The Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke and preached at the United Church of Chapel Hill over the weekend. "You're just here to see if he cusses," a friend of mine joshed when I arrived. Ha! For the record, Wright didn't cuss. He did criticize a cake.
Wright was President Obama's pastor in Chicago, the African-American minister who married Barack and Michelle. Yes, that Wright, who cried "God damn America" on video, and most of America missed the point. Obama "distanced himself" from Wright and won the 2008 election.
Seven years later, what did Wright have to say?
To a workshop audience Saturday, Wright went on about how much he likes a good cake. He hoped someone would make him one. He even listed the ingredients: flour, eggs, milk, baking powder. That's what "constitutes" the cake, he said.
Oops, he forgot the sugar.
"Sprinkle some sugar on top," Wright said. Add some "amendments." But you'll still have a bad cake.
Of course, he was talking about the U.S. Constitution. It has amendments to abolish slavery and protect civil rights. But in 1787, the Framers skipped the most important ingredient—justice—and instead baked their racist ideology into the cake.
Where it remains to haunt us.
In January, the United Church of Christ issued "A Pastoral Letter on Racism: A New Awakening." It called for sacred conversations by UCC congregations about "the ongoing manifestation of racism which is evident in tragic and painful ways in our communities." It's a thoughtful letter about Ferguson, attacks on police, the criminal justice system and our "complacency ... because racism seems so intractable."
The UCC, which merged several denominations, was created in 1957 as the civil rights movement took shape. Its core was racial justice. Wright's church, where he is now pastor emeritus, and the United Church of Chapel Hill are both UCC members. Wright's visit, said the Rev. Rick Edens, the Chapel Hill co-pastor, was one of a series of events meant to examine "the glaring evidence of systemic racism around us."
In the three-hour workshop and from the pulpit Sunday, Wright demonstrated why, during his tenure, his Trinity church grew to more than 8,000 members, with a choir—he said proudly—of 190 voices. He was, by turns, heated, hopeful and, above all, provocative.
Yes, he's still angry, even without any damns. Wright began Sunday by describing the "hellacious death journey" of the slaves brought to the American colonies from Africa and the millions who died in chains. President Thomas Jefferson, he said, was a pedophile who slept with his 15-year old slave.
"Let me tell you, Jews never forget the Holocaust," he said. "But too many sheepdog Africans get amnesia" about the crimes committed by white Americans against blacks.
Sheepdogs, he'd explained the day before, are dogs raised with sheep; consequently, they'll give their lives to protect the sheep. Much like a black child who goes to Yale and is loyal to those who keep blacks down.
Was that a swipe at Obama and his Ivy League education? Not directly. But when someone asked about black poverty, Wright pointed to "the half-rican-American president" who tells blacks to pull their pants up and stop cussin' but hasn't led an "honest dialogue" on the roots of the problem.
If Wright wants to rile us—blacks and whites—it's as motivation toward a larger purpose. He wants us to realize that a "different, better world is possible" if we set aside our assumptions about what's wrong and what's right.
To that end, Wright spun yarns about the staid—and unloved—church choruses at Howard University, where he was a student, and at Trinity back when black elders still used traditional European hymnbooks. Finally, the youth revolted, demanding to perform "Negro spirituals" with their diametrically different African rhythms. The result: way better music. And church attendance soared.
Wright wants us to understand that, in learning styles and speech patterns, too, European and African descendants draw from very different wells. White children, he argued, tend to be "left-brain oriented," interested in studying objects and better at sitting still. Black children are right-brain oriented, which makes them want to get on their feet and study people.
His point: "Different is not deficient." But in our schools and institutions, we treat the European style as correct and African styles as bad behavior. Or take the way some black folks pronounce ask—as ax. It's because, Wright said, African languages have no sk sound. And children imitate their mammas. Who learned from their mammas.
Black kids get tired of being corrected in school, Wright said. So they stop raising their hand.
That's a big problem.
Wright wasn't asking us to trust him on this. He was asking that we investigate for ourselves how whites and blacks are different and separate the reasons from our unexamined prejudices. Different. Not deficient. But blacks are reticent. And too many whites think blacks really are inferior.
Which is, obviously, bull. We have a political system based on property, not justice, thanks to Jefferson, Washington and the rest of our slave-owning founders. For most of our history, blacks could not own property. They were free labor, then cheap labor.
We've sprinkled on some rights for African-Americans. But the cake is still white—and still racist.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Original sin"