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Rev. Wright in Charge

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright speaks at the National Press Club on Monday in Washington, D.C. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama's former spiritual guide (and current irritant) Jeremiah Wright took a lap around the media. I figured Wright would calmly have his say, and with the story mostly old news, he would come and go and hardly register.

Not quite the case.

Wright took the opportunity to preach on the media's treatment — read that as "attack" — of the tradition of the black church. There was that, there was his unequivocal support for Louis Farrakhan, his continued assertion that AIDS was set upon blacks by the U.S. government, his description of American foreign policy before Sept. 11 as "terrorism on other people"...

You really gotta wonder why. When Wright could've just kept cool, stayed clear of the press, why come up for air in such a big way? And why right when Obama is still in the middle of a political dogfight?

Maybe that's a holdover aspect of another black tradition: the HNIC.

For the uninitiated, HNIC is an acronym for Head Negro In Charge. But HNIC is — or was — a much sought-after job in the black community. And it speaks volumes that such a position, at least in a historical sense, ever existed. There is, after all, no single spokesperson for the aggregate of white thought.

But blacks?

We needed a HNIC to give us voice when the Constitution that guarantees freedoms didn't guarantee us jack. We needed folks who were the embodiment of the fearless free African: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

Problem was, as people of color advanced, there were more and more who wanted the job of HNIC. And that's when armed philosophical conflict erupted — every potential black potentate pitching his solution for the travails of colored America. Booker T. Washington had little patience for DuBois' ideas for black uplift and vice versa. And neither could stand the self-reliant path cut by Marcus Garvey.

Even today we see lesser figures — your Al Sharptons and your Jesse Jacksons — trying to grab up that HNIC scepter.

So, then there's Obama, who's gotten a lot of support in his political lifetime from the very influential Wright. Except that at the first sign of trouble, Obama tosses Wright from his campaign and very publicly distances himself from his pastor.

So now, when the heat's on, here comes Wright claiming that the More Perfect Union speech was just Obama saying "what he has to say as a politician," and that should Obama be elected, Wright would be "coming after you [Obama], because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people."

Is that the most subtle message you've ever heard to people of color that Obama's just a shill for The Man? Could Wright be trying to hand Obama just a touch of payback for slighting him — showing Obama just who's the boss and who's the upstart?

Maybe I'm reading a whole lot more into Wright's second coming than is there. And I hope I am. Well beyond his loopier comments, there's a good deal Wright has to say that's worth listening to. And it would be a shame if Obama, a candidate who's done everything he can to transcend race, is taken out by some old-school HNIC maneuvering.