It has always been the trademark of leadership: Taking a negative situation and using it as a platform to take a positive step forward. On March 18, Barack Obama took such a step, amidst a controversy instigated by the words of the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
In his historic run for the presidency, it was merely a matter of time before race and the subject of racism would emerge from the private dialogues of dinner tables and office cubicles to rest squarely in the lap of the senator from Illinois.
Though committed to run a campaign in which the issues that affect all Americans would remain the foundation of his political platform, Obama has been forced to acknowledge and denounce the incendiary comments of Wright, the man and pastor who officiated at his wedding and baptized his children.
The inspiration for Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, Rev. Wright has been deemed a liability to the Obama campaign because he dared exercise the audacity of candor.
Sound bites of the outspoken cleric have made their rounds throughout the TV news shows, the Internet and any other venue willing and able to stir up the collective fears of conservative Americans or Clinton supporters.
Wright’s position that the 9/11 attacks represent the “chickens coming home to roost” for a nation that has exerted its military will around the globe throughout history, has been characterized as being un-American.
For questioning the patriotic refrain of “God Bless America” when we as a nation are guilty of “treating our citizens as less than human,” Wright has been condemned as the purveyor of “inflammatory rhetoric” and as a black militant.
Regardless of the historical facts that serve as the foundation for Wright’s assertions, and the media’s uncanny ability to divorce the controversial sound bites from their complete context, Obama, the presidential candidate, was a victim of guilt by association and had to do more than just renounce the words of his beloved pastor.
That is when Obama, the leader, took control of his own fate and dared to tackle a force more diabolical and elusive than any faced by any commander in chief in American history: the subject of race in America.
Yearning to clear America’s vision so that all could see the potential of a “more perfect union,’’ Obama took to the podium at Constitution Center in Philadelphia and confronted the reality of race relations without fear or apology.
Though he was prepared to admit that he thought the words of Wright were divisive in nature, he bravely asserted that he could “no more disown him than the black community” or his white grandmother.
While reminding the nation that the legacy of discrimination has an undeniable relevance to the contemporary condition of black America, he also noted that many have achieved despite this historical reality.
Obama spoke candidly about the real and powerful anger of black America that often “finds its voice” in the black churches and through the sermons of pastors such as Jeremiah Wright. Obama was then quick to counter that this anger often serves as a distraction which “keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.”
Without fear of being labeled an apologist or the cliché Uncle Tom, Obama empathized with white Americans who often view programs like affirmative action as an unjust concession that they must bear for injustices that they themselves never committed.
He dared to understand their frustration at a society that is quick to label them a racist if they articulate fears about crime and the criminal elements found in our urban communities.
While acknowledging this “racial stalemate” in America, his speech came full circle in offering the potential of a more perfect union based on the “audacity of hope,” a hope based on what has been achieved, and what is yet to be achieved.
In listening to this presidential hopeful make this speech, one is reminded of another leader who dared to confront the issue of race without fear or apology. For it is Barack Obama and this speech that I will always think of when I remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.”
Barack stood tall when many thought, and perhaps hoped, he would fall.