" was a more powerful spur to kneejerk reaction against Wright's words. We can argue about specifics, but consider the following thought experiment. If you were teaching the history of 9/11, (a task that sometimes falls to me as a TA for US History surveys), what would you include in a reader, syllabus, or lecture? Wouldn't you focus on US foreign policy in the final decades of the Cold War? Could you really leave out US middle-east policy and respect yourself in the morning? Would you really present this history in a manner strikingly different than Wright?

Finally, Wright's speech calls to mind another provocative use of the phrase "goddamn" in African American literature: Nina Simone's 1963 song "Mississippi Goddamn." Simone's brilliant song teaches us many things. One of those things is that words sometimes have more than one meaning, and that sometimes these meanings fall in the space between two syntactical locations. Here is a clip of Simone, and the lyrics to "Mississippi Goddamn":

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn
And I mean every word of it

Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

Can't you see it can't you feel it
It's all in the air
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it yet

Hound dogs on my trail
Schoolchildren sitting in jail
Black cat crossed my path
I think every day's gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We're all gonna get it in due time

I don't belong here I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer
Don't tell me I tell you
Me and my people just about do
I've been there so I know
Keep on saying go slow

But that's just the trouble too slow
Washing the windows too slow
Picking the cotton too slow
You're just plain rotten too slow
Too damn lazy too slow
Thinking's crazy too slow

Where am I going
What am I doing
I don't know I don't know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
Cos everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

I bet you thought
I was kidding didn't you

Picket lines school boycots
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sady

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you anymore
You keep on saying go slow go slow

But that's just the trouble too slow
Desegregation too slow
Mass participation too slow
Unification too slow
Do things gradually too slow
Will bring more tragedy too slow

Why don't you see it why don't you feel it
I don't know I don't know
You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality

And everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn
That's it

In "Mississippi Goddamn," Simone shifts between using "goddamn" as an expletive that comments on "Mississippi"-- e.g. "everybody knows about Mississippi, god damn it"-- and a noun that captures Mississippi as an existential state: "the Mississippi Goddamn." Simone does not want us to choose-- she wants us to linger in the space between the two meanings. The two meanings intensify one another. The more we understand the Mississippi Goddamn as an existential hell, the psychic space of the blues-- Simone beautifully weaves lyrical fragments from Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf around journalistic detail, shards of personal anguish, and political calls to action-- the more we understand "goddamn" as a malediction as well as a fatalistic curse. Malediction, Avery Gordon notes, speaking of other existential hells (several generations descended from the torture camps of the Jim Crow south, as Mumia Abu-Jamal and others have demonstrated; Gordon points out that one reason it took so long for officials to react to the horros of Abu Ghraib was the ordinariness of the torture and humiliation in the context of American carceral culture), is one of the tools prisoners use when power apparently deprives them of every means of resistance.

As I listen to Rev. Wright, I hear distinct echoes of Simone's "goddamn." It is "goddamn" as existential condition and malediction retooled to confront the culture of idiotic self-celebration, patriotism, and historical amnesia that seized the American media in the weeks and months after 9/11, the retreat of middle-class, white America into an infantile desire for innocence and ignorance. The beginning of an adult, intelligent, and productive conversation about race in America, begins, I think with white people listening closely to Simone and Wright's "goddamns," relinquishing defensiveness and ideological certainties and smug self-confidence.

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