Framed by the Founding Fathers and the quest for “a more perfect union,” Barack Obama’s speech was a moving call to get beyond race to our shared concerns as citizens.
But it’s not so easy to get beyond race. Not when Obama chose to join, attend and donate to a church that embraced the old, tired us-them racial divisions.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s views “weren’t simply controversial,” Obama admitted in his speech. “They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”
So why not walk out? Because Obama found his identity in Wright’s church. In hearing the congregation shout and sing, he wrote in his book and quoted in his speech, he discovered himself. “Those stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.”
The day before the speech I finished Bliss Broyard’s One Drop, which is about her discovery at the age of 23, after growing up as a Connecticut WASP, that her dying father had walked across the color line. Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times book reviewer, chose to live as a white man despite his birth to a light-skinned New Orleans Creole family of about one-quarter black ancestry.
Bliss Broyard obsessively asks why her father obscured his racial identity. The answer seems obvious: He wanted to be his true and complete self, not stereotyped or dismissed as a “black” writer. In New Orleans, his family was part of a long-established Creole culture that tried to separate itself from dark-skinned blacks. There was no mixed-race middle ground when they moved to Brooklyn. Anatole Broyard’s parents and his older sister passed as white at work to get jobs closed to blacks. During World War II, serving in the Army as a white officer, Broyard was assigned to command a company of black stevedores in the tropics. Who would choose to be a stevedore?
Bliss Broyard tracks the family genealogy and history. When intermarriage was illegal, a white Broyard passed as “colored” to marry a “free woman of color.” In search of slave ancestors, she finds a slave-owning forebear. She meets Broyard cousins who live as blacks and others who consider themselves white.
She understands the folly of the idea that “one drop” of African blood makes you black and marvels when her book of short stories is listed as African-American literature despite no racial content. Yet she’s obsessed with race. Her father’s Choctaw ancestry arouses little interest, yet she searches incessantly for signs of blackness. Her father was an excellent dancer who liked jazz. Ah! The secret comes out! Bliss herself, pale of skin and preppie of upbringing, sees her ability to dance as a sign of her ancestry.
Anatole Broyard climbed out of the box that society wanted to stick him in and his daughter tries for 500-plus pages to stuff him back in. Americans are supposed to be able to escape the past and create themselves. Blacks deserve that right too.
Abandoned by his father as a toddler, Obama was raised by a white mother and Asian stepfather and then by white grandparents in multiracial Hawaii. But there was no future in Chicago for a biracial, transcultural Hawaiian. He had to be black — especially if he wanted to build a political career. His mother’s atheism wasn’t viable either. He had to join a black church that would connect him with black culture. He found a black leader who became “like family.” Wright was a “crazy uncle.” Or a father. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama said.
Eventually, on our march to a “more perfect union,” Americans will get beyond our divisive, destructive obsession with race. But maybe not in 2008.
Joanne Jacobs, who blogs on education at joannejacobs.com, is the author of “Our School,” a book on a charter school that prepares Mexican-American students for four-year colleges.