By The Progressive on May 23, 2008

It’s not time for black people to hit the mute button.

Progressive black critics of Sen. Barack Obama are facing a lot of criticism.

Several black people have urged me, in various ways, not to write or say anything that would give the other side anything to latch on to. And so they hand me the race gag.

But I won’t put it in my mouth.

It’s not healthy for our democracy to suppress our own opinions. And it’s not helpful for progress in America to neglect to mention that Obama wants to increase the Pentagon’s budget above the current astronomical level of $500 billion.

Nor is it helpful to muzzle any mention of the fact that Obama has expressed approval of President Clinton’s devastation of the welfare safety net or that Obama’s proposals on health care and the housing crisis are inadequate.

And should I have covered my ears when I heard him say, after the Pennsylvania and Indiana primaries, that “we don’t need big government”?

One argument for keeping quiet is that blacks shouldn’t do anything that might prevent a black person from finally getting elected president. But this is to put racial identity above everything else. Should I be quiet if Justice Clarence Thomas runs for president, too?

Another argument is to avoid confirming or fueling white racist suspicions.

Jokingly, comedian Jon Stewart asked Obama that if elected, “Will you pull a bait-and-switch and enslave the white race?” But I’ve actually heard more than one white person say, “If Obama gets the White House what will they want next?” Or, “If Obama wins, blacks will think they’re running things.”

The implication for black critics is obvious: Don’t push Obama to be out front on issues because that will just antagonize some white voters. But that only empowers these voters and suffocates the debate on big issues.

Obama is constantly called on to swear allegiance to America, to prove he isn’t swearing allegiance to blacks. Put another way, he’s supposed to swear allegiance to white, not black, America. The back end of that deal is that black Americans are required to substitute Obama for real structural racial progress.

As in, “You got your nominee. See, we’re not so racist or bad after all. Now shut up!”

Obama refuses to appeal to black voters in the way that Sen. Hillary Clinton has appealed to white voters. Some 17 percent of white voters in Pennsylvania acknowledged “they wouldn’t vote for a black under any condition.” And 81 percent of voters in West Virginia said race was a factor. And Clinton got away with equating “hardworking Americans” with “white Americans.”

Meanwhile, Obama had to throw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright overboard, even though what Wright said about the U.S. treatment of American Indians, blacks and Japanese Americans was on the mark.

Obama also refuses to appeal to black voters in the way that Clinton has appealed to women. She talks about making history, while he is trying to pitch himself beyond race.

At the same time, those of us within the black community are told that we have a racial obligation to be mute.

I’m against uncritical solidarity, be it race-related or gender-related.

If solidarity makes you fall in line without asking where you’re going, don’t be surprised if you end up lost.

Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He managed the 1988 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the state. His forthcoming books are “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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