What are we becoming?
Could you imagine if the knowledge and wisdom of Anansi were reduced to the idea that the cunning he used to avoid being killed was just as bad as the predation of those who meant to kill him?
Anansi, also known as Ananse, Anancy, Nancy, Aunt Nancy, Sis’ Nancy: the spirit of wisdom in the form of a folkloric spider who with wits and trickery escaped capture and violence. The cunning of Anansi is often found in the way the spider deploys language against his enemies, weaving words around them until they’re caught in the silk of his rhetoric. One might think his verbal cleverness not dissimilar to the best of the oral, aural, prophetic tradition of liberation doctrines and theologies that attempt to tell the world about itself and how it might do otherwise.
I am thinking about the trickster figure of African and African-derived folklore and legend because of a short but very important passage in Michelle Obama’s recently published Becoming. An autobiography about her movement from the South Side of Chicago through Ivy League education, Chicago law firms, employment at the University of Chicago and, eventually, first lady of the United States of America, the book contains one almost throwaway passage that leapt out at me, a passage in need of interrogation.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that ABC News had combed through twenty-nine hours of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, splicing together a jarring highlight reel that showed the preacher careening through callous and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe. Barack and I were dismayed to see this, a reflection of the worst and most paranoid parts of the man who’d married us and baptized our children. Both of us had grown up with family members who viewed race through a lens of cranky mistrust. I’d experienced Dandy’s simmering resentment over the decades he’d spent being passed by professionally because of his skin color, as well as Southside’s worries that his grandkids weren’t safe in white neighborhoods. Barack, meanwhile, had listened to Toot, his white grandmother, make offhanded ethnic generalizations and even confess to her black grandson that she sometimes felt afraid when running into a black man on the street. We had lived for years with the narrow-mindedness of some of our elders, having accepted that no one is perfect, particularly those who’d come of age in a time of segregation. Perhaps this had caused us to overlook the more absurd parts of Reverend Wright’s spitfire preaching, even if we hadn’t been present for any of the sermons in question. Seeing an extreme version of his vitriol broadcast in the news, though, we were appalled. The whole affair was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided — that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.
Surely you remember Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago beginning in 1971, he and his leadership team turned a church with 250 members into the largest in the United Church of Christ denomination, one known for being open and affirming to queer people, and for locating social justice at the center of the Christian gospel message. Before he was famous for other things, Wright was famous for incorporating black liberation theology — a strain of liberation theology that takes the force of the Black Power movement in the U.S. as its spiritual current, that believes in the beauty of blackness and the necessity of tearing down white supremacy, that understands how empire abroad informs white supremacist violence at home. Wright’s preaching was a call to think about and attempt to practice liberation in the world — Anansi devising an escape with his words.
Most folks know about Wright only because one of his congregants, Barack Obama, decided to run for president. During the campaign, several of Wright’s old sermons were decontextualized and intentionally misunderstood, not that context or a better understanding would’ve spared him the dumb show of American political controversy. In the old video clips, Jeremiah Wright argued that the “chickens had come home to roost” in America, that the violence it begat globally could not any longer be contained out there but was manifesting inside the borders as well. He stated that God should not bless but damn America until America lived up to its rhetoric and doctrine of freedom and justice for all. In his critique of American policy, violence and white supremacy, he was attacking the very possibility, dear to liberals and conservatives alike, of white innocence.
The 24-hour news cycle was voracious in its appetite to consume this story, building ratings but intentionally misrepresenting Wright and his preaching. This was the “controversy” from which the Obamas attempted to distance themselves in 2008 — and again in Becoming.
“Is the trickster figure the moral equivalent of the tricked? Are the damned and wretched of the earth the same as their oppressors? Are the strategies of liberation employed by the marginalized as evil as the strategies of the ones who attempt to keep them that way?”
Is the trickster figure the moral equivalent of the tricked? Are the damned and wretched of the earth the same as their oppressors? Are the strategies of liberation employed by the marginalized as evil as the strategies of the ones who attempt to keep them that way? Michelle Obama putting Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Toot in the same category — one of them preaching against systemic racism, the other afraid of seeing a black man on the street — collapses their concerns and fundamentally mistakes structural inequity and violence for personal and private woes that could be remedied if we just thought better of one another.
