Rev. Jeremiah Wright had offered the audience nothing more than a slight slouch and the occasional grin, but his very presence was enough to garner him two long, roaring standing ovations by the time he walked up to the Cahn Auditorium podium on Friday to deliver his keynote address.
“FMO unashamedly and unapologetically stands in support of Rev. Wright,” For Members Only Coordinator Zachary Parker had told a loudly cheering crowd. Parker was referring to Northwestern’s decision to rescind their offer of an honorary degree to Wright after his sermons made national headlines because of his ties to presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
But once Wright took to the stage and the crowd members found their seats, President-elect Obama’s former pastor delivered the keynote address for the “State of the Black Union” in a markedly softer and more humorous tone than the students who had spoken before him at the event, sponsored by FMO, the black student group.
Donning a brown and black African-pattern vest and carrying a black binder to the podium, Wright offered up “just some points of clarification” about the forces that had thrust him into the national spotlight. His “God damn America” sermon? A white professor at Harvard said a similar thing in 1901. The first ever election of a black President? “Incredibly powerful” and “awesomely inspiring.” Unfair treatment from the media? “Ray Charles can see that.”
Wright moved quickly into a history lecture of sorts, which he gave in a deliberate manner that was a far cry from the raspy intonations of his most infamous sermons. He offered his four decades of work in academia and 36 years as a pastor “in the hood” as qualifications for him to speak about “redeeming and reclaiming our community.”
“I come tonight as an outsider to the Northwestern community,” Wright said but added, “I know a little something about living in and working in the black community.”
Wright attended Howard University, a historically black college. But he cautioned that the need for black students to stand up for their cultural property extended even to historically black universities. He called the Howard University of the 1960s “white on the DL” because, until the students objected, they were taught only European literature in their courses.
“In May of 1968, all of that changed,” Wright said. Students at Howard stood up and demanded classes on African-American studies. Meanwhile, black students on predominantly white campuses had already been taking learning about jazz and the blues and the Harlem Renaissance.
But somewhere along the line, Wright said, blacks had stopped teaching their children about the revolutions they had fought and won, and recently the community suffered a “rupture in generational consciousness,” as “we did not teach the generation behind us about the black liberation struggle.”
“We need to first teach our own students, our own children, our own story and stop depending on somebody else to teach our story for us,” was Wright’s answer to reclaiming the black community.
“It’s only a crisis if you care”
Before Wright took to the podium, two black student leaders heavily criticized Northwestern’s treatment of black students.
“Northwestern doesn’t understand diversity,” said Mark Crain, former coordinator of FMO. Crain enumerated several grievances with the state of diversity on campus and accused the university of “lying to itself.”
“In his annual State of the University address, President Henry Bienen spoke of Northwestern’s phenomenal success in recent years,” Crain said. But Crain saw shortcomings, including Northwestern losing its fourth director of African American Studies in six years and the meager attention paid to the 40 year anniversary of black students taking over the Bursar’s Office in 1968, an event that “should have been celebrated by the entire university.” That the class of 2012 is only 4.2 percent African American was another sign Crain pointed to of the university failing to achieve diversity.
Current FMO coordinator Zachary Parker followed Crain, and asked, “Why is it that the black community is not afforded with the respect and investment that it deserves?”
Parker, who called the number of black freshmen “pathetic” and the university’s financial aid policies “racially insensitive,” said the issue is institutional. “It’s not that the president of the university is racist, per se. But it is the unfortunate enforcing and mandating of racially insensitive policies that were designed for advancing and sustaining white privilege.”
Parker closed his speech promising “a new, vibrant, politically conscious FMO that will no longer stand alone while our community disintegrates around us.”
“Bienen doesn’t know me”
During the question and answer session, after many students in the crowd had filed out, Wright was asked how he felt after Northwestern rescinded his honorary degree.
“It was like the straw on the camel’s back at the end of a very terrible week” in which the media, and “Hannity and Colmes,” kept airing on television the now-famous clips of his sermons.
Wright received a call from President Bienen, who explained to Wright why the degree was being rescinded. Wright asked for the statement in writing.
“That was painful. Because Bienen doesn’t know me from Adam’s house cat,” Wright said.
But Wright said he did take solace in making university history. In “150 years, this university has never rescinded an honorary degree from anybody but me.”
“To hear his perspective”
Before Wright arrived, a throng of people young and old had begun lining up at 5:30 p.m. along Emerson Street, waiting in the frigid air and hoping for extra tickets. Chicago-area reporters, who were not allowed inside Cahn Auditorium, canvassed the area for quotations.
The “historical” nature of the event attracted Weinberg freshman Jill Greene, who stood in line anticipating an unpredictable speech. “It’ll be interesting, for sure,” she said.
Also in line was “curious” University of Chicago junior Matt Barnum, who made the trip north without a ticket. “I don’t really know what to expect. I’m guessing he’ll probably be pretty radical,” he said.
As many students chatted in their seats as the scheduled start time of 7 p.m. approached and passed, the large middle section of seats remained empty and cordoned off. By 7:30 p.m., with the late arrival of Rev. Wright and the attendees of a reception held across the street, the empty seats filled up with people considerably better-dressed than those already seated.
One of the arrivals was William Ayers, the former Weather Underground radical, whose ties to Sen. Obama also made headlines during the presidential campaign.
A large number of Wright’s former parishioners were there, as evidenced by the loud roar following a mention of “Trinity United Church of Christ.”
Though many students left after Wright’s speech ended, some who stuck around for the question and answer session found the reverend enlightening.
“He’s hilarious,” Fatima Zaheer said. The Weinberg senior said Wright’s message about teaching youth resonated with her, and also said that the FMO students’ speeches “really hit home.”
Zaheer belongs to the Muslim cultural Students Association, and said she hopes to be able to use the event to better “interact” with the university, although she wasn’t yet sure how.
The event as a whole was an important moment in the history of the university, Associate Professor of Political Science Revel Rogers said. “To have black students convene” and speak “truth to power in those speeches” will prove important as the university figures out how to deal with enrollment issues.
Rogers also believed the speech gave attendees a different perspective on Wright. “It certainly humanizes a man beyond the sound bites.”