Rev. Wright in Charge

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright speaks at the National Press Club on Monday in Washington, D.C.

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

toggle caption 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.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

BO's first clue should have been the profanity but he sat there for 20 years because he could not afford to stand.

Seriously, the "crazy uncle" comment is funny because on TOTN last week a "brutha" called up and said his uncle had ripped up his Tarzan comic books when he was a kid because, "there ain't no way some white dude is going to go to Africa and become the King of the Jungle".

Then he gave the kid Archie comics instead. What a creep!

That's Wright, ripping up BO's comics.

Sent by Greystoke | 7:12 PM | 4-29-2008

John - you captured the sentiment exactly. It will truly be sad if Mr. O'Bama, someone who is truly qualified to lead this country, is taken out of the presidential race by someone of his own race and someone so close to his heart. I see this tendency everyday in the people around me, women who can't be happy for one another; or men who sabotage each others success.

Here's my plea to our people and to Reverend Wright: Please let Barack succeed for the good of the people.

Sent by Kellie Flewellen | 8:16 PM | 4-29-2008

The man defends himself after Obama throws him under the bus in front of the whole world and you accuse him of HNIC maneuvering? Was he supposed to go quietly after that character assassination Obama pulled on him? Obama sat in his church for TWENTY YEARS and then RIPS him and calls what he says hate speech. BLACK PEOPLE our desperate need to support one another MOVE ON UP at any costs is saddening. We have got to hold everyone to higher standards, not just poor educated unmarried black americans but also educated middle and upper-class treacherous career seeking ones too.

Sent by Fran | 8:20 PM | 4-29-2008

Oh, come on, John. Harriet Tubman was not an HNIC for heaven's sake. The HNIC (mispronounced Southern style) is descended from the black foreman or strawboss during slavery -- the authority figure in charge of the black compound in the temporary absence of the white boss-man. He's a man of the people because he lives in the compound, not the big house, but he's selected by the boss-man (contradicting the pseudo-Marxist or class dialectic cliche of the light-skinned domestic worker in the big house as a traitor to the black cause.)

During segregation when blacks were largely denied political representation, the HNIC was a power broker (selected by white people), an intermediary between the white political leadership and the black community. It's often said that the HNIC is selected because he symbolizes militancy.

Albert Murray wrote a great essay on this subject a long time ago, reprinted in "The Omni-Americans" (Da Capo Press, 1970)

Sent by Dave | 8:11 AM | 4-30-2008

HNIC. Never heard that before. I wonder what my father would have said. He was a shrewd observer of black/white relations. I'm afraid Wright is just a man out of touch with a changing world. If "the tradition of the black church" is to try to raise the black people by putting down the white people, he's lost the whole message of Jesus.

Sent by J Rhinehart | 9:41 AM | 4-30-2008

John: Not that it matters, but I'm just another white guy living in Wyoming, but your commentaries resonate strongly with me. I'm proud to know of your thought-provoking essays. Truly, you're one of my heros and even though I haven't always been 100% in agreement with everything you say, my mind gets plenty of exercise upon hearing or reading your words. Keep fighting the good fight John!

Sent by Morgan | 11:21 AM | 4-30-2008

I am disappointed that Rev. Wright chose this time and forum to "resurface" because I hoped to see a black president in my life time. However, this is Obama's fault.

Obviously, after his masterful race speech in Philly, when he distanced himself without outright condemning the reverend, Obamas was SUPPOSED to communicate to Wright that he had to do it, and to let him know they were still good, and that once he became president he would look out for the rev. That is the way it is done. But Obama disrespected the reverend by not keeping it real with him, even if he would have had to do so in private.

As a black man descended from slaves in America, I totally understand why the Reverend is bringing it to Obama. I don't like it; but I understand it. And I would do the same.

Perhaps if Obama were truly African American, rather than an American of African/European descent, he would realize HOW IMPORTANT SAVING FACE IS for the descendents of slaves in this country.

