Tony Bogues, "Obama and the Prophetic Tradition"

Tony Bogues speaks with Christopher Lydon on Open Source, January 30, 2009.


  1. I listened again more carefully. I have nothing to add to your comments, but they did provoke some thoughts. As you say, most Americans do not know what Lowery was reciting in his prayer. Yet, consider that the majority of people on the Mall were African-Americans, and they seemed as clueless as John Stewart when he mocked Lowery on The Daily Show. This raises the problem of education in history, politics, and the humanities most broadly. Consider the drama of it: a generational contrast between Lowery and his words and those using cell-phones down below. You asked in the interview what impact listening to Wright for years had on Obama. We might also ask what is the result of younger generations not being impacted at all or every much by teachers who know or embody the experiential record that both helped form them and provides even now possibility for their freedom. The second thing that came to me as I listened to you comment on Obama, develop the contrast with MLK, etc. concerned audience response. I recall watching the speech that Obama got the loudest applause when he said that he would return the US to world leadership—the very point your emphasized. Not only is he an American patriot committed to constitutional liberalism in the form of a representative republic, he believes in (because of education and experience inside the US) on the value of US global leadership. As you know, this is a long tradition. In the mid-1880s, Adams visited the islands of the South Pacific where he wrote letters home saying that he hoped American power would soon displace French, British, and even German power because their empires were worse, more barbaric, exploitative than the US ‘system.’ Adams was making a choice in real politics, of course, knowing that in a power vacuum of great power politics, some force would dominate an available space. Obama has one foot in that tradition, and it has something to do not with exceptionalism but the idea that US imperialism is different in form—which I believe, although not as they believe, “better.” But my point is that the American people want that role of imperial leadership that Obama offered and was, I think, the key to his election: manipulating the symbols of American greatness to assure that greatness can be achieved again and kept! You ask what he absorbed from Wright: I take Obama to be a modernist, that is, capable of deep distance from what he does, sees, experiences, and thinks. He is coherent because bifurcated. I am certain he heard, experienced, judged, filed, and preserved for use everything he heard from Wright—as he did from his Harvard and Columbia Profs. After all, what did he learn from Said’s seminar at Columbia? He is, I think, an artist intellectual in politics. That means he will attempt to play the possible within the middle ground, which is where he understands the possible to lie. We shall see.

  2. Thanks much for this link to Tony’s insightful analysis and deftly situated critique, bringing out both the hopefulness & the accommodating sublimations of US history and globalizing power as implicit in the Odama inaugural address, cum benediction; and your own (I assumed these were) more Adamseque comments on the bifurcated Obama (cum modernist irony) with one foot in recuperating US empire and the other perhaps in something more tied to the Afro prophetic tradition.All this yes is so much an advance over the simplistic awfulness of these past death-dealing 8 years…Rob

  3. I listened to this with great interest. Not at all to diminish the importance of lifting the veil, I am looking forward also to celebrating the unplugging of ears. Variously and vigorously—for me, barbarously and neo-Nietzschean-ly—we, it seems, each have investment in an Obama Odyssey. Because I used the Lowery benediction to open my class, Jan 20, on some of the aesthetic questions sited in the Harlem Renaissance, and before the Inauguration I tuned up the volume on several of the things Tony notes. I could work up a few of the words I might have uttered in class, replete with Youtube supplements, if you would want them. Maybe I will do it anyway, not to let it go in the vapor of a pedagogical improvisation –I did get the vapors from Obama’s speech that went out of its way in abusive quotation and accommodation by allusion to a certain strain of militancy to be papered over by diplomacy—he chose “ballots over bullets” and the “open hand” against the “closed fist.” Pace El Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, who doesn’t prefer diplomatic rhetoric over imperialist wars? But does this “X”-ing out—and there are numerous x’s and outings—mark the remembering or the dismembering of the strenuous interrogation of Amerikkka? Lest we forget what cannot be instantly transformed, retold to be retailed. . . Yeah, he’s good, alright—if not all right; who is? Fuck Limbaugh for damning us all with his 5 words: “I want him to fail.” But what is it that cannot be voiced? I am just asking. The week before January 20th, having found the Obamarama to be somehow imperative pedagogically, I found myself appreciating the Financial Times notice of the then President-elect’s attention to language, in Sam Leith’s “Man of His Words” (Jan. 17th). For my students, I drafted a sort of reading of the FT reading (placement in the Weekend FT is all!) of Obama’s favorite ornaments from his first memoir to recent speeches. My "flash" or journalistic reading/teaching/response also hooks up with recent Facebook sites and other once strange corners where "citizen journalists" perform weird individualism(s) and those engaged by the poetics of Obama’s presentation vacuum up precious bytes and shiny allusions but, for the most part, hold their tongues or cup their ears about the white noise that also can call forth a different variety of responses to the disavowals seeded in the President’s speeches. Obama’s words do stand, as Tony’s remarks indicate, to be interpreted rather like Ahab’s doubloon has been differently read in and outside the texts of American fiction and/or politics. They tell us something about ourselves, but one hopes for more than that, more than America in narcissistic celebration of newer errand(s) into manifold deserts of un-enlightenment. In sum and sincerely, thank you, Tony, for your remarks and provocations—especially your cautionary allusion to Manley’s trajectory. I want to take your observations about the interpretative force of textual practice and political history back to Du Bois’s Atlanta Studies where, when speaking of the Negro Church, he managed, not unlike Lowery, to insert Toussaint (among the types and anti-types of African American or AME Zion typology) into the vernacular exegesis that marries protest and piety to insist in the deeply Protestant move of the teleological suspension of the ethical that motored some 60s anti-war and human rights militants, that which goes beyond THE Constitution and the lawyerly law. One is happy to see Obama (especially after 8-years of seeing the caricature of caricature of Alfred E. Newman) but listening carefully disappoints in the way that his early statements about Iran adumbrated scary versions of US staying on top. It is all, after all, in the ear? Obama’s ear was tuned, it seems at least in part, at Occidental College–right? It was tuned, too, by more than one Jeremiah to anticipate the replay “when white will embrace what is right.” Let’s tune that up for a second.What is R/right is no simple matter when the Left might just be dancing to mixed martial tunes that need some deeper listening. I think I shall turn to tune up the written version of my ‘reprise song for Obama’; it allows me to worry the Right while querying why “right” got so much talk-back from the white supremacists and so little back-talk-back from the celebrants on the dais, let alone stage-Left of what it scares me to call the neo-Popular Front grandstand on January 29th and 20th . Anyhow, Kathryne Lindberg (in Detroit)

