Barack Obama is nothing new. He is not the new new thing; the “first Black Kennedy” as a character in the comic strip “Doonesbury”recently dubbed him. Who is he? Where does he come from? Barack Obama is heir to the tradition of Booker T. Washington. He comes from the old
school of discipline and hard work as symbolized by Tuskegee Institute in the time of its founder, that is, before it lapsed into a university. Barack Obama, president-elect of the United States of America, means to extend Washington’s philosophy of self-reliance and self-help to the whole American enterprise. But the narrative context within which Obama speaks goes farther back than Washington, ultimately, back to Frederick Douglass. 1845; 1995. One hundred fifty years separate the bookends of, shall we say, the “Black American narrative,” in response to what Toni Morrison called the “master narrative.” The publishing dates of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Dreams from My Father, respectively, serve as useful brackets within which to define and therefore understand this man who will be our forty-fourth president—our first Black president.
Obama’s Audacity of Hope, just published in 2006, is not without interest. But it has the taint of PR, written by a junior senator eyeing the White House. It is propaganda, not necessarily great literature, for it is constrained in a way that his first book, written by a thirty-three-year-old with the world before him, “young gifted and Black,” is not. PerhapsAudacity also means to deflect the wonderful candor of Obama’s first book, unapologetically Black, thus infinitely more challenging to the white majority. They voted for the author of Audacity. Could they have voted for the author of Dreams?
Douglass’ autobiography set the paradigm for political protest, what we’ve come to know as “civil rights.” When Narrative was published, the author was a runaway slave. He calculated his political arithmetic according to a zero-sum game of white masters and Black slaves. His mission, understandably, was freedom. Within the context of antebellum slavery, “equality,” as a concept, made sense. Eighteen years later the U.S. Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment. Freedom was achieved.
A new paradigm was in order. The United States of America was still a zero-sum game, no doubt, but it had to do with the more subtle distinction between white haves and Black have-nots. Jim Crow segregation, the aftermath of slavery, required a new calculus. Enter Booker T. Washington, who rejected the moralistic connotations of “equality.” He denoted “equity.” Freedom had been achieved. Property must now be attained. Douglass’ autobiography recounts his establishment of a “Sabbath school” in order to teach his fellow slaves to read and write that they might all be free. Washington’s Up from Slavery, published in 1901, mostly recalls his establishment of Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute in 1881, designed to discipline Blacks that they might attain the “forty acres and a mule” reneged by the U.S. government. The great freedom-fighter had mightily done his thing, but we’re free now. We must be about our property. We must earn our citizenship by buying up property. Property rights, is all. Thus Washington reasoned.
John Locke, the English philosopher, had provided the formula for American politics: “life, liberty and property.” According to his political science, the essence of citizenship is property; government’s purpose is to protect property. Consider the fact that landless white men, in the USA, couldn’t vote until 1856. The civil rights movement, then known as “abolitionism,” had achieved “liberty” in 1863, which Union defeat of the Confederacy, in 1865, had enforced. Now fiscal discipline shall focus our attention on “property.” We had been owned as property. Now we must own our own property. We had been unfree. Now we must take responsibility for our freedom. Thus Washington reasoned.
Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois anachronistically missed the point. The 1903 publication of his Souls of Black Folk shifted the Black American narrative backward to the obsolete paradigm of political agitation, to wit civil rights, which had been outdated since 1863. Its third essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” speaks of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895—which had inspired the nation much like Sen. Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention—as the “Atlanta Compromise.” He meant that it was a sellout; that its author, in so many words, was an Uncle Tom.
The Black American narrative had progressed from the emotional outrage of Frederick Douglass, to the volitional discipline of Booker T. Washington. Dr. Du Bois epitomizes regression back to an outmoded style of fire-and-brimstone discourse. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton, and many recent academic disciples of Dr. Du Bois, have been and are trapped in a time-warp, fighting for a freedom achieved seven score and five years ago. Nor does Rev. Dr. King’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 rate, for it’s provisional, up for renewal every few years. But property, the substance, the very essence of citizenship, endures. That was Washington’s unassailable point, which Dr. Du Bois and others have called his sellout. The heated exhortations of Dr. Du Bois and of his disciples, the civil rights activists, have proven ridiculous in our corporate world of cold business proposal. Intelligent humankind prefers hard fact and common sense, the style of rhetoric epitomized by Up from Slavery and, most recently, by Obama’s successful pitch for the presidency.
