Around 1977 or so, my dad and I started going to this barbershop on Detroit Street in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. It was called Eddie and Earl’s Barbershop and it was your typical African American barbershop, if such a thing exists. Black men from all walks of life would come to this shop to get their hair cut, especially for church on Sunday.
While I was waiting my turn and reading copies of Jet and Ebony magazines, I remember seeing a poster that caught my attention. It read: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.
Those words were important back then. It was the 70s and the civil rights movement of the 60s was a very recent memory. I remember grown-ups sporting Afros and celebrating Black Pride. My mom bought encyclopedias on Black History to remind me that my people had a proud past. After centuries of being told by this country that we were dirt, Blacks in America starting feeling good about themselves.
It was during that time that black pastors like Jeremiah Wright took the pulpit preaching black liberation. While I’ve had mixed feelings on liberation theology, it was an attempt to see that the words of God were not simply about the “sweet by and by” but about justice here and now. I can imagine his words against a nation that prided itself in being ordained by God were a breath of fresh air to blacks as well as a few liberal whites.
My problems with Rev. Wright’s words are not that he isn’t patriotic enough. Christians place God first, not the flag. What does bother me is that his words reflect a nation that doesn’t exist anymore.
This is not to say that America has licked its racial problem. That will take time to solve and we still have issues (such as people who think hanging a noose is funny). But the fact is, America has changed in many ways. In the 1950s, my Dad couldn’t get a hotel room when he was traveling. He faced overt discrimination growing up in Louisiana. Today, he can stay in a hotel room in Tennessee and get a hot meal at a restaurant.
The America that Wright has preached about is one that seems irredeemably racist. It will always treat blacks as second-class citizens. It is an America without hope.
But the fact is, this society has changed. Overt discrimination is no longer in fashion. Blacks hold high positions in political office. And of course, a black man is running for President. Black America demanded the United States live up to its words and it did - for the most part.
I think that’s what bothers me about Rev. Wright as well as others: it’s as if the achievements of the last 40 years never happened. No, we can’t rest on those laurels, but we shouldn’t ignore them either.
Maybe Rev. Wright’s words made sense when Black America was still trying to find its voice, it’s self-esteem. Maybe those words were needed when White America turned a blind eye to its own hate. But I don’t know if they are needed now. To look at what words are needed now, one can only look at the man that has sat in the pews of Rev. Wright’s church: Barack Obama. I don’t always agree with him politically, but his words of hope and unity talk about the best in this country and that together, black and white and everything else, we can tear down the remaining walls of discrimination.