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Dreams from Obama

There is a generational divide in black America between those who remember Jim Crow and those who do not. Older blacks maybe sometimes react to Obama from an acute awareness of what had not been possible for them. The last time black people were urged to get on the bandwagon for a black man, we got Clarence Thomas, Bush Sr.’s insult to the memory of Thurgood Marshall. They will mention that the racist ad that maybe helped to defeat Harold Ford for the Senate in Tennessee was recent history. One elderly black newspaper vendor pointed to a photograph of the tearful but dignified track star Marion Jones, punished for lying about having taken steroids, and said that this was America and America would remind Obama where he was. Recent Urban League studies show that for the majority of black people, income and housing relative to the total population are not much better than they were in 1960—an unemployment rate among black youth at 17 percent, a 50 percent dropout rate, and births to single mothers at 79 percent.

While Obama acknowledges that the battles of the Sixties have not been resolved, he repudiates partisanship, the taking up of old ideological battles. President Clinton may have fought the right wing to a draw, Obama contends, but the right emerged yet more powerful and in Bush Jr.’s first term it took over the US government:

In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.

The youth rhetoric of Obama’s campaign is unsettling to an older generation that once used the same sort of rhetoric and are now on the receiving end of it. One of its effects has been to turn Senator Clinton into the incumbent, rather than the woman candidate. After all, her campaign is also historic. But then, as one recent Skidmore College graduate said, she thought of Hillary as a Clinton first and a woman second.

The day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the Obama campaign opened a Harlem headquarters in a smart storefront at 130th and Lenox Avenue, between the Malcolm Food Market and the It’s A Wrap Hair Salon, a young black volunteer was saying that he thought it was very healthy for black people to have differences and not to be perceived as having a monolithic vote. This was before the debate in Charleston and the week that backfired on the Clintons, as though they could not bear to be sassed, the week that consolidated the black vote in South Carolina for Obama. New York State Senator Bill Perkins led some thirty campaign workers with shiny signs and posters from the storefront down Lenox Avenue, to the call and response of “Fired Up,” “Ready to Go,” and the chant of “Obama/08/Be a part of something great!” Shopkeepers and pedestrians applauded here and there.

The French and German television crews trailing the Obama volunteers caught their encounter on the corner of 125th Street with a half-dozen Clinton volunteers. The two sides brandished their blue signs in the cold and traded jibes good-naturedly. A man in a Hillary T-shirt yelled that so many Republicans were for Obama because they were sure they could beat him, but they weren’t so sure they could beat her. Obama would be president one day, but not this year. A woman answered that the title of the First Black President was like the Miss America crown: the judges could take it back.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama goes on record, again, on a range of issues, from his qualified support of abortion to his opposition to the war in Iraq. At the same time, he wants to demonstrate that just because he is a black legislator it doesn’t follow that his votes in the Senate can be predicted.* He favors looking into merit pay for teachers, though the teachers’ union is against the idea, and he says that he has called for higher fuel-efficiency standards in cars, though the UAW opposes them. He stresses his admiration for Lincoln the pragmatist as well as Lincoln the man of convictions: “I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally.” In writing about his understanding of our political history, it is as though the Constitution’s system of checks and balances reflects his dual heritage, his desire to reconcile in his person and in his policies the polarized nation.

While Obama holds that goals for minority hiring may sometimes be the most meaningful remedy available when there is strong evidence of discrimination in a corporation, trade union, or government office, he also lends his voice to the argument that black people must take collective and individual responsibility for their welfare, an echo of the criticisms made by black conservatives, such as Shelby Steele in The Content of Our Character (1990), in the bitter days of the culture wars. Obama observes:

A cottage industry grew within conservative think tanks, arguing not only that cultural pathologies—rather than racism or structural inequalities built into our economy—were responsible for black poverty but also that government programs like welfare, coupled with liberal judges who coddled criminals, actually made these pathologies worse.

Yet Obama faults liberal policymakers and civil rights leaders of the Seventies and Eighties for not addressing “entrenched behavioral patterns among the black poor” that he believes contribute to the poverty that passes from generation to generation, and he is certain that on social issues most black people are “far more conservative than black politics would care to admit.” However, it is at this point that Obama draws back from the black conservative critique. While he is not surprised that conservatives won over white opinion by emphasizing the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, he argues that black Americans cannot make such a distinction; they cannot separate themselves from the poor, and this is not just because “the color of our skin” makes all of us only as free as the least of us, but also because “blacks know the back story to the inner city’s dysfunction.” He means that he cannot separate from the black poor. He is his mother’s son.

Dreams from My Father was one of several memoirs at the time in which a new generation reported back from the front lines of integration. Obama’s book, along with Kinship (1999), another intense memoir about a youth coming to terms with his American and African heritage, by Philippe Wamba, the son of a Congolese rebel, and Soul to Soul: A Black Russian American Family, 1865–1992 (1992), by Yelena Khanga, offered new insights into the complexity of black identity. Because they were looking at race from an international perspective, they seemed less provincial than the black conservatives telling their stories about the difficulties they faced adjusting to life at elite schools in the 1970s and 1980s because of the added pressure they felt from other black students to conform to a militant style of being black.

Shelby Steele hopes to liberate Obama from his black identity in A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, a thin and unhappy meditation on what he considers Obama’s costly refusal to repudiate the Sixties and its false, politicized definition of blackness. Steele asserts that “the post-sixties black identity is essentially a totalitarian identity.” Furthermore, the emphasis black educators place on black identity has been “one of the most debilitating forces in black life since the 60s.”