Douglass truly was fighting for his freedom. His moral fervor was on point. We, us Blacks, can only empathize for him and appreciate his struggle when we first of all understand that we are indeed free. Any Black American who nowadays says that he is not “free,” who fails to understand that his people have been free since 1863, insults the freedom-fighting legacy of Douglass. I say again that Dr. Du Bois and his so-called “Talented Tenth” are anachronisms. The farther back 1863 recedes from our present, the more and more out of turn they speak. “Equality” is a dead letter. “Equity” names the game. Thus is Washington our archetype for manhood; Tuskegee Institute, our prototype for civilization. Up from Slavery is our narrative point of departure, with all due respect to Douglass’ autobiography. The conventional wisdom of the civil rights movement insists that the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which occasioned the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, legitimates its emphasis on “equality.” Its tortured logic insists that “separate but equal” is a contradiction; that white facilities and institutions and Black facilities and institutions can’t be separate and at the same time equal. It insists that the “whites only” water-fountain and the “Negroes only” water-fountain are inherently unequal. Its “struggle for equality” has amounted to a process of assimilation. The polite word is “integration.”
The writer does not see why a “whites only” fountain and a “Negroes only” fountain can’t be “separate but equal.” Of course the Supreme Court’s turn of phrase meant to connote segregation. It was a code for white superiority and Black inferiority. Facilities and institutions have tended to be unequal. But Booker T. Washington and his disciples have insisted upon the denotation of “separate but equal:” equity. They took the Supreme Court at its word. Their complaint, for example, was not that schools were separate, but that they were separate and inferior, with shorter terms than those of white children, nor were public school funds equitably distributed.
The zero-sum game that is American politics had morphed from slavery, which ended in 1863, into Jim Crow segregation, less blatant since the 1960s, but still ongoing. The civil rights activists thought to solve the problem by means of integration: Black society assimilating into white society in order to bring about social equality. Booker T. Washington had a better idea. In his Atlanta Exposition Address he said, “In all things purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He meant to build up Black society as a parallel civilization, with Tuskegee as its prototype. Malcolm X captured what Booker T. was up to when he distinguished “separation” from “segregation.” He said, “Segregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors; separation is done voluntarily by two equals.” He went on to describe Black control of politics, of economics, of business, and of civic organization as criteria for separation as opposed to segregation.
Of this zero-sum game named Jim Crow, the civil rights activists seem to think that it’s rigged: whites win, Blacks lose. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” they’ve concluded. A token few, that is. Booker T. Washington was more thoughtful. We can win, eventually. We can beat ’em, the white supremacists. In Up from Slavery he remarks upon slavery’s destruction of white initiative, so reliant had the whites become upon Blacks. He saw how it had eroded all sense of discipline amongst the whites of the south. White and Black were codependent. He concluded that slow, methodical, generation-by-generation uplift, of the “nation within a nation” as he called Black America, would bring about its independence. Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare is what he seems to have had in mind. Dr. Du Bois and his followers have emotionally reacted against the connotations of “separate but equal.” Thus, they have agitated. Washington and his disciples advocated for its denotation. Thus, they have built.
Obama seems fresher than perhaps he really is because he contrasts the stale-dated rhetoric of the old and tired civil rights establishment. Their reactionary thinking still doesn’t get him. President-elect Obama avoids the cheap opportunism that is ever on the make for further proof of Black victimhood. No surprise that those who have a vested interest in maintaining that stereotyped image have labeled him a “sellout,” just as Dr. Du Bois labeled Washington a hundred years ago.
Dreams from My Father is light years beyond the civil rights movement, that “closed system with few moving parts, a system […] losing heat every day, dropping into low-level stasis.” Barack Obama was speaking of Chicago under its Black mayor, Harold Washington. But his quote infers Black America, under the tutelage of its civil rights leadership, as that same “low-level stasis.” Dreams criticizes the monolithic victimhood that has stagnated Black identity, ever since the publication of Dr. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folks. Indeed, Up from Slavery is state of the art relative to the “low-level stasis” that now is, and that for a century has been, Black America under the Talented Tenth.
“Origins,” the first section of Dreams, implicitly rebukes the Du Boisian schizophrenia that The Souls of Black Folk called “twoness,” and recalled “double-consciousness.” Dr. Du Bois had gloried in his white ancestry. Despite his white Kansan mother, Obama quite singularly conceives his own Black identity. He speaks of the discomfort that highlighting his white ancestry would make him feel, as if by doing so he was somehow ingratiating himself with white folks. He acknowledges and loves his white family. Nevertheless, it is clear, anyway to this reader, where his allegiance lies and wherein he found his integrity. Obama also criticizes the Black person who would escape into individualism as an “individual” who just “happens to be Black.” His attitude, not so angry to be sure, resonates with Franz Fanon’s, who bluntly called such a person an “affranchised slave,” by which he meant “slave who is individually free.” In the third and final section of Dreams, “Kenya,” we see Obama finding himself as a Black man rooted in African soil, essentially African. It resonates with Alex Haley’s reconciliation with his own African roots. The native son proves the son of his Kenyan father, even Harvard a mere following in his father’s footsteps.
