Wright as Father Figure
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wright1.jpgRev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. (Getty Images)
Sen. Barack Obama’s emphatic denunciation of his former pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., for a series of comments the reverend made during a sort of media tour last week involves far more than politics. Wright had reveled in a bewildering litany of racial differences and repeated his most charged political beliefs. He had characterized this tempest in the racial trope as an attack on black faith and all black churches before Obama finally cut him loose. But this spectacle is more personal than political, more universal than racial.
The nation watched this play out, riveted by the lasting mythology about human bonds — the age-old struggle between fathers and sons. The Obama-Wright breach is intriguing for its psychological familiarity — every son and every father deals with this on some level. It is as compelling as a car crash. If cultures and religions invent eternal myths as narrations of life, where does this story fit and what could it mean for Obama?
The obvious analogy is an inversion of the Oedipal struggle, where the enraged father seeks the death of his son, but accomplishes only their mutual destruction.
Try Roman mythology. Look at Wright as Saturn, the ruler of the universe, whose children were prophesied to depose him. As each child is born, he devours it. Yet, the myth goes, one gets away, Jupiter. And, as predicted, he ultimately defeats his father. This myth even reaches into astrology, where Saturn is associated with old age, melancholy and the domineering father. Jupiter –the son — represents goodness.
Then there is the Old Testament tale of Saul and David. The Lord tears the kingdom of Israel from a disobedient Saul and gives it to one better than he, David, the son of a servant. David remains loyal to Saul, fighting his battles, and becomes his son-in-law. Yet Saul’s jealousy leads him to pursue David and, in plots motivated by evil spirits, tries several times to kill him. Fleeing for his safety, David twice spares Saul’s life. Defeated in battle, Saul falls on his own sword and dies.
Finally, in Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man”— which Wright quotes regularly —there is a metaphor of crabs in a barrel pulling each other down from the sides. This famously describes the fratricidal jealousy of some blacks for the ascension of others.
None of these is perfect, of course, for something else was happening here as well. Wright is not Obama’s father or his “spiritual advisor” — nor, apparently, his political supporter. He was the former pastor to a man who had known neither God nor father well.
At best, Wright may have been a kind of godfather, and finding a godfather is a strange love. It is mostly symbolic, but no less real. For the godson, fortunate enough to find this symbolic anchor amid decades of a life at sea, his “I” may gladly relinquish itself to “we.” As many African-American men imagine, it is probably a little different with a real father.
One cannot doubt that Wright was proud of Obama, to see in such a strong and determined younger man aspects of himself. Though from different generations, they were both biracial black men, with a strong sense of justice, who discovered each other in Chicago’s rich yet impoverished, proud yet struggling South Side. There is no question that Wright wanted Obama’s political success—for what it would mean to Obama and, no doubt, the Trinity United Church of Christ and Wright’s own reputation.
It must have been difficult for the recently retired Wright to see his identification with Obama turn into a national vilification of the pastor’s own work and beliefs — as the sound bytes and video excerpts have erupted across the news cycles since late February. Suddenly, within a few days, Wrights standing as a pastor, an influential religious leader and a black man was eviscerated, and the price of his relationship with the rising political star was silence. With virtually no defense, that cost may have been too much.
Here, I suspect, is where the myth turns into something we have not quite seen before and the elements come undone— Obama’s speech about race in March. Obama had three broad but risky options with respect to Wright: reject him, defend him or explain him with aspects of both rejection and support. He did the latter, making Wright the spine of the entire address. At the time, many suspected Obama had used too much nuance to defuse the issue, and that Wright figured too centrally in an otherwise remarkable discussion of racial context in America. No one suspected it would provoke Wright to this.
Like the paranoid Saturn, Wright must have experienced gnawing envy as the star he helped launch onto the national stage first distanced himself, then explained and critiqued him before a global audience. Like Saul, his mute jealousy might have become ungovernable, as narcissistic rage overcame him. More important, the “we” that punctuates Obama’s every address seemed no longer to include Wright.
So, along came a poisonous madness that could destroy them both. Wright’s interview on Bill Moyer’s PBS television program on Friday night made sense and demonstrated the importance of his perspectives in a campaign that — even at this length — made little room for them. The NAACP speech he gave in Detroit Sunday night might be excused for its audience — except that so much of the on-camera silliness in mocking past presidents and doing a hokey-pokey around racial differences in music undermined Wright’s own defense of himself against his critics.
Yet Wright’s performance at the National Press Club Monday seemed almost like the affliction of an evil (or lunatic) spirit. There he recklessly injected himself into the news cycle at a time when the GOP in North Carolina had threatened to do it for him — and has. There, Wright tossed off decorum and bullied a young moderator. His idea of equating U.S. foreign policy with terrorism or of re-asserting the theory of government responsibility for AIDS is so off the charts — so patently off-putting — that it can only be designed to undo the hope for the first black president in history. Whom he repeatedly disparaged as a “politician.”
Why? Because we have a little game among black folks called “the dozens,” Wright glibly explained. Of course, becoming president is not a game, nor do black men in their 60s play the dozens like their grandchildren do. Surely the former pastor of a church with a prison ministry understands how many black men lose their lives—to violence or incarceration—for not letting a perceived slight go.
The denouement is not yet clear, but this we know so far. In the story of the spiritual godfather and the political star, the two could not have known each other well. They did not grow apart; the relationship was never close enough for them to be as interchangeable as many have assumed. The separation always had potential — and now it must be final, if not violent.
The moral has more to do with choosing friends than seeking fathers.
- David Dante Troutt is a professor of law at Rutgers University. His most recent books are “The Importance of Being Dangerous” and “After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina.”*