History and politics be damned, 9 out of 10 brothers are not going to stand by and let someone misrepresent them. Especially a proud, educated, articulate, dedicated, pro-black man like Reverend Wright.

If Obama loses the election because of this, then he has no one to blame but himself. And perhaps his wife, Michelle. She should have told him, "Honey, African American brothers don't take kindly to being fronted on. You need to talk to Jeremiah and make sure ya'll are still good."

Sent by KGC | 11:30 AM | 4-30-2008

It'll be a good thing when Reverend Wright comprehends the power of silence.

Sent by Betty in Dallas | 12:26 PM | 4-30-2008

The HNIC theory is probably correct! At the same time this man is Obamas elder and 10 times wiser and more experienced. With that said I think Rev. Wright needs to do a little more homework on his conspiracy theories relating to AIDS and 9/11, because there are other theories out there and of course none of them are proven fact because if they were we'd be throwing a lot of folks in jail. Although I have high regard for Rev. Wright I would have to say, as a bit of advice for him, it's okay to look under the rug and scrutinize what you find but be very careful of what you start spewing to the public. It would be better for him to paint his perceptions as his own and lead people to do their own research, instead of just swinging wildly at the bee hive! Especially when there are still Americans that feel that the government never lies and never covers things up to protect themselves!

Sent by Christopher | 12:36 PM | 4-30-2008

I think Rev. Wright is proving himself self-serving and ego-maniacal. He uses his position in egregiously irresponsible ways (anybody catch his Condi-Skeezer Rice references; in a sermon!? Lawd have mercy!). I agree that he may have important perspective, but unfortunately even the truth he reveals is often too unpalatable to illicit a reasonable response let alone effect change. He's obviously hurt by Obama's earlier distancing and not mature enough and/or farsighted enough to address his feelings to Obama directly and offline. His recent actions are not beneficial to the Obama campaign, the Democratic Party, or the country, as they only add additional conflagration to an already ablaze Presidential Primary battle. Why confuse the masses and potentially reverse Obama's well-earned progress? Why not allow Obama to run his Primary race untethered to this vacuous controversy?
Wright should take tips from Al Sharpton's playbook. Wait, don't choke; read on. Last night on Larry King, Sharpton eloquently wagged his finger at Wright, complimented Obama's "courageous stance" and then wisely chose not to endorse a candidate. It seemed evident that Sharpton favors Obama but he is aware that his antics past, present and future would likely render him an undesirable ally. So Sharpton prudently considered the long term benefits of an Obama presidency and acted on national TV in the best interest of the greater good. So today or tomorrow when Sharpton storms NYC with pompous speechifying and rabble-rousing Obama will be shielded from additional backlash. Thanks Al. Tsk tsk Jeremiah, now you not only look asinine, but have also lost the ear of the most prominent HNIC in America's history.

Sent by Mark Riding | 2:55 PM | 4-30-2008

I agree with Dave's analysis of the true meaning of HNIC. Rev. Wright should have meditated on Ecclesiastes 3--there is "a time for every purpose under the heavens." Now is not the time for him to air his grievances, lick his wounds and lash out. Sen. Obama did not kick Rev. Wright under the bus during the Philly speech, when he said Rev. Wright was like family and he could not disown him---he was criticized for not dissing Rev. Wright completely and leaving Trinity and he took the heat. Sen. Obama has said that he spoke with Rev. Wright after he gave the speech.
Having been a Baptist church member for over 44 years (and listened and agreed with black liberation theology the whole time), I can attest to the fact sometimes you may not agree with everything your pastor says or does, but you may have family ties, friendships, fellowship, and ministries that you enjoy participating in because they help people, so you stay with that church--the good things outweigh the bad. The church is not perfect because it is made up of imperfect human beings. The church is not about the pastor, it is about the gospel of Christ, the salvation of souls and the work of the church to help the lost, sick and the needy. The pastor is a sinner saved by grace like everyone else. If your focus is correct, God is your "spiritual mentor."

