I attended Rev. Jeremiah Wright's lecture "Some Through the Fire! Some Through the Flood!" last night at the University of Memphis as part of the conference "The Obama Phenomenon: Race and Political Discourse in the United States Today." I have to admit that I wasn't really sure what to expect. Like most Americans, the only exposure I had to Rev. Wright was the media onslaught during the April 2008 Presidential election primaries, which almost universally villified the Reverend and endlessly looped a series of provocative clips from sermons he delivered some years ago at his (former) home church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In the past week, our local television and print news tried to resurrect that controversy in advance of Rev. Wright's visit... despite the fact that this weekend (today, in fact) marks the 41st memorial anniversary of the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this very city.
I arrived about 45 minutes early to the lecture, which was a good thing since I had not anticipated being required to go through a security check before entering the lecture hall. This part was quite shocking to me. Not only had I never gone through security before attending an academic lecture-- and that includes lectures by former Presidents-- but the security check at Rev. Wright's lecture was more thorough than what you experience at the airport. I walked through a metal detector, then was "wanded" by a security guard, and then still had my bag searched. Once in the lecture hall, you couldn't leave (even to go to the bathroom) without having to stand in line and go through the security check again. As it turns out, Rev. Wright spoke to an almost-capacity crowd, so I suppose the security measures weren't much of a discouragement.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Rev. Wright's actual lecture included very few direct references to President Obama. It was a reflection on the tightly interwoven histories of black politics and black theology, a phenomenon itself reflected in the motto of Wright's former church home: "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." Much of Wright's address walked his audience through these histories, inlcuding a history of Trinity United both before and during his tenure there, which served as a kind of primer on Black Liberation Theology. Wright's erudition and rhetorical flair were truly astounding. He speaks quickly and precisely, and encourages the call-and-response participation of his audience. His basic thesis-- that race and political discourse are intregal parts of the history of black theology, and that including a social and political message in one's sermon is (in his words) "not a gift, it's a given"-- was situated squarely within the long and storied tradition of black civil rights and black Christianity. It was a truly inspirational and thought-provoking address. I am better off for having heard it. Rev. Wright was and is obviously concerned to keep the historical consciousness of his audience and congregants sharp, and he worries that younger generations are defaulting on their responsibility to keep their histories alive. A short clip from last night's speech:
During the Q&A afterwards, Rev. Wright (of course) did have to answer questions directed at his present and past relationship with now-President Obama. He stuck to the message of his address, though, and repeatedly pointed out that he was preaching the same message "back when y'all couldn't even pronounce [Barack Obama's] name." In response to the "scandal" last April, Rev. Wright said: ""What I do has nothing to do with Obama. I was preaching like I preach before Obama was born. I was ordained as pastor when Obama was 5. I preached the same way out of the same context ... and then Fox News discovered me." (Incidentally, he also pointed out that the particularly incendiary videos that were run over and over in the news last year actually included Rev. Wright quoting other people and were taken out of context as his own thoughts and words.) He concluded his time last night with a reminder that we should not view Obama's election as some final victory in the struggle to find an intelligent and progressive way to integrate "race" into "political discourse." Obama's victory was only the beginning of that struggle, according to Rev. Wright. He closed with this:
"It's not just black. Black Christians, white Christians, Hispanic Christians, Asian Christians, all Christians must do something to wake up, in terms of, these problems are not all going to go away just because you got Barack in the White House...
All right, you cheered and had a great time and partied after his victory; now those people who worked hard to get him elected are going to have to work hard to help him bring about the change."