An Empty Kind of Freedom?


"Like Hannah, we have known bitter times! Daily we face rejection and despair!"
Reverend Jeremiah Wright, quoted by Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father.

Rev. Wright’s now infamous "God Damn America!" sermon has reverberated around the US, and we are likely to hear a lot more of it should Obama win the nomination. As many pundits have pointed out, the last thing a presidential candidate wants to do during a campaign is "explain black liberation theology to white middle America". So this week Obama’s team went into damage control, culminating in a severe denunciation and "condemnation" by Obama of Wright’s "inflammatory" rhetoric.

Thus Barack Obama sought to dispose of a political problem, but at a personal price. Understandably, members of Obama’s church felt upset and persecuted by the media attention, and by the fact that Wright’s words were taken out of context. If they looked to Obama for defence and explanation as the controversy exploded, they were even more disappointed.

Obama’s reaction was political. He cannot plausibly pretend personal ignorance of Wright’s opinions or pretend genuine shock. The charismatic preacher looms large in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, and he used one of Wright’s sermons as the title for his manifesto The Audacity of Hope. Obama has been a member of the church for 20 years. The bitterness we hear in Wright’s infamous sermon, born as it is of rejection and despair, is retold over and again through the many stories Obama tells in his memoir. If anything, Wright’s angry sermon is as eloquent as his sermons of hope, in that it speaks to the frustrations and circumstances of the black community in America in general, and Chicago in particular.

There is an added layer to the story however, that both adds to the personal tragedy of the Wright denunciation and also offers Obama a way out of its political ramifications.

In Dreams From My Father, Obama tells us that, in the absence of his Kenyan father, his values were those inculcated by his white mother and grandparents. Barack Obama’s childhood name was "Barry". He grew up in Hawaii and spent several years as an ex-pat in Indonesia before winning a scholarship to a prestigious private school back home in Hawaii. It was a childhood far removed from the racial politics of Chicago or mainland America.

A poignant moment in the book is when Barry rejects the friendship of a black girl named Coretta in the yard of his new school, so that he can earn the acceptance of the white children. The underlying theme of the story from then onwards is Barack’s struggle to accept his paternal heritage and to become a part of the black community. It is the fact that Obama wants to be black that makes him such a figure of hope to those around him.

Characters in Dreams From My Father are constantly fleeing their communities, searching for a way out. All the time Barack searches for a way in. At another point in the story Obama rails against Joyce, a "multiracial" college woman who rejects the call to be part of the community. Obama in turn rejects her choice to be "an individual". It is, as he says of his atheist mother’s own rootless way of life, "an empty kind of freedom".

Yet it is precisely this kind of freedom that allows Obama to choose to enter the black community when and where he does, and Obama finally chose Chicago, Rev. Wright and the Trinity Church. In so doing, he rejected the global, the hybrid, and the individual in favour of the local, the authentic and the community. It also gave Obama a strong base upon which to build his political career.

Obama’s followers claim that his candidacy "transcends race", but the reality is that the campaign has been all about race, in the same way as Obama’s life narrative is all about race and authenticity. In the beginning, Obama had to convince black voters that he was really one of them. Now that 90 per cent of African Americans voted for him in Mississippi, he faces another problem. There, 70 per cent of whites voted against him. Then came the Wright videos, and Obama threw his pastor of 20 years under the bus, so to speak.

In deciding in this instance not to defend the community he himself chose, Obama has exercised the freedom he once denounced – the freedom to move between communities at will. It is a freedom that comes with degrees of "whiteness". It is that freedom after all – to move from one cultural mode to another – that is actually the key to his success as a supposedly "post-racial" politician. Given that all but one of the remaining States in the primary season are predominantly white, we can expect to hear a lot more about Obama’s mother and his grandparents from Kansas.

Perhaps the real tragedy in the Wright controversy is that Obama the man has finally been lost to Obama the presidential campaign, just as Hillary the woman has been long consumed. It is all a part of the greater tragedy of political life, that it ends up changing the very people who set out to change politics.

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