The Prophet Comes To Harlem

The Rev. Doctor Jeremiah Wright Preaches at Salem


It was altogether fitting that Jeremiah Wright should be invited into the pulpit at Salem, a congregant of the first black American Church: The African Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1792 in Philadelphia, just five years after the ratification of the United States Constitution in that same city. And from his first utterances the pastor put the meeting squarely within the fighting tradition of this church that once conspired with enslaved Africans to overthrow the slave regime with blood and fire, and who’s Bishops helped to organize the African National Congress in South Africa that would eventually bring on the collapse of the apartheid regime and put Nelson Mandela in power! 

      When Rev. Wright took the stage he was greeted with a standing ovation accompanied by African drums and shouts of salutation.   Dr. James McIntosh introduced him with all the grandeur of a court griot reciting praise songs heralding the arrival of a great warrior of the people.  And to this crowd, the present writer included, he most surely is. From the outset the Reverend Dr. Wright made it clear that this was not a worship service, rather he had been asked by long time media watch dog and cultural warrior sister Betty Dobson – who looked like an African Queen Mother in her flowing traditional gown – to speak to the question of the portrayal of the black community in American mass media.

       As a man with more degrees than a thermometer – which include two master’s and a PhD  in theology – the Rev Dr. Wright held forth in a scholary lecture worthy of a professor of media studies.  Beginning his talk with an analysis of how images are manipulated in theater and film, the central thesis of his polemic was that the black experience with major white media “has been traumatic.”  And, as he correctly notes, this is largely because black people are not allowed to tell our story from our perspective.  Instead the black experience is too often interpreted by others who may or may not understand our spiritual strivings, or have our best interest at heart.  

        As an example of how the black voice has been silenced in mass media, he quoted a Nigerian professor who pointed out that in the epic movie “Armistead,” which was based on the true story of the 19th century trial of a heroic mutiny by captured Africans on a Cuban ship, the Africans had no intelligible spoken parts. He then contrasted this with Speilberg’s treatment of the Spanish characters whose dialogue was accompanied by English sub-titles. “Did Spielberg deny voice to the Jewish victims in the holocaust?” he asked.  I must confess that I had never considered this point; a fact which Dr. Wright cited as an example of how the black community has become conditioned to accept dehumanizing images of ourselves.   But then, I never saw the movie.

       The Reverend Doctor Wright went on to demonstrate the truth of essayist and cultural theoretician Albert Murray’s axiom that white media will always choose pathology over heroism when selecting a story about African-Americans. This point is also being stressed by Afro-American film critic Armond White in his critique of the new film “Precious.” As is his fashion, White cites a number of films with African American themes that are far more deserving of the press Precious – a tawdry tale of pathology – is getting; the instant classic “Cadillac Records” among them.  To further illustrate his point Dr. Wright cited the fact that when he and a group of black theologians held a conference on “The Prophetic Witness of the Black Church,” and presented learned papers on the subject to try and bring some clarity to the confusion about black church traditions and his mission spread by hysterical verbal arsonist at the White Apartheid Broadcast company aka WABC am, the white media ignored it and continued to spout ignorant and incendiary disinformation.  

      Dr. Wright cited an Iraqi scholar who has written a book on American/Iraqi relations; She told him “you Americans construct the narrative of Iraq in the media, The Iraqi’s are voiceless.”  Yet once the narrative has been established – no matter if its fiction – the entire conversation becomes about the narrative, not the reality.  The Iraqi scholar pointed out that she was also a victim of a misleading media narrative.  And she cautioned him to remain true to his identity.“The media tramatizes, stigmatizes, and systemizes the dehumanization of African people.  And then the media paralyzes African people” observed Dr. Wright.

        He also talked about how the white media controls the interpretation of our history, and he began to resurrect historical images black people constructed in a counter narrative to white supremacist fantasies. Naturally he commented at some length on Dr. Dubois’ masterpiece of American letters “The Souls of Black Folk.”  Especially his deeply moving and enlightening essay “Of the Sorrow Songs,” the first treatise on the sacred music of the African American slave community written by a trained scholar.  Then in a sing song cadence he pointed out that William James, distinguished Prof. of religion at Harvard and brother of the great novelist Henry James, had declared “God Dam America for her treatment of the Philippines!”

Upon his quotation of James’ Jeremiad the audience rose from their seats in a boisterous ovation.  Dr. Wright then discussed the early black theater movement at the turn of the 20th century.  Analyzing the cultural nationalist character of the early New York musical revues by the gifted actor/comedians Williams and Walker – “In Abyssinia,” “In Bandana Land,” etc – he asked how many people in the audience had ever heard of Bert Williams.  Few hands were raised in the crowded sanctuary, so the learned Doctor explained that these shows represented an attempt by conscious black artists to rescue the African American image from the constant racist attacks and vulgar parodies of the blackface minstrel shows that were all the rage among Euro-Americans.

