I went to see the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — now known from sea to shining sea as the Rev. "God Damn America" Wright — speak the other night to the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Cobo Hall.
Like all loyal Americans who have been subjected to constant bombardment of the famous YouTube video snippets of his sermons, I expected nasty and thuggish ranting, and sullen hatred of America.
Frankly, I only went in the hope I might get a clue as to what his evil agenda might be, in the event that his former parishioner, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, becomes president. If so, I planned to call Bill O'Reilly immediately, given that Rush Limbaugh was most likely in a drug-induced haze.
Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but this isn't: After a lifetime of watching media distortions, I was still surprised at the contrast between the real Jeremiah Wright and the cartoon.
The man who spoke in Detroit Sunday night was warm, smart as hell, deeply intellectual (there's a difference between those two things, incidentally), incredibly funny and as talented a speaker as I have ever seen. At one point, to illustrate the difference in European and African musical styles, he began singing a Renaissance cantata, in the original language, in a voice so fine my first thought was wonder that he hadn't been a professional singer.
Earlier, I had cased the joint, wandering about the vast dining area. My nonscientific guess was that there were about 8,000 people there, and that the audience was about 8 percent white. Which was too bad, because whites are the ones who most needed to see who this man really is. Blacks, by and large, get it, and understand that the real man bears little resemblance to the cartoon.
They are used, after all, to being reduced to stereotypes. What Wright's theme was, what his whole life seems to be about, is that our different subcultures are "different, not deficient."
Fortunately, or maybe semifortunately, the speech was also broadcast by CNN. The trouble with that was that immediately afterward, a bunch of lamebrain commentators jumped in. The prevailing consensus was tut-tutting. Wasn't it awful that he hadn't hid for the rest of his life under a rock? Didn't he think he owed it to Barack Obama to disappear for the duration of the campaign, asked one clearly Republican woman (who was said to be an "adjunct professor")?
Well, guess what. My answer is hell, no.
Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. is a living, breathing, and very distinguished human being who has been folded, spindled and mutilated by the national media. He has every right — actually, I would think a duty — to take a stab at defining himself.
We have a duty to ourselves to listen, and try to understand this complex mix that is America. The real Jeremiah Wright puts the patriotism of most politicians to shame. He was born the same year as Dick Cheney. As a future minister, he likely could have gotten a deferment during the Vietnam War. Our future war-loving vice president got five deferments. Wright enlisted in the Marines, served two years, and then went into the U.S. Navy.
Not bad for someone who hates America.
Afterward, he got a couple master's degrees and a doctorate, married, and raised five children. He took over a struggling, down-and-out Chicago church with 87 members and built it into a powerhouse that is now the largest church in the entire United Church of Christ fold — a mostly white denomination, by the way.
The story is well-known of how Obama, then a skeptical Chicago organizer, sought out Wright for his knowledge of the community, and eventually joined the church and was married in it.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Obama becomes the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Republicans, who had planned for years to run against Hillary Clinton, begin to panic, and go feverishly searching for stuff on his minister, his dog, anything. So the dirty-tricks squad went to work, and dug up the videos that are now plastered all over YouTube.
When this first happened I watched them, and longer versions of the sermons, and thought, so what? What is wrong with this?
Yes, Wright was dead wrong when he asserted that the spread of HIV/AIDS in his community is part of a government plot. But the fact is that many blacks believe that, and when you think of what else white America has done to them, how can you blame them?
But as for saying "God damn America" — he wasn't calling on the deity to zap us. What he was saying was that should be our frustrated attitude when our government does horrible things.
Think about it; I have known military officers totally dedicated to the service who, confronted by its absurdities, say things like "God damn this army." I know a man who loves Wayne State who, thanks to its bureaucracy, regularly says, "Fuck Wayne State."
So then, what about a guy who says: "America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. [This nation] was founded on genocide and a nation that is founded on genocide is destructive."
Guess what. I can answer that one. We turn him into a saint, and make him a national hero. By the way, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright didn't say those words. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did.
Seen on the sidelines: Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick spoke briefly at the Freedom Fund dinner. His remarks were fairly brief and unremarkable. He didn't mention his own trials, upcoming or otherwise, though he did subtly attempt to place himself in a tradition of heroes and martyrs stretching back to Emmett Till.
In a slightly bizarre touch, he referred to the Rev. Wright as a "verbal acrobat," which made me wonder how much the mayor himself understood the meaning of this man. The crowd's reaction to the mayor was interesting too. He received what you might call "polite" applause (the person sitting next to me called it tepid.)
Dennis Archer, who was honored a few minutes later, got a much bigger hand. There was a feeling of mild tension when Kwame was on stage, as if his presence reminded people of things they didn't want to think about. He made a point of reminding people that his wife Carlita was there. Then somebody nudged me; look.
Standing in the entrance to one of the hall's sections, apparently all alone, was a somewhat drawn-looking Christine Beatty, the mayor's former chief of staff and lover, whom he discarded like an old fish wrapper last winter, in an effort to save his own political skin.
Gone was any trace of the famous arrogance that used to be on display. Occasionally people — women, mostly — would come up and offer her a few words, shake her hand, give her a hug.
She neither glanced in the mayor's direction (she was more than a football field away) or, as far as I could tell, looked at the monitor while he spoke. After half an hour or so, she slipped quietly away.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org