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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