Monday, May 5, 2008

The Chickens Come Home to Roost

"America's chickens are coming home to roost" from Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s September 16, 2001 sermon following the 9/11 attacks is probably his most controversial remark. His National Press Club speech on April 28, 2008 suggested that the source for that sermon was an interview Ambassador Edward Peck, former emissary to Iraq, had given Fox News after the attacks. Peck questioned the legality of the no-fly zones then being enforced over Iraq and suggested other countries and peoples could equate the 9/11 attacks with American actions in places like Panama, Haiti, Cambodia, as well as Iraq. But Peck never used the phrase "chickens are coming home to roost." If you watch the whole sermon, as Wright invited people do to before passing judgment on what he said, Wright himself clearly attributes that phrase to Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was taking questions after a speech in New York City on December 4, 1963 and was asked about the assassination of President John Kennedy 12 days earlier. He pointed to the killings of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in South Vietnam, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the Republic of the Congo, civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the four girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He responded:

“I never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon. … Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad. They always made me glad."
One can certainly see an eerie parallelism between the remarks of Ambassador Peck and the remarks of Malcolm X and also between the two tragedies that occasioned both. It is not surprising that a man such as Reverend Wright who had lived through this period of our history would draw the connection.

Malcolm X’s remarks had some profoundly ironic results. He had been under strict orders from Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam for whom he was spokesman, not to make any comment on the assassination of President Kennedy. Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm X and silenced him from making any public statements for 90 days. Three months later in March 1964, Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and formed his own Muslim church. Less than a year later, in February 1965, Malcolm X was himself assassinated. Members of the Nation of Islam were convicted in his death, although that has been the subject of some controversy and conspiracy theories. Speaking at an event later that month, Elijah Muhammad said, “Malcolm X got just what he preached.”

The address Malcolm X gave that day in December 1963 has become known as the “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech (orginally titled “God's Judgment of White America”). It is not as famous as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington earlier that year, but in many ways its themes have been more influential. In some of these themes, one sees how much times have changed and how much they stay the same:

“Let us examine briefly some of the tricky strategy used by white liberals to harness and exploit the political energies of the Negro. The crooked politicians in Washington, D.C., purposely make a big noise over the proposed civil rights legislation. By blowing up the civil rights issue they skillfully add false importance to the Negro civil rights ‘leaders.’ Once the image of these Negro civil rights ‘leaders’ has been blown up way beyond its proper proportion, these same Negro civil rights ‘leaders’ are then used by white liberals to influence and control the Negro voters, all for the benefit of the white politicians who pose as liberals, who pose as friends of the Negro.

“The white conservatives aren't friends of the Negro either, but they at least don't try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the
Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the ‘smiling’ fox.

“The job of the Negro civil rights leader is to make the Negro forget that the wolf and the fox both belong to the (same) family. Both are canines; and no matter which one of them the Negro places his trust in, he never ends up in the White House, but always in the dog house.”
So now it is 45 years later and we come around to whether Barack Obama, a leader who is black but not necessarily a black leader, will end up in the White House.

For any student of Malcolm X, as both Wright and Obama are, the first question raised by Barack Obama’s candidacy is whether he is authentic or just another in a line of black leaders picked out of obscurity and put into a false prominence. And a subsidiary question is whether Obama fits into what Malcolm X spoke of in that speech as the “black bourgeoisie" and described as “the brainwashed, whiteminded, middle-class minority who are ashamed of black, and don't want to be identified with the black masses, and are therefore seeking to lose their ‘black identity’ by mixing, mingling, intermarrying, and integrating with the white man.”

Racial identity is the fundamental story of Barack’s first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, that he published in 1995. He was born in Hawaii in 1961. His father was from Kenya, but left when he was two. His white mother took him with her second husband to Indonesia when he was six, but sent him back to live in Hawaii with his white grandparents when he was ten. Essentially, he was raised in a white family and sent to a white prep school. It was The Jerk, in reverse. He went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, and then transferred to and graduated from Columbia University in New York City.

Two years later Barack arrived in Chicago. He was recruited there by Gerald Kellman, a community organizer. Kellman was Jewish but working for a Catholic-affiliated group that was organizing black churches and churchgoers on Chicago’s South Side. But the feeling that he was brought in by the white guy to be the black face, could never be far from mind.

In fact, that type of community organizing had been pioneered by another Jewish community organizer from Chicago, Saul Alinsky, with the purpose of promoting leftist political ideas. Alinsky was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis at Wellesley College. Hillary had grown up in the Chicago suburbs. She met Alinsky and he offered her a job as a community organizer in Chicago. She turned him down to go to Yale Law School. So the path that Barack took was one Hillary could have taken but chose not to some 16 years earlier.

At her 1969 Wellesley College graduation, Hillary was chosen to speak in response to Senator Edward Brooke, a Republican and the first black Senator since the Reconstruction era immediately after the Civil War. (ABC celebrity newswoman Barbara Walters just recently revealed she had an affair with Senator Brooke in the 1970s.). Hillary’s commencement speech was quoted in an article in Life Magazine:
“Every protest, every dissent ... is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity
in this particular age.”
At Yale, she organized protests at the trial of the New Haven Nine, Black Panther Party members charged with torturing and killing a man they believed to be a police informant.

