CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It didn’t seem like the proper setting for an angry, anti-American firebrand.
An amiable crowd was milling around the fellowship hall of the United Church of Chapel Hill on a Saturday morning, slurping coffee and eating bagels. Posters advertised trips to the Holocaust Museum, advocated for LGBT rights, and warned against ableism, with helpful definitions. The crowd skewed white and, as in many churches, older, but befitting this college town, it was an eclectic bunch: aging granola grandmas, middle-aged men in black jeans, and salt-and-pepper goatees, older men in suits.
What, exactly, was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright—former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, erstwhile minister to Barack Obama, and the man who infamously thundered, “God damn America!” doing here?
Lecturing on racial reconciliation, as it turns out—at least that was the idea. For nearly three hours, that’s mostly what Wright did. In the last 10 minutes, he couldn’t quite hold himself back, and the firebrand emerged. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his biblical namesake was known for angry harangues about injustice in society.) What does Wright think about the refugee crisis in Europe and anti-immigration rhetoric in the United States?
“I heard Donald Trump say if you’re here illegally you need to go back. Let’s start in the 1400s!” he said, then quickly moved to discussing the “the illegal state of Israel.” On the plight of Palestinians, he offered a Canaanite’s perspective: “What kind of God you got that promised your ass my land?”
Just as suddenly he was veering back to Trump: “You want to talk about thugs and rapists? Georgia was founded as a colony for criminals!”
Next question, from an older woman in a beautiful, long robe with a long, gray-accented braid: Should black Americans receive reparations? The pastor was off and running again, another circuitous answer taking him to Luke 19 via the Caribbean. “One of the reasons America has never confessed to its original sin is that confession means repentance, and repentance means you gotta pay,” he said. “That’s not black people getting a check next week—it’s structural issues” like housing covenants and redlining, he said.
Then he turned to his most famous former congregant, accusing him of failing to speak out about structural racism.
He followed that with an extended metaphor about sheepdogs—once they’re trained to protect a flock, he said, they’ll fight against even dogs from their own litter—and declared, “We got a lot of sheepdogs in the African American community.” He didn’t name any. He didn’t really need to.
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Wright has a penchant for tossing in his most inflammatory comments as near-afterthoughts. In the noted April 2003 sermon, Wright was nearly finished when he said, “Let me leave you with one more thing,” and then proceeded to build to the imprecation: “Not ‘God Bless America’; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”
When that sermon—and another, from shortly after 9/11, in which he said that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”—surfaced in 2008, Wright was briefly the biggest story in American politics. Coverage of the sermons dominated the news and inspired what many people still consider Obama’s finest and most important speech, an address on race.
Gradually, the story faded away. But although Wright, who had already announced his retirement, slipped into relative obscurity, he didn’t go away. He’s popped up occasionally to reignite a furor. In June 2009, he said he had voted for Obama despite the candidate’s disavowal but hadn’t spoken to him. “Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me,” he said. “They will not let him to talk to somebody who calls a spade what it is .... I said from the beginning: He’s a politician; I’m a pastor. He’s got to do what politicians do.” Needless to say, his anti-semitism drew condemnation. In 2010, he complained that Obama “threw me under the bus.” He was “toxic” to the White House, Wright said—hard to disagree with, given his comments the year before.
Wright is a flawed messenger with a flawed message, but the message feels far more suited to the times in 2015 than it did to 2008. Back then, the prospect of an Obama election set off giddy daydreams of a post-racial America. Today, nearly three out of five Americans say that race relations in the United States are bad. Wright’s argument in those sermons more than a decade ago, that the United States was structurally racist and conceived in white supremacy, are now commonly voiced, by those like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Lives Matters activists, and white liberals. Another cause he championed back then has come to draw adherents from across the political spectrum—the dangers of mass incarceration. Wright said in 2003:
The United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on the reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of the racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”?
The tense current mood on race is what brought Wright to Chapel Hill. Since the United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 from the merger of Congregationalists and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the denomination has been closely involved in civil rights. But while it does include some predominantly black congregations—such as Trinity—the church remains nearly 90 percent white. In a January 2015 pastoral letter to member churches, UCC leaders discussed racism and police violence against people of color and called on members to work for racial reconciliation. That call inspired the United Church of Chapel Hill to invite Wright to speak.
What’s remarkable for anyone familiar with Wright only from those two sermons or from his bigoted remarks, is how different the man can be in person. Clad in black trousers and a collarless purple shirt with black-and-white tribal patterns on it, Wright seemed more like the retired grandfather he is than a prophet of doom. He spent five minutes trying, and failing, to get his phone to play a clip of the Howard Gospel Choir. He spent much of the next 45 minutes on a raconteurish, often-entertaining narration of his early life and how he became interested in black sacred music.
Over the next two hours, Wright ruminated on the need for alternative perspectives to a European-centered worldview—as he put it, “different does not mean deficient”—in everything from music to pedagogical styles to theology. (In one memorable moment, he demonstrated differences in rhythmic sensibility by asking white and black members of the audience to clap along with songs; with surprising uniformity, white ones clapped on the traditional, European dominant beats while black ones clapped on the offbeats.) Some of what he said seemed to have emerged whole from the 1990s via time machine, such as Wright’s impassioned defense of Ebonics as carrying all the technical characteristics of a language. Some parts smacked of pseudoscience, like the idea that different learning styles for white and black children was “in their DNA.”
But much of it sounded very much like what you might hear from liberal professors in university classrooms across America: the emphasis on structural racism; skepticism of imperialism in many guises; sympathy for Palestinians and even antipathy toward Israel; praise for interdisciplinarity; the plea for multiculturalism and alternative viewpoints. Adding to the professorial vibe, Wright peppered his talk with repeated “assignments” for reading: the pioneering black historian Carter Woodson; C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow; A. Leon Higginbotham’s In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period; academic monographs in various disciplines. (The parallels between Coates and Wright were amusing: an interest in the study of white supremacy; a deep immersion in academic literature; a reverence for Howard University as an intellectual Mecca.)
Of course, Wright occasionally put things in more colorful terms: Arguing that the U.S. needed to write a new constitution from scratch because the current one is inherently racist, he quipped that trying to fix the problem with amendments is like leaving sugar out of a cake and trying to rectify the problem by sprinkling sugar on top once it’s out of the oven. That debate itself, however, is the stuff of academia.
Yet Wright had little to say about Black Lives Matter. “You think Occupy is something, you think Black Lives Matter is something?” he asked. “In the ’60s kids were taking over administration buildings, taking over campuses, locking up faculty!” But later he evinced more respect for the movement, professing himself “giddily happy” and brushing back older civil-rights leaders who have been critical. “If you think their language is something, y’all should have heard SNCC,” he said. “Old people say, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing.’ They know exactly what they’re doing! You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Even with Wright’s spicy closing remarks, it was a strange experience. Like Monica Lewinsky, who recently reemerged complete with a TED Talk, it’s hard to imagine Wright outside of the context of his brief political infamy, to think of him as a real person whose life has gone on. If Wright had felt any need to tone down his personality since the controversy, it hardly showed. He only briefly showed a flash of self-consciousness, pausing to be sure his lecture was being recorded before delivering an elaborate joke about black dialect. The joke won’t translate in writing, but suffice it to say that the punchline was disappointingly PG-rated.
But even the Prophet Jeremiah couldn’t deliver only jeremiads. And even his message was rejected by the Judeans. True to the biblical pattern, once the lecture concluded, the Chapel Hillians streamed politely out to a parking lot, got into cars adorned with proudly faded Obama-Biden bumper stickers, and headed home.