The out-of-context sound bites were wrong and unfair, but, except for the quote from the Ambassador to Iraq (chickens coming home to roost) they were Rev. Wright's words. He is a respected author, seminary lecturer, and mentor to many ministers currently serving in African American churches today. He has the intelligence and experience to defend himself, without hurting Sen. Obama's chances in the primaries. I think his interview with Moyers was great, his NAACP speech demonstrated wit and humor, but his attitude, tone, and demeanor at the National Press Club, which I watched on CSPAN, was not that of a highly respected bible scholar or pastor. What he said about Sen. Obama was rude and disrepectful. He should have enough "Christ" in his Christianity to apologize and move on.

Sent by Glenda | 11:22 PM | 4-30-2008

Your right. Im very disappointed in how this situation has played out. It's sad that the first possible black president was making so much head way only to meet conflict from one you would think should support him.

Wright was saying all the right things, until he spoke about government conspiracy theories concerning AIDS...come on now. No one, and I mean no one wants to hear that.

That's an insult to the many victims of AIDS that aren't African American.
What we need right now is Unity, not division.

Ultimately, I feel that Wright has let his pride meander him off the path of setting history. History.

Wright isn't timeless, there will be other reverends. But, a first black president or woman president for that matter is timeless.

For America to reach this point is amazing and the country is still easing its way into the primaries. Wright just disrupted the transition in a major way.

Sent by Rashid | 8:17 AM | 5-1-2008

I have one question for every race in this nation; Isn't every legal citizen in this country simply an American? I think it is about time we drop the hyphenated prefixes and just become what we are: Americans.
Don't get me wrong, everyone should have the right to enjoy their ethnicity and follow their own cultural roots, but by placing prefixes such as Latino-, African-, Asian-, Anglo- aren't we just segregating ourselves from others? If we are simply all just Americans, wouldn't it be easier to cross these cultural and racial divides?
I understand that by simply doing this, it will not fix the prejudices we all carry in some form towards each other. That will take a lot of time and effort, but it would be a step forward.
I believe Senator Obama has taken that step, but, unfortunately, Rev. Wright has not. By emphasizing the differences in race and beliefs, he further alienates other groups from the bottom line: equality and tolerance. Resentment and finger pointing is not a way to win friends and influence people. You can shake the tree without knocking it down. I defer to Martin Luther King Jr., a great man who shook the foundations of this nation, and made everyone in the world open their eyes and see the wrongs of segregation, prejudice and intolerance. And he did this without damning America.

Sent by Jason | 1:55 PM | 5-1-2008

I am sorry HNIC or not. Obama is going to become President of this country. A Quack like Wright has no place in the Obama circle. I wouldn't be surprised if the Rev is being paid to make appearances and talk about his ridiculous theories by Clinton at this point. I see him as a jealous man and it is no surprise that another African American can and will be the one to screw up his chances. Isn't that what we always do?

As for "keeping it real" what does that actually mean anyway? Obama doesn't have to keep anything real with anyone a man such as him who is trying to make a difference in this country needs to do nothing but continue on his path to which has never seen someone of his ethnicity. Black people who don't like that kind of realness need to open their eyes.

Obama needs more positive black supporters like Winfrey, Cosby, Goldberg, etc. Not some Rev such as Wright.

Sent by KH | 4:15 PM | 5-1-2008

I agree that Rev. Wright controversy will hurt Obama, but on the bright sight it should stop "Obama is Muslim" talk, until, of course "Obama is a Zionist spy" talk gets started ... LOL.

