The Wright Question
If you can't speak freely and plainly in church without consequence, where are you free?
PBS is airing the first extended interview with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright tonight. Bill Moyer will pummel him with hard questions about his patriotism and the politics of the pulpit, and Wright won't back away, instead standing firm on his principles. And he should. When I heard that Wright was a UCC pastor, I wasn't entirely surprised. I know something of the UCC.
The United Church of Christ (Trinity's "Mother church," if you will) is a very progressive, very liberal touchy-feely large-ish Protestant denomination. I know that because although I was not a member of the church, I was employed by them—as staff news writer and web news editor---for four years. I resigned my post for a variety of reasons, not least among them the fact that while there is a lot of high-minded white liberal goo-gobb about inclusion, racial harmony and reconciliation—just like everywhere else in America—there is very little of it to be found within the organization.
UCC churches are either black or white, with some rare mixed congregations in the suburbs. And while you may find Wright's comments strident, I assure you his fiery brand of oratory is consistent with other black UCC churches. There is a frustration that some black folks in the pews have with the powers that be, and church leaders would be remiss not to make it plain on the pulpit. The whole reason there is a black church tradition is because whites did not want to worship with The Help. So the hotness from the altar? Well, that is as it's ever been, and as it should be. Right On. Everything is not for everyone to understand, and white people particularly can't seem to understand that.
The broader question about The Wright Controversy, for me, has nothing to do with Barack Obama, politics or patriotism. There are three places in America that black people could always speak freely and plainly: the church, the beauty salon and the barbershop. Those places were black institutions. You could say whatever you want within those walls, and know there weren't any white folks around needing an interpretation or demanding an explanation.
Everyone around you knew your language, your idioms, your rhetoric and the roots of your righteous outrage: you were among family. Elsewhere, like clubs and bars, white folks slum in hopes of picking up pieces of your peculiar jive and jungle music. In the confines of the church, the salon or the shop, you had no worries. Because white folks, literally, had no business in any of those places.
But now that the mainstream media has seen fit to come out of pocket and violate the sanctity of the church, where can we go to speak our mind without having to answer to The Man? There is this very colonial motif of having to filter black free voices through a sieve of white ignorance and paranoia. What you say—and what other black people in your vicinity say!—has to be state-sanctioned and approved by people who have no idea what you are talking about, and you'd be a fool to explain it to them. "Negro Tour-Guide" is an under-paid position with lots of work, but no benefits.
All indications are that The Rev. Wright is unapologetic. And Thank God for that. Because The Wright Question is, if you can't speak freely and plainly in church without consequence, where are you free? What is your freedom worth if you are not entitled to an opinion you can share—in any matter you like—among friends?
Jimi Izrael is a blogger for The Root.