Friday, August 15, 2008

The prayer for Obama that went around the world

It's highly weird for something of your own to go around the world and then come back to you, on the tail of dozens of forwarded email chains. That is the experience The St. Louis American newsroom is having of an intimate photograph our staff photojournalist, Wiley Price, took in early July of Barack Obama.

Obama was in St. Louis to speak at an African Methodist Episcopal conference. As our young reporter Jessica Bassett said in the news piece that accompanied the now-famous photo, "Before addressing the convention, the Illinois senator met privately with church bishops who prayed for his safety, health and good guidance during his historical race to the White House."

That is the moment that Wiley photographed, and that thousands (perhaps, by now, millions) of people would later forward to their friends, with the subject line "RE: PHOTO U WON'T SEE ON FOX!!!!"

The image is, of course, a peaceful contrast to the controversy stirred up over Obama and his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. This does not depict a pastor being separated from the candidate by a relentless focus on some of his more edgy political positions. These are clergy embracing the candidate, laying hands on the man, praying for him and his family.

Most black folks are no stranger to the Rev. Wright type, the activist pastor. It's a valued and important cultural type. But everyone knew something was missing in the relentless coverage of Wright's politics - namely, the more homely and healing pastoral functions of the black clergy. Like, for example, praying for us! I guess that's what so many people meant when they sent this image along to their friends with the contention that it's a "PHOTO U WON'T SEE ON FOX!!!!"

It's been coming back to our newsroom for weeks now. What has me blogging about it this morning was my wife showing it to me last night, as if I had never seen it before. "Look at this picture of Obama," she said. It had been sent to her by her brother (my brother), Pafio, with whom we just spent a week in North Carolina.

Of course, I rushed to tell her and Pafio (and, now, you) that this was Wiley's picture, our picture! I wanted them (and everyone) to know this photo was taken by one of the best photojournalists in the business, who has dedicated his career to documenting the black community (his people) in his hometown, St. Louis. I wanted them to know it was taken for and printed in the best black-owned newspaper in America, The St. Louis American. I encouraged them to visit the Wiley Price MySpace page and show him some love.

I also told them that, though this was a moment on a presidential campaign that is being covered by the international mainstream media, Wiley and Wiley alone captured the image. The New York Times was there, The Washington Post was there, The Associated Press, USA Today, who knows who all else. They didn't get this shot; only Wiley got it. However, that's not because the big boys didn't want it. It's because the big boys couldn't get it.

This is where the family thing comes in. The event planners for the AME conference, a husband and wife team, are friends of our paper. They produce our big annual event. The wife of the team, Leata Price Land, loves Wiley very dearly. She is, in fact, the mother of his sons (Jaime and Chip - both talented local hip-hop artists).

Leata knew the AME bishops wouldn't want their moment of prayer with this special man besieged by a full-court press corps. She knew Wiley would be respectful of their sacred moment together. I am sure she also wanted to give Wiley and the American an exclusive. So she let Wiley, and Wiley alone, into the room.

And, now, the world - or, at least, the part of the world that gets urgent, excited emails from black folks - knows all about it.

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