  4. from Rupert Lewis, professor of political thought , University of the West Indies , Mona .Maureen Warner Lewis , Professor Emeritus, Language and Literatures , University of the Wes Indies , Mona Maureen and I had a discussion about your interview as we both listened carefully. Agree with your framing of the prophetic tradition and the King approach to the constitution. However on both these counts there is a difference. Obama has borrowed from the prophetic tradition a certain style of oratory but he is a rationalist and a constitutionalist in a very interesting way. It is not only a response to Bush[although that is very important] but it is an attempt to claim the constitution for all including the historically excluded. In this sense Obama’s political ancestor is not King as such nor the prophetic tradition but Frederick Douglass. This is a point Peter Abrahams made to me this week and I agree with it. As for the Empire – I find this term problematic but that’s another matter. The inaugural raises the question as to a different kind of leadership which he is thinking through. America cannot help but be imperial, Obama notwithstanding. How that leadership, however, is handled is set out in the inaugural in a different context from that espoused by Bush, who cast America’s leadership as an evangelizing mission to democratize the world. In Obama’s inaugural he speaks of America’s greatness and its power, and declares “we are ready to lead once more”. So the issue is not about leadership per se, but the content and orientation of that leadership. Near the beginning of the speech he acknowledges the diminution in the standing of America and calls upon the nation to reshape its moral fibre.

