Hi DQ,

I don’t know where to start. I just left the URL for the Malcolm X speech at Bookworm’s blog. Here it is again.

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Okay. You’re a lawyer, right? Now we all know lawyers use a specific kind of language in legal documents – the kind most of us, including lawyers, don’t speak conversationally. And we all know that black folks can speak among themselves so that white people catch only a bit of what they’re saying. In other words, groups of people (people in given professions, etc.) often use dialect, tone, or vocabulary that complicates communication with those outside the group. Literary criticism uses references to images that are useless unless one has read the work from which they come.

Black preaching (preaching in the slave tradition) includes several elements that make it different from white preaching. Black preachers use what’s called “set pieces” – parts of a sermon that are memorized – and combine them in various ways to make new sermons. These set pieces often included quoted material. Unlike white preachers who usually hold up the book from which these quotes are taken, black preachers do not. Black preachers (and some white preachers) borrow freely from one another. King’s “I have a dream” is a perfect example of a set piece. Not the whole speech, but the part where he deviates from his prepared text. Entire books have been dedicated to the study of King’s 1963 speech. You think I’m dodging the question. Come on lawyer. 🙂

What I’m saying is that when Wright’s congregation heard “chickens come home to roost,” they knew immediately that Wright was quoting Malcolm X. They knew what parts of the speech were quoted. Likely they had heard them before in other sermons, maybe by other preachers. What white people think is racially divisive is fact to black folks. Wright isn’t “breeding hate and racist discord”; he’s telling it like it is. And then, in a part of the sermon, I’m sure we didn’t hear, he gave an altar call and beckoned the sinners to bring their burdens to Jesus. Wright’s goal is reconciliation – sinner to Christ, black to white.

Not all churches with black pastors and black congregations are considered Black Churches in the historical sense. There are seven historic black denominations (elsewhere on this blog, maybe in a comment.)

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Let’s try again. We have that proverbial partially filled water-glass. Is it half full or half empty? It’s both, but how we express it says something about us. Some Americans think that it’s half full: America isn’t perfect, but it’s the best nation our world has ever seen. Other Americans think it’s half empty: America is flawed, but with some very hard work she has the potential to become the best nation the world has ever seen. I think you are half-fuller, and Wright is a half-emptier. Who’s right? I say both are.

But the person who sees the glass as half empty speaks as a pessimist (from the point of view of the other, the optimist). The optimist screams that pessimists should be happy with what they have. The pessimist states what he sees as the flawed status quo. Does this mean he is without hope? I don’t think so. I see lots of room for discussion. There is more common ground than uncommon: Both groups love America. But one is more likely to be satisfied with the status quo than the other. Does that make the unsatisfied “evil”? Pointing out positive facts is “good,” but pointing out negative facts is “evil”?

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Now let’s jump back to the racial issue and throw in the glass illustration. The whites are the optimists, who see America as doing “better” in race relations that ever before. They are right. The blacks are the pessimists who see that America has not yet achieved racial equality. This is over-simplified and stereotypical (in other words, only partially true). Some blacks fit the half full mold, and some whites fit the half empty one. Combine that with conservative and liberal views, different religious understandings, etc., and no wonder we don’t know what a person means by what he says.

But it’s too easy to call everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do a liar. It just isn’t true. It’s like all the folks who scream I live by emotion only I’m the one who knew that “chickens come home to roost” was quoted, and I knew where. That’s a fact. It’s a fact they didn’t know. Let’s not play “my facts are better than your facts,” okay?

I do not know the source of all that Jeremiah Wright said, but I do not think he is a liar. If he said he was quoting, I think he was. But it has been very hard to hear Wright in context. Primary sources are the best way to make valid judgments on what is and isn’t said. But if we are unfamiliar with the subject matter, we might need some secondary sources as well. When I wanted to find Malcolm X’s speech, I used Google. But I had two facts to go on.

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Another aside. Do lawyers ever criticize other lawyers? Other than the public battles in the court room. Do one lawyer ever question another lawyers judgment? I bet they do. Do lawyers ever question the law? Poets criticize other poets. Historians make a living criticizing other historians. Okay. Do American have a right to criticize America? Do you? Why? Is Wright an American? How did he loose this right? Why is he “evil” by offering a view whereby dialog may bring change and change may bring us closer to equality?

What Wright offers America is hope.