Sent by Aykut Ozden | 4:48 PM | 5-1-2008

This isn't about J. Wright although he has proven himself to be a hateful vindictive individual. It's about B. Obama, and as H. Clinton so pointedly noted, up until a short time ago, had not been properly vetted. He is now undergoing that crucible of politics, reliving his entire life with all of his life's decisions under the heat lamp of political campaigning. He is running for the highest post in the land and we all need to decide for ourselves if we believe his words or look at his past actions. What does he believe in and is it compatible with most of our beliefs? His words are soothing and very much in keeping with the words of other presidential contenders. Morning in America, bright shinning light, beacon of hope and we could go on. Although his words are similar, his delivery is better than anyone else currently running. (R. Reagan and W.J. Clinton also had the gift). His story however is more readable than most if not the most compelling, (if we liked his books), we have seen since General and Secretary of State Collin Powell's story. However, if we compare the life of Sec Powell to B. Obama, the Obama story just doesn't hold water. There is very little in the Obama story that comes close to what C. Powell accomplished and he did it without drugs, the help of individuals currently involved in an ongoing criminal trial, a United States hating preacher that he hung with for 20 years, and a non repentant US grown terrorist. I could go on here as a lot of others in the TV and print media have done, but lets ask another question. Aside from those previously mentioned, who are his current friends, confidants, professional colleagues, fellow church goers and any others who can tell us that over the many years these people worked with, played with, shot hoops with, and went to church with, can stand up and say, this is the guy I know. (No ministers please). He needs a few high quality individuals to speak up for him from Hawaii to Harvard, and confirm his political, religious and personal beliefs.

This is what I know. He grew up in Hawaii, lived as child overseas for a few years, got into Harvard, did really well, moved to Chicago's south side, married an equally smart women, became an organizer and went into politics. There is more of course but did I capture the essence? One question, does his life to date qualify him for the job of Commander in Chief? My conclusion, at this point in time, gotta say no.

Sent by David Caldwell | 4:53 PM | 5-1-2008

Obama is not responsible for Rev. Wrights choice to handle himself in the press the past two weeks. Jeremiah Wright is responsible for his own speeches and words. He has the right to defend himself. But that's not what he has been doing. Instead he has made a spectacle of himself as a self-proclaimed defender of the black church.

I have cringed watching his speeches and the NAACP's rewarding him the past week. It doesn't make anyone look good including himself. It makes him sound egotistical and very prideful. I go to a black church every Sunday and come out uplifted most of the time. There isn't anything uplifting about a preacher performing. I don't care how long he has been preaching or if he is a so called elder that doesn't give him a pass to say what he wants without recourse. He has shown no regard for Obama at the sake of "aint nobody going to disrespect me" kind of mentality. This mentality hasn't gotten blacks or black men any further. Wright was proved the HNIC of his own ego.Sometimes a closed-mouth takes more discipline than a rampant defense.
Having said all that, when are white churches going to take a stand in their own churches against prejudice? It's is also inflammatory to know that racism and prejudice exist in your community and continually act like it's not everybody's problem. I would love NPR to do a show about why there aren't enough white churches taking a clear concise stand for unity. After all being predjudice, racist, or ignorant are spiritual issues of the heart.If you want to know what the black church is all about then why not go visit a few and get your own opinion? Instead of putting the heavy on the media or blacks to tell you about it and then you form a uneducated opinion.

I am a black women in her 30s and I have had the pleasure of being a part of both black and white churches since I was a child. It bothers me that white Christians don't take better leadership towards unity not just diversity.For all the people judging Obama or Wright's relationship. When the last time your church leaders stood up for unity between races?

Sent by Sasha | 4:58 PM | 5-1-2008

KFC said "Obama disrespected the reverend by not keeping it real with him, even if he would have had to do so in private."

This reminds me of a black girl at work. She was always focused on who was respecting & who was disrespecting her. I had an argument with her one day, and she punched me in the back. The next few days she acted mad at me. Then I brought her a bathroom rug I didn't want, and she said that made it all right between us. It surprised me, it was so... primal.

White culture doesn't delineate relationships this way. We don't focus so much on who's top dog or who's dissing who. "Saving face" is not so much a part of our culture.

