It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to Opinion.

I’m mad. Let me qualify that -- I’m black and mad.

The mad I’m talking about I inherited from generations of black people before me. I learned early in life that this mad is not curable (not yet) but that I could manage it. But sometimes I get flare-ups of anger that defy management.

I’ve been having such moments as Barack Obama has publicly rebuked remarks made by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Wright has been vilified for excerpts of sermons in which he’s said some fairly outlandish things (that “we” -- America -- started AIDS), and he has also denounced the U.S. for what he calls racist and imperialist tendencies, like imprisoning people of color and throwing away the key and uncritically supporting Israel. One repeatedly shown clip ended with a blistering alternative to the traditional speech-ending “God bless America”: “God damn America!”

That sort of language was immediately condemned as hate speech, unpatriotic and certainly unbefitting the avowed spiritual leader of a presidential candidate on the brink of a historical racial breakthrough. Wright was called dangerous, extremist, a black nationalist crank from the 1960s who had no place in the political landscape today. Even after Obama’s profound, nuanced speech Tuesday, in which he made clear his differences with Wright, he’s still being pressured to do more to concede the point.


Watching all this unfold, my blood started boiling. What I think Wright’s critics really don’t like is the fact that he is mad. Although I don’t necessarily share all of his analyses or his stridency, I recognize his rage as a general anger about the conditions of black Americans, who he says still deal constantly with racism. This is exactly what most other black people I know believe. Unlike Wright in the pulpit, most of us don’t come off nakedly angry -- we’d never survive that way, emotionally or otherwise.

But what for us is ever present nonetheless strikes white people as outrageous. Nothing makes them more skittish than realizing that there are angry black people in their midst -- and an angry black man is most alarming of all, especially one running for president.

Obama rebuked Wright, in part, because he knew their association was in mortal danger of morphing him into just another angry black man a la Nat Turner, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan (whom Obama detractors have already attempted to conflate with Obama). Whatever salient points these men made have been entirely eclipsed by the fact that they were just too mad for comfort.

Strange, when you consider that we live in a culture that thrives on vituperation institutionalized by conservative talk radio -- guys such as Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus are paid to be mad. But, of course, white anger is seen as fundamentally reasoned and righteous, and Americans have an almost limitless capacity to forgive it when it isn’t.

Imus was kicked off the airwaves for a racial insult he made against black women last May, but he was back at the mike in six months’ time; Limbaugh’s many transgressions hardly raise an eyebrow, including taunting Obama as “Barack, the magic Negro,” a parody of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” William Buckley was eulogized as a genteel genius a few weeks ago, his sanctioning of Jim Crow laws in the South in the 1950s written off as a forgettable faux pas. Buckley’s real genius was dressing up white anger in the guise of intellect.

Black anger is never seen as intellectual in nature, merely primal, and black public figures therefore have no such latitude (unless, of course, they’re in the conservative camp already, in which case they can rail to their heart’s content).


There are exceptions. Martin Luther King Jr. is lauded now as a paragon of peace and disciplined black leadership, but it’s useful to remember that he was mad most of the time. The famous let-freedom-ring tremulousness in his preaching voice reflected not simply emotion or patriotic fervor but frustration. It’s also useful to remember that toward the end of King’s life, his unrelenting social analysis was not met with much enthusiasm; even his supporters called him radical and out of touch. But that hardly deterred him.

Obama addressed black anger head-on Tuesday: He said it was not always productive. But the anger is real, he continued. “It cannot be wished away.”

It’s that kind of risky honesty that Obama has skillfully channeled into a broader movement of discontent and hope in 2008. If we can keep our racial neuroses in check, it is that kind of honesty that just might transform us all.