What to make of Michelle Obama’s inclusion of this idea that stereotyping is the same as systemic racism and that those things are reciprocal, that the oppressed and the oppressor share in equal measure the blame for our current conditions? What this small but potent passage does is to transform racism into a personal, private, individual problem. Over the years this has not been an uncommon feature of liberal discourse about racism in America, of a piece with the broader movement of our politics toward the personalized, privatized and individualized.
Yet since 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, the United States has seen an increase in mass shootings, violence against asylum-seekers at the southern border, heightened rhetoric and violence against Latinx people, a more broad-based and accepted Islamophobia, ongoing settler colonialism and anti-black racism, gendered violence, police violence against civilians and the continual degradation of the environment, producing various ecological crises that will fall more heavily on the black and brown people of the world.
What Wright said was prescient. His critique of the United States, made in 2003, is unremarkably correct from the vantage of 2018. Even according to Michelle Obama’s standards of segregation creating the occasion for cranky mistrust, Wright’s rage and resentment were justified. After all, in terms of schooling and housing, the U.S. is still very much a segregated country.
But Michelle Obama castigates him nonetheless as callous, cranky and absurd. To do so is to cast him, and the black liberation theology from which he preached, as unnecessary; it’s to treat the prophetic thrust of his words as no more relevant than the speech of an unhinged subway ranter.
Black liberation theology is about the practice of freedom for marginalized peoples, making black folks the center of the argument’s gravity. This theological tradition calls out anti-black racism, settler colonialism, the global violence of imperialism and the violence of capitalist means of production. And this theological strain finds the points of comparison between these various modalities of violence in the hopes, not of liquidating difference, but of producing solidarity and a global movement against injustice and inequity.
In his prophetic style, Wright aligns with and expands upon the best of the tradition. From his famous sermon:
The United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on 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 her 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 education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strikes law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God bless America; God damn America... for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme.
Absent is the idea of moral progression we’re taught in schools, the narrative of an ever-perfecting union. Instead Wright’s sermon stretches across time, finding iterations and elaborations of a theme in American life. This is not the prosperity gospel of new houses, cars, greater wealth and land exploitation, of individual betterment. He is talking here about a condition, a system of inequity and violence that is the foundation for U.S. governance.
I do not critique celebration and joy in general. Much of my work is about how gathering with others can be the basis for a liberation practice. So the joy I see in women celebrating the publication of Becoming, particularly black women, is a cause for happiness in turn. But the question for me is what is being excluded for the sake of this celebration, what is still in need of interrogation. And what is being excluded in Michelle Obama’s rendering of Jeremiah Wright is a reckoning with his prophetic zeal and the tradition from which he preaches — from Fannie Lou Hamer’s being sick and tired of being sick and tired to Celie’s walks through purple fields.
Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble, she said.
God damn America, he said.
All around us we see daily this crumbling, this damnation under which the country functions. Perhaps the book deals and Netflix income inoculate the Obamas from the day-to-day poisons of America, but voting — seemingly their only proposed remedy — won’t by itself get us out of this.
What is a politics that purports to celebrate and be for black women, when the sacred tradition produced by black folks — particularly women in Christianity, Islam and varied African-derived sacred practices from which the preaching in black liberation theology emerges — is dismissed as backward, as antithetical to political emancipation? It means what Karl Marx discovered, that the political emancipation sought by folks like the Obamas is an alternative configuration that the current political order makes possible. But the black radical tradition, Cedric Robinson tells us, is an alternative to this order altogether.
Jeremiah Wright is a weaver, in the mode of Anansi, and his “God damn America” is not the search for emancipation within the given political order. It’s an indictment of the political status quo and the emancipation it makes available. An already available emancipation — an emancipation and liberation imaginable from within the limits of the given — does not go far enough in the pursuit of justice or the alleviation of suffering. At best, it would be a rearrangement of who gets to participate in the production of violence and inequity.
What Wright urged, what black liberation theology compels us to imagine, is a kind of becoming that is not born within the limits of the given, a becoming that breaks the way power is imagined and produced. Wright’s preaching was prophetic in that way, using the weave of language to offer a means of escape. These are not the words of cranky mistrust and callous indifference but the words that would have us interrogate what it is we think we are, and what it is we think we’re becoming.
Ashon Crawley, an assistant professor of religious studies and African-American and African studies at the University of Virginia, is the author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imagination, and, forthcoming with Duke University Press, The Lonely Letters, an exploration of the interrelation of blackness, mysticism, quantum mechanics and love. All his work is about otherwise possibility.