Rev. Wright and a Yiddish Song: The Hyperbole of Rage, The Banality of Apologies, the Absurdity of Race
Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 6, 2008
Sometimes, when I am alone, I sing. I croon in the style of Billy Eckstine and imitate bass lines from the Orioles and the Cadillacs. I also sing inter-war cabaret songs in Dutch and German and old Yiddish theater tunes in the original: Aaron Lebedev’s Romania, Romania, Molly Picon’s Abi Gezund, and the bitter ballad of early-20th-century New York immigrant life, Grine Kuzine.
In Grine Kuzine a narrator tells of a newly arrived “green” immigrant cousin, a bright-eyed happy girl with “… cheeks like pomegranates and feet that beg to dance.” In America the cousin will surely find work and a new life and, so, the first chorus of Grine Kuzine ends with the words: “Long live the land of Columbus!” But as the song continue its narrator describes how, as the years pass and as the cousin moves from one slavish dead-end job to another in sweat-shops and neighborhood stores, her hopes fade and she turns gray-skinned, stooped, and dull-eyed. The song ends with the bitter curse: “May Columbus’s land go up in flames!”
America in flames? Sound familiar? The closing lines of Grine Kuzine are really no different from Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” paraphrase of Irving Berlin’s maudlin patriotic tune God Bless America. As a singer of Grine Kuzine, and as a not-too-distant descendant of her fellow immigrant workers, I do not understand the recent hysteria over the U-Tube posting of an out-of-context video excerpt of one of Wright’s old sermons. Jews and Blacks and even the whitest-of-white Americans have the right — and maybe the obligation — to be enraged at polities and policies that misuse or deceive them or that fail to live up to their potential or rhetoric. The hyperbole of songs and of sermons generates reflection and vents steam and diffuses rage even as it broadcasts it.
The rebroadcasting of Wright’s controversial pun led to agitated calls from fellow-Democratics for Barack Obama to disown and condemn his former pastor. This is the second such demand. Some time before, Obama had been challenged to reject the support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan may be a compulsive bigot (forgive the value judgment, but I belong to an ethnos Farrakhan once called adherents of a “gutter religion”) but if candidates were to reject supporters and voters on the basis of their prejudices and ill-considered words there would be few voters and supporters left to go around. And, to quote Lyndon Johnson’s reputed response to a journalist who him asked why he did not fire FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, maybe it makes better sense and is better policy, to have Farrakhan “… inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.”
Far more interesting and insidious than the slips-of-the-lips of members of Obama’s confessional circles is Hillary Clinton’s decades-long involvement in an oligarchical right-wing prayer breakfast group called The Fellowship, Sound like the stuff of crank conspiracy theories? Writer Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer, a New York University weblog covering religion and the media, has just completed a book on the subject. Will apologies and statements of distancing and denunciation of The Fellowship be forthcoming from the Clinton campaign? I doubt it.
The positive side of the Wright affair is that it led Obama to give his speech on race — and rage — in America. Over the last year, I have been researching the origins and artificiality of national identities and the havoc caused by the emergence of modern nationalism and nation-states (more on this is future posts). Race is an equally suspect concept, a product of the intersection of European imperialism and early-modern science’s obsession with classification. And yet, in America, three centuries of slavery turned the concept of race into an enduring and divisive reality. For an incisive take on the legacy of slavery, poverty in America, and the present-day problems of America’s cities, listen to this recent broadcast of Bill Moyers’s Journal, a look back on the urban riots — or uprisings, as Moyers’s occasional guest, nonagenarian activist Grace Lee Boggs, points out — of the 1960s and the insightful but largely ignored findings of the congressional inquiry (the Kerner Commission) that investigated their causes and consequences.
Afterthought: The Murder of Dr. King and a Song by Nina Simone
It was 40 years ago this weekend that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. I was working and studying in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time. In the days following Dr. King’s assassination, Greensboro, like numerous other American cities, was placed under curfew and de facto marshal law. At night, along with other people, black and white, I made my way home from work and political rallies in stealth, dodging police patrols and helicopter overflights. These next days, as I think back on the shock and tension of the days after Dr. King’s death and on the civil rights struggle, the plight of US cities, and the tempests-in-a-teapot of the current presidential election, I’ll not only sing Grine Kuzine but I’ll add Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam to my repertoire as well.