In 1985 Chicago, Barack was organizing churches with no church home of his own. And that caused grumbling among some of members of his community groups. Eventually he settled on Trinity United Church of Christ, where Reverend Jeremiah Wright was pastor. Part of the appeal was that it wasn’t one of the churches affiliated with his community groups:
"If I joined one of the churches I was already organizing, that might have caused some tensions. And part of it was there was an explicitly political aspect to the mission and message of Trinity at that time that I found appealing."
That mission was a church “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” Its black liberation theology was based on the teachings of James H. Cone, now a 69 year old Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Cone grew up in Arkansas, came to Chicago for seminary and got his PHD there from Northwestern. Chicago was also home to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. One can see the efforts of Cone, Wright, and others as reclaiming the legacy of Malcolm X and the message of black liberation that was so appealing to young urban blacks for the Protestant Christian religion. At the same time, Louis Farrakhan carried on the Nation of Islam.

Then Barack went to Harvard Law School and came back to Chicago. At Harvard he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and got a write up in the New York Times. Barack was actively recruited to come back to work for Tony Rezko, the Chicago real estate developer and political fixer who is now on trial. But he chose instead to go into public interest law, working as law firm associate and University of Chicago Law School lecturer. His 1995 book Dreams from My Father where he tracks down his father’s family in Kenya could be regarded as a continuation of the old Chicago Irish tradition of political campaigning by making a trip to Ireland. In October 1995, he attended the Million Man March in Washington, DC, which was organized by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. No doubt he did that to establish his authenticity for his 1996 run Illinois State Senate, which he won.

Next, Barack’s story takes a quintessentially Chicago loop. In 1999, Mayor Richard Daley was challenged in the primary by Congressman Bobby Rush. Daly won the primary and was re-elected. But when Bobby Rush’s seat in Congress for a South Side district came up in 2000, Barack Obama was recruited to challenge Rush. Longtime Daly strategist David Axelrod was dispatched to help Obama. Bobby Rush had co-founded the Illinois Black Panther Party in 1968 and the district was one-third white and two-thirds back. President Clinton endorsed Rush and recorded a commercial for him. Barack was tied to the liberal Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago where he lived. Barack won the white vote but lost the black vote to Rush. At the same time, the mayor’s brother William Daly was serving as Al Gore’s campaign chairman. The Gore campaign distanced itself from Bill Clinton, one of the many factors which may have cost Gore the 2000 election. Also in 2000, Hillary Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate in New York and won.

When 2004 rolled around, Barack was recruited to run for U.S. Senate. Axelrod joined him again. This was an easier statewide race, as he could say that he was a black candidate who could appeal to white voters as he had done in his 2000 run. When Barack was chosen to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that summer, it was clear that he was being groomed for larger things, like a run for the Presidency. The Atlantic magazine asked in September 2004, “Why is Barack Obama generating more excitement among Democrats than John Kerry?” And it was clear that the person he would be groomed to run against was Hillary Clinton.

When Barack announced for the 2008 Presidential run, he again had Axelrod as his chief strategist and Mayor Daly gave him one of his first endorsements. Another Irish-American political clan, the Kennedy family, also came forward to endorse Barack at a crucial moment in early 2008. Barack even got the endorsement of Bobby Rush, despite his long history with the Clintons. Rush said,
“It’s one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make in politics. Bill Clinton and the Clinton family are very close.”
But the question of Obama’s race has continued to dog Barack. In early 2007, black author Debra Dickerson wrote on and then went on the Colbert Report to argue that in the American political context, Obama is not black, calling him instead an African-African-American. Debra worked for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. In March 2007, the L.A. Times published an opinion piece titled “Obama the 'Magic Negro'” concluding:
“Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.”
So there seem to be two angles to this. One is the rivalry between the Clinton machine on one side and the old Daly and Kennedy machines on the other, and whether either can deliver the white working class. The second is the split between the black liberationists and the black transcendentalists. In winning the black primary vote so decisively Barack seems finally to have gotten his full acceptance as a black leader, but that is also why he has had to handle Reverend Wright with so much tact and forbearance, and that has hurt him with the white working class. A problem with identity politics is that one candidate cannot authentically identify with all people.

And what about Reverend Wright? I cannot help feeling that on some level what we have seen in the media is another example of what Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called “high-tech lynching of uppity blacks.” What does it matter what Wright said, if Barack Obama does not believe it too? What does it hurt to have a retired black minister running his mouth about AIDS conspiracies and Louis Farrakhan? And what was the message of that 9/16/2001 sermon? If you listen to the end, he asks what our response should be to the horrific attacks and sums up:
“The Lord showed me this is a time for self-examination, … a time for me to
examine my relationship with God, my own relationship with God, my personal
relationship with God, … not the time to be examining other folks relationship.”
Here’s a quote from the eulogy the actor Ossie Davis delivered at Malcolm X’s funeral:
“They will say that he is of hate — a fanatic, a racist — who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.”
Have we come a long way in the last 45 years? I walked into a Cambridge, Massachusetts bookstore this afternoon to pick up a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I have never read. A young white woman, Hillary Jordan, was getting ready to read from her novel Mudbound. The jacket indicated she had graduated from Wellesley College and then gotten an MFA degree in creative writing from Columbia University. Subsequent research finds that this novel won her the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction with a $25,000 award and a publishing contract. She described the book as about two soldiers, one white and one black, who come back to the Mississippi Delta after service in World War II. Then she dropped into a lazy Southern drawl and began to read. My ears picked up when she got to a passage,
“We may need to learn that n----- he can’t talk that way around here.”
No one else in the bookstore seemed to notice. I paid for my book and left.

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