       Rev. Wright also pointed out that we are still fighting for control of our image in mass media, and argues that we “have internalized our degradation. Internalized self-hatred, worship of all things white and reject all things African.”  He also observed that publishing and print media is dying, being wiped out by the internet.  Of course, this prediction is not new.  Ten years ago I wrote an essay titled “Why I Retreated Into Cyberspace,” in which I argued that the pulp media was headed toward extinction; but now I know that may be an overstatement of the immediate problem.  However, in so far as the future of serious Afro-American literature of the sort that nurtured the intellect and inspired hope in previous generations, the torrent of “ghetto novels” written by people who are untutored in literary history and technique, and promoting decadent rather than uplifting images, is threatening to drive it from the marketplace.  There may come a time when serious black literature may be published only by university presses, which are subsidized and do not depend upon the market.

 At one point Rev. Wright compared the miseducation of Afro-Americans to the training of sheepdogs; pointing out that a sheepdog will attack other dogs to protect the sheep!  And he cited Clarence Thomas as an example.  He relied on black psychologist like Niam Akbar, who pointed out that our ancestors were in bondage but they were not slaves because they never consented to it, and he cited an unbroken pantheon of black freedom fighters in all fields, while periodically injecting lines from the Afro-American spiritual Freedom over me: “Before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave.”  Curiously, since we were in a church, the rest of that verse which he did not recite would be most appropriate: “and go home to my God and be free!”  In this part of the speech Rev. Wright fully utilized the oratorical devices of the black preacher. His speech became a dynamic crescendo, in which he reiterated his major theme at regular intervals around a rhythmic cadence that was both inspirational and irresistible, bringing this highly political crowd of atheist and near atheist to their feet in a rousing standing ovation!  

People turned out in the rain!

To Hear the Much Maligned Preacher For Them self

Since it takes money to run an organization and CEMOTAP does not seek foundation or government funding – because he who pays the piper calls the tune – they pass the collection plate at their meetings to cover expenses. In this sense they are operating in the tradition established by some of our most successful leaders – such as A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Carter G. Woodson – who insisted that black people must finance their own struggle.  Hence instead of seeking the support of foundations or the comfort and security of a university professorship Dr. Woodson, whose academic credentials could easily match any professor at Harvard where he earned his PhD, founded The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and financed his research by selling memberships. 

      African Americans of all classes invested in the work of the organization by purchasing these memberships and allowed Dr. Woodson to publish a first rate scholarly journal; a bulletin for widespread popular consumption; establish a company to publish his and other pioneering scholarly works of enduring value, and train a cadre of professional historians who rewrote American history from the black perspective employing the highest standards of scientific historical research.  Asa Phillip Randolph, who led the fight to organize the lowest workers on the payroll of the Pullman company, which was then one the largest and richest corporations in the world, refused to accept money from white labor unions.  Even when he was about to be evicted from his office he refused offers of assistance from John L. Lewis, the leader of the powerful United Mine Workers.  Randolph insisted that black folk must finance their own liberation!  CEMOTAP has learned that lesson well; which is why they routinely delve into controversial issues that other African American organizations dare not touch.

Longtime Activist Ted Wilson Was There



The Moving Spirit and Organizer of the Literary Tribute to Amiri Baraka

“Let Loose On the World”


Anti-Vaccination Activist Curtis Cost Was there Too

Hawking his latest book warning about the dangers of vaccination

Led by anti-police brutality activist and former cop Delacy Davis, who initiated the giving and set the standard by putting two hundred dollars in the collection plate, many others gave quite generous sums.  In the spirit of the church, whose methods of raising money are tried and true, Dr. McIntosh made the most innovative pitch for money I have yet heard.  “Do any of you have a backache?” He asked the crowd, many of whom had been sitting for hours waiting to hear Jeremiah the Prophet. “I am a physician,” he announced, “trained in the science of medicine, so I am qualified to diagnose the cause of your pain: Evil spirits!  It’s those wretched dollars you’ve got in your pocket!   Just dump them into the plate and it will ease your pain.” Then the good doctor called upon the audience to banish the evil Andrew Jackson and the undercover African Alexander Hamilton and confine them to the collection plate. 

The pitch, to say the least, was productive as the people rushed to rid themselves of evil spirits masquerading as US currency.  It was, by any measure, a triumphant evening. At the end of the day, it was another enlightening CEMOTAP production.  And this time the prophet was honored in his own land.



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

November 23, 2009

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