Commentary: America's discourse is all bluster, no context

Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. MCT

America never was America to me.

Say that line out loud and then ponder its meaning. Share it with others to get their reaction. Find out how they might feel about anyone who would utter those words.

It is a powerful, provocative sentence. I've used it often in speeches.

People could take that line, attribute it to me and then repeat it over and over in an attempt to define me -- in six words.

But without the context, how dare they?

Yet that is what much of the important discourse in America has become: sound bites and snippets, often used to mislead, incite and even to assassinate one's character.

Rarely do we get the full context of one's statements quoted in the fast-paced 24-hour news cycle and churned repeatedly in the rabid broadcast media.

We've seen many examples of it recently and, in one case particularly, we ought to have learned our lesson about rushing to judgment based on one sentence or two.

Shirley Sherrod was forced out of her job with the Department of Agriculture for something she said at an NAACP function in March. One sound bite taken from a more than 40-minute speech made it appear that she was a racist who discriminated against a white farmer.

Before anyone took the time to examine the entire speech, she was called on her cellphone, told to pull her car off the road and send in her resignation immediately.

Of course when the media, USDA officials and the White House understood the context, they were all chagrined to learn that Sherrod's speech was one of reconciliation and a plea to move past racial prejudice.

It's happening again with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is heading the effort to build a Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan near the site of the fallen World Trade Center.

Critics who are driving the resistance against building the 15-story structure have taken a few lines from a speech and a television interview to paint the cleric as a terrorist sympathizer who blames America for 9-11.

If you heard Rauf's entire interview and listened to his speeches in full you would know that he is the moderate Muslim most Americans say they prefer to have living here.

You might still find his words provocative and perhaps offensive, but at least you would have a better idea of what he was really saying, what he really meant.

Know the context before attacking someone is all I'm suggesting.

That also goes for the incident involving Laura Schlessinger, the radio talk show host who was castigated by many for using the n-word 11 times during a conversation with a black female caller whose husband is white.

She has announced that she will not renew her contract at the end of the year.

While I've never cared for Dr. Laura's program, I did listen to her comments.

Although one could argue with her approach, the use of "that word" and the advice she gave the caller, in context there was some truth to what she said.

Now, to the statement "America never was America to me."

It is a quote from my favorite American poet, Langston Hughes, a man I cite often -- so much so that some readers become irritated at the mention of his name.

It is a recurring line in one of Hughes' longest poems (86 lines), Let America be America Again. And the year it was published (1938, during the Great Depression) adds greater understanding.

It is informative to know that the poet was not speaking as a lone voice but for many desperate and dispossessed people in the country at the time: "the poor white," "the Negro," "the red man," "the immigrant."

For further context, consider this verse:

O, let my land be a land where liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is the air we breathe.

Context makes a difference.

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