Obama and the Prophetic Tradition: Brown Bag (II)

Barack Obama’s connection to the “black prophetic tradition” is the open question here in conversation with Anthony Bogues, the Jamaica-born chairman of Africana Studies at Brown.

In breaking through the skin-color barrier in American politics, how much does Obama bring with him of a distinctive African-American moral vision and something of an alternative version of American history? The peroration of Reverend Joseph Lowery‘s benediction that had the new president nodding and tapping his foot exalted the humble in the official story — black, brown, yellow and red — and humbled the exalted in hoping that “white will embrace what is right.” This was the prayer that nearly stole the show on Inauguration Day, that confirmed for many the glow of a blessing on a new era.

Tony Bogues reminds me that Martin Luther King Jr. had a different view of the Founding Fathers and something more than a lawyer’s take on the United States Constitution.

When you read King’s 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” it strikes me that King has a definition of the Founding Fathers not as gentlemen who promulgated the end-all of all constitutions but, in fact, a Constitution in which African Americans were outside the pale of humanity… When King speaks of an American renewal, he says “you must be born again,” not on the United States Constitution. He says you must form a new contract, a new compact that will include elements of the Constitution but which has to go beyond it… That to me is a really different tradition that the black church has been very much involved in…

Professor Anthony Bogues in conversation with Chris Lydon for Open Source, January 27, 2009.

Barack Obama’s liveliest connection to that tradition was rudely interrupted in his break with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago where our new president worshipped for 20 years. But is there anything more fascinating about the Age of Obama than his elaboration by word and deed, day by day, of our civic and spiritual renewal?

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  • Ah, the black prophetic tradition!

    My beloved colleague in television news, Carmen Fields, sent me this telescope of the BPT in a report from the reunion on January 20:

    Inauguration Ball 2009

    Guests began arriving early. There are no place cards and no name tags. Everyone knows everyone else here.

    Now, there’s a grand foursome – Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz sharing laughs with Martin and Coretta Scott King.

    Looks like Hosea Williams refused the limo again, keeping it real. And my goodness; is that Rosa Parks out there on the dance floor with A.Phillip Randolph?

    Seated at a nearby table, Frederick Douglass has a captive audience in W.E.B. DuBois and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Medgar Evers has just joined them.

    Marian Anderson was asked to sing tonight, but she only agreed to do it if accompanied by Marvin Gaye, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. Look, there’s Harriet Tubman. No one knows how she arrived, but there she is.

    And my guess is that, when the time comes, no one will see her leave.

    There’s Jackie Robinson swiftly making his way through the hall as the crowd parts like the Red Sea to the unmistakable sound of applause. “Run, Jackie, run!” Along the way he is embraced by Jessie Owens.

    Three beautiful young women arrive with their escorts – Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. Ms. Viola Liuzzo flew in from Michigan, exclaiming, “I could not miss this.”

    Richard Pryor promised to be on his best behavior. “But I can’t make any guarantees for Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley,” he chuckled.

    Joe Louis just faked a quick jab to the chin of Jack Johnson, who smiled broadly while slipping it. We saw Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole greet Luther Van Dross.

    James Brown and Josh Gibson stopped at Walter Payton’s table to say hello.

    I spotted Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem having a lively political discussion with Eldredge Cleaver.

    Pearl Harbor WWII hero Dorey Miller shared a few thoughts with Crispus Attucks, a hero of the Revolutionary War.

    And there is Madam C.J. Walker talking with Marcus Garvey about exporting goods to Africa.

    General Benjamin O. Davis flew into Washington safely with an escort from the 99th Fighter Squadron – better known as The Tuskegee Airman.

    At the table on the left are three formidable women – Shirley Chisholm, Sojourner Truth, and Barbara Jordan – gathered for a little girl-talk… about world politics.

    As usual, all the science nerds seem to have gathered off in a corner, talking shop. There’s Granville T. Woods and Lewis Latimer needling each other about whose inventions are better.

    Someone jokingly asked Benjamin Banneker if he had needed directions to Washington.

    And George Washington Carver was overheard asking, “What, no peanuts?”

