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James Baldwin & Barack Obama

It seemed important, as both men set about making their marks on the world, for them to establish before anything else that their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father’s shadow or a father’s permission. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, published in 1951, begins: “On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died.” Baldwin was almost nineteen at the time. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, begins also with the death of his father: “A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.”

Both men quickly then established their own actual distance from their fathers, which made their grief sharper and more lonely, but also made clear to the reader that they had a right to speak with authority, to offer this version of themselves partly because they themselves, through force of will and a steely sense of character, had invented the voice they were now using, had not been trained by any other man to be the figure they had become.1 “I had not known my father very well,” Baldwin wrote.

We got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had.

Of his father, Barack Obama wrote:

At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told.

Both men then, using photographs and memories, commented on their fathers’ blackness. In both cases it seemed important to state or suggest that the father was more black than the son. Baldwin wrote that there was something buried in his father which had lent him

his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty.

When Obama was a child, he wrote, “my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk.”

In both cases too, the writers sought to make clear that their fathers’ pasts were not their own pasts, but the past as a different country, a country they did not share. “He was of the first generation of free men,” Baldwin wrote.

He, along with thousands of other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had never seen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes call the Old Country.

Obama’s father was from a place even more distant: “He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a place called Alego.”

Although Obama mentions in passing in Dreams from My Father that he had read Baldwin when he was a young community activist in Chicago, there is no hint in the book that he modeled his own story in any way on Baldwin’s work. In both of their versions of who they became in America and how, there are considerable similarities and shared key moments not because Obama was using Baldwin as a template or an example, but because the same hurdles and similar circumstances and the same moments of truth actually occurred almost naturally for both of them.

Baldwin and Obama, although in different ways, experienced the church and intense religious feeling as key elements in their lives. They both traveled and discovered while abroad, almost as a shock, an essential American identity for themselves while in the company of non-Americans who were black. They both came to see, in a time of bitter political division, some shared values with the other side. They both used eloquence with an exquisite, religious fervor.

As Northerners, they both were shocked by the South. They both had to face up to the anger, the rage, which lay within them, and everyone like them, as a way of taking the poison out of themselves. It is almost as though, in their search for power—Baldwin becoming the finest American prose stylist of his generation, Obama the first black nominee for president of the United States—they would both have to gain wisdom, both bitter and sweet, at the same fount, since no other fount was available. Their story is in some ways the same story because it could hardly have been otherwise.

In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote about rage:

There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.

In his speech on race in March 2008, Barack Obama, in tones more measured, more patient, but no less urgent, dealt with the same issues as they were experienced more than fifty years after Baldwin’s essay appeared:

That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations—those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

In his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, Baldwin wrote with remarkable intensity about the power of prayer and preaching for an otherwise powerless community, the sense of time spent in church as a time filled with soaring possibilities in contrast to the bitter world outside. It was as though that very bitterness offered the congregation a unique insight into the suffering of Christ and made the congregation for that time of prayer and preaching a chosen people whose spiritual exaltation, in all its fiery rhetoric and colorful abandon, could never be experienced by white people.

Baldwin matched his novel with an essay, “Down at the Cross,” published in 1962, where he wrote about his own conversion as an adolescent filled with doubts and fears and ambitions and a sharp sense of exclusion:

One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me.

Baldwin made it clear that the black experience in America could not be described using merely political terms; it could not be dealt with as a set of demands that could simply be satisfied by legislation. Because black suffering had been transformed so secretly and so completely by black religious leaders into spiritual suffering, what happened in black churches would have to be fully understood, dramatized, and explained before any solution would be possible. His first novel and his essay “Down at the Cross” sought to let white America into the secret that was Sunday for the black community:

The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I really never have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord…. Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they say, “the Word”—when the church and I were one.

Out of oppression then came a freedom that only the church could offer and that gave the church a special, defining power for black communities, which was both beyond politics and deeply political, a power the Catholic Church in Poland and Ireland would also have. “Perhaps we were, all of us,” Baldwin wrote,

bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama described finding religion in Chicago, hearing about the history of the black church in America, the

history of slave religion,…Africans who, newly landed on hostile shores, had sat circled around a fire mixing newfound myths with ancient rhythms, their songs becoming a vessel for those most radical of ideas—survival, and freedom, and hope.

He described attending a sermon given by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago:

People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me…. The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.

The sermons heard in those churches preached not only about eternal life and the ethereal life of the soul, but about the sufferings of the soul on this earth, in this America, and the emotions to which this suffering gave rise, including despair and anger. In March 2008 Obama would try to explain that anger as one of the many essential parts of the religious services that black people had been attending all of their lives, the services that Baldwin had dramatized and described, and that the white majority had been excluded from. “The fact,” Obama said,

that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

  1. 1

    John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers (Random House, 1999), on the other hand, sets out on page one to establish levels of continuity between generations of men in his family: “My grandfather loved his children. And my father admired his grandfather above all others.”

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