That said, it is the second section of Dreams—“Chicago,” pages 131-295 of my 2004 edition—that secures Barack Obama’s place as heir apparent to the tradition of Booker T. Washington. It does so if we read its narrative, of his career as a community organizer, as a pretext, both to his legislative career as a senator of Illinois, and, by extension, to his anticipated executive career as the president of the United States of America.
“In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer,” he says in the section’s very first sentence. He elaborates: “That’s what I’ll do, I’ll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change.” These are the twenty-three most important words of Obama’s published works, for they epitomize his fundamental insight: that the grass roots are the political center of gravity; that change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. Washington had a solid power base in the Black community precisely because he had anticipated Obama’s insight. But the Du Boisian architecture is top-down. He based his trickle-down politics on the educated professional class, what he called the “Talented Tenth.” Obama, from the first sentence, entrenched himself in the Washington tradition of grass roots uplift. Obama’s Chicago c. 1983 synchronizes with Washington’s Tuskegee c. 1881.
Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute established the paradigm for Black self-reliance in concrete terms. Twenty years later, Up from Slavery narrates that paradigm-shift, from Douglass’ struggle for freedom and equality, to Washington’s own struggle for economic existence. It tells the story of his conquest of twenty-three hundred acres of land, on which stood sixty-six buildings, all but four of which had been erected by student labor. It tells the story of his acquisition of an estate valued at $700,000, with an endowment of $1,000,000, thus totaling $1.7 million in property value—in 1901 dollars. It tells the story of how Mr. Washington assumed responsibility for an institutional economy of scale. Up from Slavery denotes equity as the purpose of Black Power.
Black Power comes down to a very simple hypothesis: If Black folks help themselves, to “life, liberty and property,” then Black folks will be self-reliant. Its formula: Self-help leads to self-reliance, which ultimately leads to Black Power. Its synonym: “equity.”
The civil rights paradigm has a totally different hypothesis: If Black folks esteem themselves, then Black folks will be somebody. One thinks immediately of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “I AM SOMEBODY!” chants. But Rev. Dr. King originated the strangely redundant concept of “somebodiness.” Somebodiness is tautological. Isn’t every newborn baby somebody? One doesn’t have to do anything to be somebody. One has simply to exist. Every thing is something; every body is somebody. But “self-reliance” is contingent. One has to own property. Somebodiness infantilizes the Black man, for it equates him with an infant. One can infer “I AM SOMEBODY!” from every baby’s cry. Self-reliance, on the other hand, enfranchises the Black man. It encourages him to be a property-owning citizen. It is easy to see here, in the civil rights paradigm, the “low-level stasis” that Obama described, not only because it’s stale-dated “1863,” but also because it’s an infantilizing tautology.
We must unlearn this nonsense that we have learned. Negative logic must reorient us, by way of preparation, for the logic of Black Power. Enter Barack Obama, who negates somebodiness as effectively as Washington had affirmed self-reliance. As a narrative, Black Power asserts. Obama negates. He is a Black Socrates denying the sophistries of the Talented Tenth. Up from Slavery constructs a philosophy of self-help. Dreams deconstructs the cult of self-esteem.
His community organizing colleague, Ruby, triggers his inquiry concerning self-esteem. He had meant to give her a present for her son, Kyle, but noticed her blue contacts. He couldn’t check his questioning impulse. No Socratic irony, just genuine, sincere, unrestrained curiosity. He asked her why. Her awkward, embarrassed response is devastating: “‘It’s just for fun,’ she said, looking down. ‘Something different, you know.’”
With her “bluest eye” as his point of departure, Obama goes on to explore this idea of “self-esteem” as a cure for what another Black woman friend of his, referring to Ruby’s blue contacts, called self-hate. His meditations are of interest, but he concludes, sensibly, that they amount to an “infinite regress.” For self-esteem is too nebulous a concept, impossible to pin down. Its “infinite regress” parallels Harold Washington’s “low-level stasis.” Vicious circles, both. Obama’s solutions to this problem of self-esteem show his common sense. “Give that black man some tangible skills and a job. Teach that black child reading and arithmetic in a safe, well-funded school. With the basics taken care of, each of us could search for our own sense of self-worth.” But in his inimitable way, characteristically Socratic, he leaves us with a profound question: “Could Ruby love herself without hating blue eyes?”
Later, he follows up that question by inquiring into the apparent correlation between pro-Black politics and anti-white sentiment. He acknowledges the clarity it brings to some of his more militant brothers. How the pro-Black/anti-white psychology seems perfect for calculating within the zero-sum game that is now de facto Jim Crow America, has been since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Obama acknowledges the utility of Black politics as an “unambiguous morality tale” of the evil white man and the Black chosen people. But, utilitarian as it is, he sees blank anti-white sentiment as immoral, for it fudges the distinctions that define morality; the “morality of subtle distinctions” his mother had taught him. To personalize white people as “white devils” is dehumanizing, not only to them, but to the dehumanizer himself. White people are not bogeymen, but our potential brothers and sisters.