    Dueling bands? Anytime Duke Ellington and Count Basie get together, you know the place will be jumping. Tonight is special, of course, so we have Miles, Dizzy, and Satchmo sitting in on trumpet, with Coltrane, Cannonball, and Bird on sax.

    Everyone’s attention is directed to the dance floor where Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is tap dancing. Right beside him is Sammy Davis Jr., doing his Bojangles routine. And behind his back, Gregory Hines is imitating them both.

    Applause and laughter abound! The Hollywood contingent has just arrived from the Coast. Led by filmmaker Oscar Micheau, Paul Robeson, Cana a Lee, and Hattie McDaniel, they find their way to their tables.

    Dorothy Dandridge, looking exquisite in gold lamé, is seen signaling to her husband, Harold Nicholas, who is standing on the floor with brother Fayard watching Gregory Hines dance. “Hold me back,” quips Harold, “before I show that youngster how it’s done.”

    Much laughter!

    Then a sudden hush comes over the room.The guests of honor have arrived. The President and Mrs. Obama looked out across the enormous ballroom at all the historic faces.

    Very many smiles, precious few dry eyes. Someone shouted out, “You did it! You did it!”

    And President Obama replied,”No sir, you did it; you all – each and every one of you – did it.

    Your guidance and encouragement; your hard work and perseverance…”

    Obama paused, perhaps holding back a tear. “I look at your faces – your beautiful faces – and I am reminded that The White House was built by faces that looked just like yours.

    “On October 3, 1792, the cornerstone of the White House was laid, and the foundations and main residence of The White House were built mostly by both enslaved and free African Americans and paid Europeans. In fact, most of the other construction work was performed by immigrants, many of whom had not yet become citizens.

    “Much of the brick and plaster work was performed by Irish and Italian immigrants.

    “The sandstone walls were built by Scottish immigrants.

    “So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that The White House is, ultimately, The People’s House, with each President serving as its steward.

    “Since 1792 The People have trimmed its hedges, mowed its lawn, stood guard at the gate, cooked meals in the kitchen, and scrubbed its toilet bowls.

    “But 216 years later, The People are taking it back!

    “Today, Michelle and I usher in a new era. But while we and our family look toward the future with so much hope, we know that we must also acknowledge fully this milestone in our journey.

    “We want to thank each and every one of you for all you have done to make this day possible.

    “I stand here before you, humbled and in awe of your accomplishments and sacrifice, and I will dedicate my Presidency, in your honor, to the principles of peace, liberty and freedom. If it ever appears that I’m forgetting that, I know I can count on you to remind me.”

    Yes we can !!!!!

  • hurley

    That post reminds me of a girl on a date long ago who objected when I selected a particularly romantic song from the jukebox. “That’s just not fair”…

    The lovely thing about the litany, to use the word loosely, is how you can add to it, how limitless it is in principle. I’d add Benny Carter, Arthur Ashe, Art Blakey…But then the recitation betrays a need to say something that shouldn’t ever have to have been said in the first place, even now. But let it be said. I’m happy to hear it.

  • Of course, I know that it is not possible to include every name but I still wonder why this litany has excluded Frantz Fanon, Sun Ra and Jean Michel Basquiat!! 🙂

  • Nobody’s excluded, Avygravy! I want to include, from the Caribbean, Aime Cesaire and the incomparable historian of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, among other things, C. L. R. James of Beyond a Boundary fame; also the painter Romaire Bearden; and among the living, the great middleweight Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who explained to me on the radio once how he’d taken his mind to Dostoevskian depths during his long and unjust imprisonment. He said: “Chris, when you can’t go out — you go in!”

  • hurley

    In principle and in fact.

    Hurricane Carter: When you can’t go out — you go in.

    Robert Frost: The best way out is through.

    The Hurricane and the Frost might have had something to say to each other.

    The taxonomy gives me pause, but let’s hope it all disolves into a version of Warren Bulworth’s injunction to screw ourselves into some commonality. That’s change I can believe in!

