On Being An Unspecial American


It’s been interesting watching the recent nonsensical controversies over Clinton and Ferraro, Obama and Wright and the issue of race. These endless discussions show how far we as Americans have — or haven’t — come around tolerance, understanding, reconciliation, transcendence and the myriad of terms we use when we use the “R” word. It’s as clear as ever that Americans remain as unspecial as ever. We remain folks who believe that we are entitled to see ourselves as better than others or more deserving than others because of race, money, where we grew up, or because we live in “the greatest country in the history of the world.”

Poor Obama learned once again that even as a biracial American, one is Black first and White second. For many typical Americans regardless of race, the only colorblindness we suffer is from being blinded by color. So if a pastor at a virtually all-Black church makes some rather surprising remarks on his way off to some state of retirement, one’s status as both Black and White automatically Black-shifts. As Derrick Bell’s writings on race illuminate, when something like the Wright sermons come to light, it becomes necessary, even required, for every available Black spokesperson or experts to appear in the media and throw the person and his statements under the bus, Obama key among them.

And although Obama might’ve given the most eloquent speech on race since MLK’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” on the day before he was assassinated in Memphis (more on the “I Have a Dream” speech later), he only gave it in response to a basic American rule on race relations. That Blacks are held to a higher burden of proof regarding our patriotism, our belief in American greatness, our faithfulness to America as it is as opposed to the America we’d like to see. Even with Obama’s soaring speech, one that easily could make him this generation’s Avatar — the bridge between the races — in many ways it made him more Black and less special in the eyes of many Americans.

This is what makes us unspecial. We tend to see American lives as more valuable than any others when our soldiers are off fighting somewhere in the world, whether for our national security or with no particular goal or purpose. Yet at home the only American lives that remain valuable are either White ones or rich ones or rich White ones (e.g., Katrina, Jena 6, Southern California fires). To say this means only that I recognize that money, race and power have dominated the history of this nation and remain driving forces in our politics, economics and culture. One would have to be blinded by rap videos, Will Smith, Tyra Banks and Kobe Bryant in order not to see this truism. Or rather, be comfortable in the blissful ignorance that bigotry and isolation and the addiction of misery that is all too common in our winner-take-all world these days.

So I feel for presidential hopeful Senator Obama. Any Black person that has experienced any time in the public eye or even the smallest sliver of success in life understood that he needed to respond to the Wright controversy the day before the YouTube video came to light. His speech was a great response. But it wasn’t the greatest speech since MLK’s on August 28 of ’63. Why? Because the meaning of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” has been lost to conservatives who haven’t read much beyond the first line and the phrase “the content of our character.”

Those folks have forgotten that King lived for another four years and eight months after delivering perhaps the greatest speech of the twentieth century. He lived long enough to deliver other stirring speeches. On race, on White privilege, on the Vietnam War, on jobs and poverty, on social justice and human rights. These speeches were even more controversial than anything that Wright has ever said. For Dr. King’s denouncing of America’s escalation of the Vietnam War and his stand against subtler forms of racial and economic injustice left him without the support of many liberals and many Black civil rights activists, not to mention the Johnson Administration. “I Have a Dream” might’ve stirred the country in ’63, but it was Dr. King’s words and work in the years after that speech that resonated in Obama’s speech from last week.

Unfortunately but all too true, this is our collective burden, with much of it falling on the shoulders and backs of Blacks and other folks of color. We haven’t really gone very far on race since MLK’s murder in ’68. My own life is a testimony of the transition from obvious Jim Crow-era racism to subtler forms of bigotry and, in some instances, discrimination. Yet in all of that, I’ve been accused of plagiarism because of the quality of my writing, not hired after surprising folks with my Blackness at job interviews, and vilified because I happened to go to research on the day that O.J. was acquitted of murder by a mostly Black jury. We can’t help but be who we are, and bigotry, racism and American dominance have been intertwined since Jamestown.

Yet there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and not just because of Obama. In the past twenty years of my life I’ve met both so-called liberals and so-called conservatives who’ve been able to discuss race beyond the hype and the stereotypes, to talk about power and justice and reconciliation in serious and evolved ways. Many of them have been my students. Many more have been, ironically, at predominately Black churches with multiracial audiences. Even with all of this, I know that some of you will only see this post as one from a “typical Black person.” Maybe in some ways I am. But the point of this blog and of the book for which my blog space is named is, if anything else, that we are all both special and typical all of the time. That’s what being human — not to mention an American — is all about.

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