Black identity for Steele is a parasitic force, a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers contagion. “This identity wants to take over a greater proportion of the self than other racial identities do.” “It” wants its collective truth; “its” idea of protest must become personal truth; “it” wants to make loyalty to this truth a reflex within the self; “it” wants you to think as a black, not as yourself. Moreover, this is a policed consciousness:

The popular movie Barbershop stirred controversy because of a scene in which one of the barbers not only criticized Jesse Jackson but also said that O.J. Simpson was guilty—two statements that clearly violate the challenger’s mask and would likely not be said in the presence of whites. There was controversy precisely because the movie was released for everyone to see. Both the movie and its release were breaches of discipline.

For Steele, Obama’s upbringing created in him an “identity vacuum,” but the transparent black identity he constructed for himself comes at the price of excluding from that black identity essential parts of himself—“family values, beliefs, ambitions, loves.” He cannot be himself, he cannot bring his own experience into his black identity. Steele refers to a scene in Dreams from My Father in which Obama relates the bad breakup with his long-term white girlfriend in New York, saying that he realized that they would always live in different worlds and that he was the one who knew how to live as an outsider. Assimilation, not blackness, is the key to success, Steele counters, and he insists that Obama knows this, because he grew up in mainstream culture, not black culture.

Obama’s white grandparents informed his identity as a black man, but maybe not as the antidote to blackness Steele imagines. They fled Kansas and ended up in Hawaii, disappointed but decent people. Maybe the myth of his father was a comfort in the way that the sound of his grandfather, trying to sell insurance from home, making humiliating phone calls Sunday nights, was not. Obama’s white girlfriend was rich, and class as much as race may have been the thing about her life that made him feel like such an outsider. What perhaps informs Obama’s desire to be inclusive as a black candidate is his feeling for the insecure white America that doesn’t recognize itself in the images of middle-class well-being.

In A Bound Man, Steele attempts to apply to the election his notions about the uses of “black victimization” and “white guilt” that he worked out in The Content of Our Character. “You must never ever concede that only black responsibility can truly lift blacks into parity with whites,” because to do so would be to give up control over white guilt. In politics, blacks wear either the mask of the challenger or that of the bargainer. The purpose of these masks is to enable blacks to gain things from the white majority by “manipulating their need for racial innocence.” Because whites are “stigmatized with past racism,” blacks have a monopoly over racial innocence and believe, as only the oppressed can, that this is their greatest power in America.

Steele argues that after Obama, a bargainer of formidable power, became president of Harvard Law Review, he was no longer at risk of being seen as a creation of affirmative action. Yet he made his “Faustian” contract with affirmative action. Even the activist black church Obama joined in Chicago is proof to Steele of Obama’s “hunger” to be defined as black in that old-fashioned way, which means that he cannot reject “the political liberalism inherent in his racial identity.” If Obama stopped talking about government programs for blacks and emphasized individual responsibility, then he would hurt himself politically.

Steele accuses Obama of presenting himself as a protester to blacks and a unifier to whites. But when he holds that Obama cannot serve the aspirations of one race without betraying those of the other, it is Steele, calling black people blackmailers, who seems out of date and most threatened by Obama’s candidacy. It is impossible to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume biography of Dr. King and not believe that he and the thousands of black people who joined him were responsible for one of the proudest episodes in modern American history. Obama and his audience know it, when his voice starts to take on somewhat King-like cadences.

In 1940, B.A. Jones taught his history class at the Atlanta University Laboratory High School a rhyme originally from the 1870s and that he said came to allude to the rumor widespread in black America that Warren G. Harding was the first black president, because he had black grandparents back in Ohio:

Ma Ma Where’s Pa?
Gone to the White House
Ha ha ha

When Julian Bond was nominated for the vice-presidency at the Democratic Convention in 1968, he drew warm applause when he said he had to decline, because the Constitution said he was still too young. Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972 as a kind of one-woman show, calling politics “a beautiful fraud” in her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed (1970). Black glossies used to fantasize about the presidential chances of Edward Brooke, Republican senator from Massachusetts.

Jesse Jackson was attacked from the black left after 1984 for having conducted a campaign largely of ritual and symbol. The Internet is Obama country, but radio is where you will hear black people of a certain age—the ones who aren’t in the mood to be less partisan, because to do so would be, they feel, to excuse the right wing for its disastrous policies. They point out that of the leading candidates, Senator Edwards, the white guy who sounds so white, is the populist; that Edwards had rocked Riverside Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day the previous year; that one of Clinton’s foreign policy advisers is Madeleine Albright, while one of Obama’s is Zbigniew Brzezinski; that in their announced policies, all three say similar things, and so it is a contest of symbols. Yet uncounted numbers in the middle class who have had to understand that America is much less like it used to be and much more like the rest of the world now fervently want a black man to be the face of the United States to the world.

It could be said that Obama’s way has been prepared not by Colin Powell, dutifully holding up the vial at the UN, but by Nelson Mandela, who emerged from his prison not bitter, calling for reconciliation. It is possible that the emerging youth vote is an anti–”War on Terror” vote, not just an anti–Iraq war vote. Mandela was also the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be. The anti-apartheid movement was one of the few things happening on campuses in the 1980s. Since then white students in their thousands have taken Black Studies classes, reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, bringing Derrida to bear in their term papers on the hip-hop artist Nas’s debut album, Illmatic, even as black student enrollment nationwide has been falling. Shelby Steele ridicules institutions obsessed with diversity, but they, like Obama, are right to be inspired by the civil rights movement. The youth vote that gave him such a margin of victory in South Carolina, and kept his campaign going on Super Tuesday, missed the Sixties. Here is their chance.

—February 7, 2008


Ma, Ma Where’s My Pa? April 3, 2008

The Appeal of Obama March 20, 2008

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