  • shaman

    Also seated at the quiet table in the back are a few distinguished men of exceptional intellect and grace – confident enough to allow others the center stage:

    Thurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe and August Wilson

  • Aime Cesaire – ahhhh – you know Chris – the beauty of this litany is that it brings up deeper and older memories of those who have shaped you some time in life and then have disappeared into the shadows so you can be what you will be thanks to them!

  • nother

    The only thing better was the after-party at Langston Hughes’s crib in Harlem. This is where the crazy sh*t went down. As soon as we walked in my man Bob passed around a spiff and insisted that everyone sing the same refrain:

    “Sayin’ One Love, One Heart

    Let’s get together and feel all right

    I’m pleading to mankind (One Love)

    Oh Lord (One Heart)”

    But Belafonte insisted on singing it in Calypso style, which I guess was cool in it’s own way. It went over better then Jay Z’s One Love rap. Anyway, we were all waiting for Lady Day to pierce our heart with her like-only-Billy-can version, but the problem was she was still waiting for Roy Haynes to make her another Gin and Tonic in the Kitchen. But you see Roy was distracted by the craziest sh*t he’d ever seen…at the kitchen table, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were freak’n arm wrestling! I was a little disturbed but Bill Cosby was laying odds on “Nelly” and Chris Rock was said he was for Tutu cuz he is small like him. Speaking of small guys, Spike Lee and the Prez couldn’t take their eyes off the TV where big guy Bill Russell just stuffed another Walt Frazier shot in his face. And somehow, amidst all the loud music and chaos, Robert Gould Shaw sat in the middle of the room playing an intense no-holds-barred chess match with Cornel West.

    Just to catch my breath I went into the bathroom for a quiet moment and to my surprise, Ol’ Langston had put one of his poems over the toilet: “No Regrets”

    Out of Love,

    No regrets-

    Though the goodness

    Be wasted forever.

    Out of Love,

    No regrets-

    Though the return

    Be never.

    It was time to return to the party and I wouldn’t be leaving any time soon, George Foreman was cook’n some bbq, and Halle Berry had promised me that dance.

  • “You ask what [Obama] absorbed from [Jeremiah] Wright: I take Obama to be a modernist, that is, capable of deep distance from what he does, sees, experiences, and thinks. He is coherent because bifurcated. I am certain he heard, experienced, judged, filed, and preserved for use everything he heard from Wright—as he did from his Harvard and Columbia Profs. After all, what did he learn from [Edward] Said’s seminar at Columbia?

    He is, I think, an artist intellectual in politics. That means he will attempt to play the possible within the middle ground, which is where he understands the possible to lie.

    We shall see.”

    From a terrific blog thread on “boundary 2” — chasing down Anthony Bogues’ questions here about Obama’s deepest identity and his personal attachments to the civil rights movement, the MLK Jr. anti-imperial vision of power in the world and the wider struggles of poor and powerless folk out there as never before. Check it out here.

  • I liked the focus on Joseph Lowery’s speech, it seems like a great document to begin with to think about questions of American hegemony past and present that will effect how a sort of narrative, or new American identity emerges in the Obama era. In addition to thinking about the black prophetic tradition, maybe this is a moment to also revisit the fall of the Berlin wall – in the sense that the Cold War bi-polar world ended in 1989 to be filled by a unipolar *I think we can now say, disastrous* dream (aka New World Order) – and we now have a chance to challenge both the neoconservative and neoliberal attempts to resecure American hegemony after 1989.

    20 years later, maybe this is the time to think differently about the cultural blocks and militarization that grew in postwar era and became the master narratives (that for me seems to be a big difference separating King from Obama, the Postwar, Cold War, post-Wall entangled histories of American exceptionalism and re-militarization)….going to another line from the speech: “Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors”

  • Kenyada

    Chris, Thanks for posting my essay, Inauguration Ball 2009, which is included in my new book, Reflections in the Dark Room, and available at http://www.KenyadaEssays.com. the book includes the original longer version of the piece which includes, incidentally, many of the names suggested by other readers

    Best Wishes,

    Richard Kenyada, Atlanta