  5. I have listen with great care to you interview and find it insightful on many points. Chief among them is your recognition of President Obama’s commitment to constitutionalism. On that score, I concur with Paul in pointing out he is a modernist, but also a rationalist clearly invested in the Enlightenment, with all this entails. It has also been clear for sometime now — at least since last July, that Mr. Obama is not an acolyte of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King — at least he is not an acolyte of the King of the Letter from Birmingham, or the significant speech of 1967, which you, cite, in which Dr. King called for reconstruction along the line Douglass had, which involved an epistemological, as well as a political and economical shift. The King that is being referenced these days is the pared down de-fanged King who could be authorized as a national hero in the 1980’s; this is not the Dr. King who so upset president Johnson with his critique of the Vietnam War, the Dr. King who publicly questioned the ability of the market to bring about freedom. All of this you rightly note in your interview. The president’s call for us to "begin remaking America" ought not be misconstrued as the call for a reconstruction of the constitution, but rather the extension of its principles to include everyone, now everywhere. Here, Paul’s remark about the applause the President Obama received when he stated that "we will defeat you" when referring to those who oppose our ideals militarily is significant. He also got strong applause when he asserted that America is ready to lead the world again, an assertion he explicitly addressed to the world, to those in poor villages, etc. Not only is the imperial attitude inevitable — as you state, when talking about assuming leadership without being elected (the world did not elect Mr. Obama) necessarily raises issues of power; yes, the issue at hand is the character of power, and as far as the planet is concerned, President Obama has been quite explicit for quite sometime about the exercise of hegemony — but, to judge by the audience response, this is the consensus. Also, noteworthy, again judging by the audience response, is the way his one remark about historical racial segregation — a man whose father would not have been able to … etc; I point out that my father was denied entrance into a restaurant in D.C. in 1954, which only 55 years ago — provoked an audience response divided remarkably along racial lines, with Blacks standing to clap and many whites in the crowd and on the podium seated and quiet. This brings me to your remarks about the distance between President Obama and Dr. Lowery’s speech-acts. Yes, it is significant that Dr. Lowery began with James Weldon Johnson’s song, which written in 1899 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln, and which Johnson himself entitled "The Negro National Anthem" — Johnson, who began his career writing popular tune with his brother John before coming under the tutelage of Brander Matthews at Columbia. There are some things that should be attended to about Dr. Lowery’s deployment of the song. First, that it was a significant symbol of Black American resistance to oppression for both the assimilationists — when convening meetings of the Youth Branch of the NAACP in the 1960, we always began, as a matter of the by-laws, with the Anthem — as well as the black nationalist — when, as was not uncommon for my generation, I abandoned the assimilationists agenda at Dr. King’s murder for Black nationalism, the song we chose to sing in honoring the Red Black and Green was Johns “Negro National Anthem.” So for at least four generations of Black activist across the full political spectrum, this was our song, which, in the sixties, many whites found offensively radical. That Lowery could then recite it in opening the benediction for the 44th President of the United States Inauguration was remarkable. I did, in fact remark on it at the time to my wife, who is much younger than I, from England, and was one of the leading Obama volunteers in our area. She is also, as you know a poet. Her response was that this was poetry, in contrast to Elizabeth’s performance. This indicates an issue I will elaborate on a bit later, that for a certain generation the significance of such symbolism is somehow irrelevant. Before addressing that, however, I want to point out another important aspect of Lowery’s rhetorical performance that is most pertinent. He began with the third verse of the song: God of our weary years,God of our silent tears,Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;Thou who has by Thy mightLed us into the light,Keep us forever in the path, we pray.Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met Thee;Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;Shadowed beneath Thy hand,May we forever stand.True to our GOD,True to our native landEliding the first and second verses, both of which are more strident in the expression of struggle against real injustice. These two verses can be characterized as an account of the will to resist in the face of bloody oppression. I will not quote them here; you can search them out. My point is that Dr. Lowery downplayed the most radical elements of the song, choosing instead the uplifting final verse that speaks of an unwavering patriotism and faith in God despite the trials and tribulations visited upon us my US Society and state. This made the message of the Negro National Anthem now inclusive of everyone; a point Dr. Lowery drove home rhetorically in his artful perversion of the ancient — again in house — playground rhyme; “if your black get back, etc.” Dr. Lowery’s gesture was to articulate these historically exclusively Black expressions as universally applicable. That he did so casually, without drawing attention to their legacy achieved a sort of epistemic shift. As Cornel puts it, in a different valence, every body became Black with Dr. Lowery’s semiotic performance. So that what the youngsters focused on was the poetic force of the performance, its apparent validation of the Obama message of total inclusion, in complete ignorance of the history of the forms being deployed. The fact that this ignorance did not diminish the force of the message — indeed, one could argue it insured its, adding to the sense we are at the dawn of a transformative moment that is “new” — is symptomatic of what Paul calls the artistry of President Obama’s intellectual politics: It is the force of symbolism and not the meaning of symbols that move the multitude to action. Let there be no mistake, this is not a mode of allegory. Lastly, I am troubled by your reference to the lifting of the veil. It resonates with the now dominant discourse about the significance of Obama’s election: White people can now safely discover Black people. I could elaborate, but this is already far longer than I intended. So I will state my point succinctly, please forgive the crudeness: The way you characterize the lifting of the veil privileges the white gaze; that is, there is no movement or even occasion for a re-conceiving of the epistemological grounding of our society, of the sort you rightly point our Dr. King sought. Rather, everyone is to be brought within the scope of normative bourgeoisie liberalism. The fact that this is explicitly what President Obama holds forth as the future of the world is a testament to his artistry; it is what garnered and secures his broad appeal. It is also cause for serious concern, as anyone who is over 50, not white and has lived in the society well knows. By the by, Douglass was far more ambivalent about the prospects for the empire of liberty that Don supposes.

  6. I think your comments about Obama’s political artistry are right on the mark. I also think the poiesis involved in this can readily be linked to and, I would say, enable by what he summons up when he refers to himself as “a mutt.” That choice signals a difference that is at once biological and "willed"—a distance from the historical, discursive and ideological "homes" of the groups/positions that surround him. This allows a political “making” that encompasses and also reaches beyond them. Obama’s “worldliness"? It also seems to me that—when it comes to matters religious—Obama is much more in tune with Jefferson’s/Declaration of Independence’s "nature and Natures God" than he is to either Wright or "right" Christianity. Again a more capacious space for his political artistry.

  7. I’ve returned to all of these comments many times over the last few weeks, wondering how best to put my unease about what Obam specifically represents for the future of US policies. I essentially agree with Ronald’s reservation, that his artistry is also an occasion for serious concern, precisely because he operates within "the middle" as the space of the possible. We have seen this before, not only in US political history. I’m teaching Foucault’s lecture series "The Birth of Biopolitics" in which he reads closely how the Western German economy was set up on the basis of a similar conception of the possible. As whoever signed the comment "boundary 2" puts it–sounds like Paul–"we shall see." And let’s hope, to return to Ronald’s final remarks, that the operation of the gaze when any veil is being lifted follows closely a fully Lacanian conception of it, and the "gazer" gets a real shock from the gaze of the "gazee" gazing back. Dan O’Hara


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