Obama’s deconstruction of anti-white “black nationalism” proves just as devastating as his deconstruction of Black bourgeois civil rights. The common problem they share is that they are too psychological. If the civil rights movement is a “low-level stasis,” and if the cult of Black self-esteem is an “infinite regress,” then Black nationalism, without a pivot such as Harold Washington, has invariably “dissipated into an attitude rather than any concrete program, a collection of grievances and not an organized force, images and sounds that crowded the airwaves and conversation but without any corporeal existence.” Tragically, the career of Washington bears his insight out. As president-elect of the United States, Obama means to teach us the wisdom of bureaucratic leadership, as opposed to charismatic leadership, the wisdom he learned as a community organizer in Harold Washington’s Chicago. He means to teach Black militants that pro-Black doesn’t mean anti-white; that from the grass roots, pro-Black extends to pro-everybody.
If the dirty Black boy, surrounded by weeds and filth, studying a French grammar is Up from Slavery’s signature image, then the toothbrush is its primordial symbol. Washington taught the gospel of the toothbrush. To him the toothbrush signified that cleanliness isn’t next to godliness so much as it defines civilization. Up from Slavery recounts three roommates Washington upbraided for sharing a single toothbrush. Every Black man and woman with his own toothbrush! Washington had fought for the toothbrush; Obama fought against asbestos. Obama led a campaign for asbestos removal. Every Black man and woman without asbestos! Washington posited the toothbrush; Obama negated asbestos. The synchronicity of Obama’s Chicago c. 1983, with Washington’s Tuskegee c. 1881, here comes into focus. Washington and Obama saw that Black Power has first of all to do with sanitation. That it has most of all to do with practical reality and measurable progress, indeed, with property value.
Obama’s campaign for asbestos removal was his most important work as a community organizer, but the commandment from his church’s “Black Value System” called “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,” most neatly summarizes his philosophy. It is what Obama would have us learn, once we have unlearned the sophistries of the Talented Tenth, as well as the oversimplifications of anti-white Black nationalism. It is a worthy conclusion to this review of Dreams. The commandment distinguishes “middleincomeness,” which all should pursue, and the “psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!” A better way of expressing the difference between Washington’s disciples and Dr. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth I’ve not heard.
Obama’s presidential career has less to fear from an alienated white voting bloc, more to fear from the Talented Tenth. They, more than anyone, envy Washington and the self-reliance he stands for. His legacy embarrasses them, for it exposes their parasitic exploitation of white guilt. Likewise, the shining excellence of Sen. Obama shows up the Black bourgeois establishment as so many political buffoons and academic minstrels. Booker T. Washington is the standard-bearer of Black American manhood, has been since the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. By that measure Obama now wears the mantle.
Victor Frankl, Viennese psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, once suggested that we build a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast to supplement the Statue of Liberty on the east coast. He didn’t realize the redundancy of his request, for it already exists. It’s down south in Tuskegee, Alabama. The bronze statue of Booker T. Washington has complemented Lady Liberty since its erection in 1922, for all of America. Yet it is, more specifically, the Rorschach test for every Black American. He either sees it as the Statue of Responsibility of which Frankl speaks, that is, he either takes at face value its inscription: “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.” Or he sees it as the deserved butt of Ralph Ellison’s iconoclastic wisecrack, from his novel Invisible Man, that Washington is lowering the veil, not raising it.
Thanks to Barack Obama, the joke is now on Ellison. For the president-elect is revealing, by sheer force of example, the Talented Tenth to be pseudo-intellectual Keystone Cops, not only to us Black folks, but to white folks and to everybody else in the world. His supreme competence is exposing their “middleclassness,” what sociologist E. Franklin Frazier lampooned in Black Bourgeoisie. Lady Liberty symbolizes freedom. With Obama leading the way to a new America, Booker T. Washington’s monument is the symbol of American, not simply Black, “middleincomeness.” It is the Statue of Responsibility so sorely needed to counterbalance the claims of liberty.
Washington, as principal of Tuskegee, pointed the American way to progress. Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago taught him the populist wisdom that all of America so desperately needs. What he learned as a grass roots organizer of Chicago’s Black working class easily extends to the American working class, and middle class, whom he would lead to “middleincomeness.” “I’ll organize Americans. At the grass roots. For change.” That’s what I hear the president-elect saying. President-elect Obama means to bring all Americans together, “one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He means to take us beyond zero-sum Jim Crow. He means to take us beyond zero-sum upper class and upper-middle class oppression of the working class and impoverished. He means to organize a fair game of “middleincomeness” where everybody wins who help themselves. Washington pointed, and Obama is now pointing, the way to progress for all Americans. From a Black point of view.