This could be the biggest difference between white and black cultures today.

Maybe this is why black men end up in prison so much.

Sent by J Rhinehart | 10:42 PM | 5-1-2008

This media attention on Rev. Wright is not so much about black churches. It's about the continued demonization of African Americans as a whole. However, it's immediate purpose is to discredit Barack Obama. Demonize Rev. Wright, connect to Barack Obama... much success! That being said, I struggle to think Wright is unaware of his status as a pawn (thus the HNIC characterization). His self-important performance (again HNICism at it's best) is predictable and, as so aptly put by MR. Ridley, "taking-out" opportunities for Barack Obama to connect with undecided voters. Obama's speech was timely, and a refreshing opportunity for this country to talk about race in a meaningful, constructive, and necessary way. But, with Wright's insistance on being in the spotlight (and am I'm not closed to the idea of some ulterior motive) has actually given people an excuse not to vote for Barack. More specifically, I imagine there are some who would not vote for Obama simply because he's black. That's a reality of our society. But now, they're off the hook! They'll never have to admit it. Instead, they can just say "I'm concerned about Obama's relationship with someone such as Rev. Wrigt." An HNIC job well done! I still believe Rev. Wright is entitled to his own opinion. I just wish he'd think beyond his nose at the bigger picture. Oh, my bad! That's not part of the HNIC job description.

Sent by Psmith | 1:34 AM | 5-2-2008

If one pulls back from the immediacy of the situation and looks at the dynamics of the situation with racial issues temporarily removed, it becomes a question of Senator Obama's authenticity.

Rev. Wright did not suddenly morph into a different person, and Sen. Obama has been listening to his sermons for 20 YEARS. He had named Rev. Wright his spiritual leader and for him to suddenly repudiate him when it was politically expedient to do so is offensive and shows that Sen. Obama so craves the power of the presidency that he is willing to assassinate the character of man who has been "spiritual leader" for two decades.

Rev. Wright is authentic. Some of what he has to say is incendiary to a lot of people "out there", but he also makes a lot of sense... and he is far more honest than the member of his congregation who is currently seeking the highest office in the country.

Sen. Obama clearly has more to learn from his spritual leader.

Sent by Anne | 2:42 AM | 5-2-2008

With regard to the demonization of African Americans... this Wright thing is being forcefed to the American public because it works. Consider how many people don't have regular contact with Blacks in their everyday lives/neighborhoods. Their understanding of blacks includes "Cops", "Flavor of Love", etc etc etc... and now Rev. Wright! These images have consequences for all of us. African Americans have and must continue to stick together to survive and prosper. But, knowing when to operate as group and when to stand as an individual is equally important (FRAN). Obama clearly understand this in the way he's conducted his campaign. Obama did not denouce Wright as a person until Wright chose to stage his self-important HNIC performance.

Dear Rev. Wright,
Sometimes advancement requires remaining still while someone else moves forward.

Sent by Psmith | 12:14 PM | 5-2-2008

Between the media's tripping over themselves to keep this story alive and Clinton basking in the afterglow, it amazes me how ego of one man may take down a true hope for this country.

Sent by Faith P | 5:20 PM | 5-2-2008

"This reminds me of a black girl at work. She was always focused on who was respecting & who was disrespecting her. I had an argument with her one day, and she punched me in the back. The next few days she acted mad at me. Then I brought her a bathroom rug I didn't want, and she said that made it all right between us. It surprised me, it was so... primal.

White culture doesn't delineate relationships this way. We don't focus so much on who's top dog or who's dissing who. "Saving face" is not so much a part of our culture.

This could be the biggest difference between white and black cultures today.

Maybe this is why black men end up in prison so much. - J Rhinehart"

This reminds me of why white men like myself also do not like white trash. You're a profane individual.

Sent by Rudy Adams, Houston TX | 9:39 PM | 5-31-2008

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from