March 23, 2008

Reverend Jeremiah's Jeremiad & Barack

My grandfather, a Greek immigrant from an island so proximate to the Turkish mainland that its definitive inclusion in Greece was not decided until after he left the island in 1908, settled in the Southern United States, never to return to his homeland. He ran cafes in Texas and the Deep South for most of his long working life, and many of them were named the Oleander Cafe in honor of the flora of his abandoned island. Some of my absolutely earliest memories were of eating in one of his cafes in Athens (no doubt not coincidental), Alabama. The local crackers got along well with Milteadis and were loyal customers. They were, of course, gently condescending, given his inferior ethnicity (that is, not Scots-Irish white trash like themselves), and few of his patrons would have been impressed that he was from the land of Archimedes, Euclid, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Until the Civil Rights Movement changed things, his cafes always had a rear entrance marked with a cardboard sign that said "Colored," and a small room with a counter served his African-American customers. Once or twice, when I was about eight years old and went down to his cafe in Grand Prairie, Texas, I saw a couple of hunched-over old black men eating the same (specialty) chili I ate at the counter out front. My sense is that my grandfather, a thoroughly decent man without a trace of arrogance in his being, must have found the apartheid system both bewildering and repellent, and I would like to believe my mother's account that when no whites were out front, my grandfather invited blacks into the front room, conspiring in a lunch counter revolution years ahead of the Freedom Riders.

The oppression of African-Americans by the United States has no historical parallels in American history. Comparing blacks, who were treated as personal property and subhuman for the first two hundred years of our history, and then as untouchables for the next one hundred years, to the experience of any other immigrant group is insensate, absurd and all-too-typical of our superficial culture. Such oppression has bred hatred, irrationality and misunderstanding in a unique way.

The hagiography of America by non-minority historians differs greatly from the views expressed by Cornel West, for example, or by Reverend Wright. One would be hard put indeed to find an African-American intellectual of serious stature, from Fredrick Douglass to Cornel West (and passing through Eldridge Cleaver, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and many others) who does not share Wright's essential view of American history. Since we live in a sound bite culture, Wright's diatribes can be taken out of their black context and made to sound unique; when they are replayed by Fox News, or Clinton operatives, they sound "anti-American" (Bill Clinton, to his further debasement, is currently playing up this angle). It is then an easy step to conclude that Obama is "anti-American" also, because he has been "part of the congregation."

I think what the country is struggling with is that having a candidate of partly African-American descent is different from having the usual white majority candidate. People want him to hit all the same notes as a white man, but his background is radically different. He knows many, many people who don't look at America the same way as John McCain or Dick Cheney or Henry Paulson look at the country, and these people are "involved" in his campaign. Cornel West (a professor at Princeton), for example, is an enthusiastic supporter of Obama. He describes himself as a "non-Marxist" Socialist, and admired the Black Panthers and Malcolm X as a youth. He is also Co-Chair of the Tikkun Community with Michael Lerner, which puts him on a collision course with Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semite, but Fox News could also have a field day with West's background by talking about how "radical" it is.

For me, the critical issue is whether Barack himself is "anti-American" or an anti-Semite I don't believe for a moment that he is. Of course he knows lots of people who have grown up thinking about this country in ways different from the average white person; but it's not a requirement of the office to subscribe to some hypothesized "majority" view. If we're going to say that Barack Obama can't be president because Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X or MLK said things which threaten the false and comfy view Americans prefer to have about themselves, then we have to admit we haven't come very far from Grand Prairie, Texas in 1956

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:47 AM

    I think America is at a crossroads no less significant (although obviously much less physically dangerous) than the Emancipation Proclamation. We can now say that race will no longer be an important factor in our national conversation, or we can say it is still a serious fault in what America represents. America can be a much better place after this election, or it can continue the downward spiral of the past seven years. One can only hope that the pundits of the Right, intelligent people all, can be made to see this truth before the right-wing slime machine makes a mockery of the ideals of our country. At long last, gentlemen, have you no shame?