Words Do Matter – Obama, Du Bois, and Wright

“Words Do Matter”  Winter ’09

If Barack Obama is reminiscent of anyone it is the Fred Astaire you see conversing delightedly with a partner, hands punctuating his sentences, just before the band strikes up.  And it was with that same casual, particularly American, grace that Obama ambled lithely upstage to address the roaring crowd gathered in Chicago at Grant Park on the night of November 4th.   He had just become the 44th and first black President of the United States. He approached the podium to address the country and the world, to enter history.

“Hello, Chicago.”  A smile brief enough to avoid self-celebration.  A solemn pause. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

Obama the speech-maker inspired emotion and hope, inviting some to view him as the heir of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., others to herald him as a Camelotian regent for the post-civil-rights generation.  “Jesus was a community organizer” went his supporters’ riposte to Sara Palin.  Pope-like, he drew throngs to hear him speak.

But as his campaign progressed he sensed that the hype might hurt him.  So he nailed down his wind-blown rhetorical sail with a dad’s basement tools.  His convention speech was criticized for being conventional.  Political bloodlusters accused him of pulling punches during the debates.  In his address on race Obama largely evaded talk of Promised Lands; instead he dissected disparate American racial perspectives with lawyerly precision, showing how those dissonances might be richly harmonized.  He empathized with black anger at deferred dreams and white fear of the unfocused rage of some black youth.   He was the first black politician to do this, killing identity politics (through which interest groups assert their essential separateness) in America for the foreseeable future: the Reverend Wright-addled black candidate showed he could be an Omni-American President. “How about that?” he emailed a friend after his victory with Midwestern reserve.  On approach to his win Obama glided steadily through political turbulence, fielding questions thoughtfully, seriously, remaining eminently reasonable, competent in shirtsleeves and blackberry-belted dockers.  His Republican opponents flamed out.  What about Obama enabled him to navigate the minefields of race?

“Dreams from My Father,” Obama’s memoir, published when he was just 33 years old, provides some clues.  It shows he is as much a son of American pragmatism as he is of the of the modern struggle for black self-discovery and survival that W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright made their subject in “The Souls of Black Folk” and “Black Boy.” Obama places himself and his memoir lightly but confidently in their company and therefore in their tradition.  Arriving on Chicago’s blighted South Side (a bona fide member of Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” if ever there was one) to begin work as a community organizer he imagines a lost world where “Duke or Ella emerge from a gig,” where he sees “Richard Wright, delivering mail before his first book sold.”  Later, he holds up his Kenyan father as an ideal:

“It was into my father’s image, the black man, the son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes that I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.”

His writing shows he’s worthy of their tradition.  Take for instance this passage on miscegenation:

“The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos…”

Du Bois, Wright and Obama all wrote of black Americans caught between two worlds.  One of Du Bois’s answers to the “problem of the color line,” as he put it, was to offer a foundational myth of blackness, linked to Africa, from which blacks would draw emotional strength.  Wright subsequently explored the power relationships between white and black in America, measured their psychological effects, and wrote of his struggle to build his own consciousness beyond the boundaries set by American racism.  Obama’s emerging sense of his own blackness, as described in “Dreams,” is both a peculiar and pragmatic mixture of the two, updated for our time, one that both flirts with racial myths yet embraces the complexities that cast doubt upon those myths, all when necessary to the moment, all in the formation of a self whose blackness signals something genuinely new in American life.   Neither “post-racial” nor evidence of an “Uncle Tom’s” passivity (as Ralph Nader so delicately put it), it is a blackness that is self-assured, non-oppositional and thus not immediately recognizable to our American eyes.  (Maybe this is why so many late-night comedians’ best attempts to envision Obama as a stereotypical black man in the White House fall so flat.)  His is the blackness of a Stealth plane, invisible to conventional instruments because its surface grain deflects rather than returns the locating radar’s gaze.  Has Obama has freed blackness from the defining frame of history?

In “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), the Northern, privileged Du Bois could look on his Southern poor black subjects with some detachment (so much the easier to concoct a unifying theory for those who appear as a blighted mass rather than as individuals).  He imagined such a thing as blackness, based, in part, on the Hegelian notion that identity could be defined in opposition to another (what is whiteness if not that too?).  Oppressed peoples of color across time and geography shared something essential that could be traced to their African origins.

Du Bois’s idea stood upon twin pillars.  The first was that to be black was to possess a peculiar double-consciousness, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels this two-ness, an American, a Negro.” (It is worth asking, though, why Du Bois, writing at a time when the idea of the fractured, modernist self was being born, didn’t also ask just who, actually, might feel a perfect “one-ness” to begin with.)

Secondly, inspired by the German Romantic philosophers he read while studying under Max Weber at the University of Heidelberg, who believed one’s essence derived from ancestral soil, Du Bois imagined a mythic Africa that could nourish the fractured black American psyche. “The shadow of a mighty Negro past,” he wrote, “flits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx.” Du Bois avoided the facts that American blacks could trace their heritage to Western rather than Eastern Africa, and that the notion of a monolithic Africa  – in which a continent of warring tribes could be conceived of as a single black polis – was an essentially European one; his formulation was a survival tool meant to anchor a deracinated people in post-Reconstruction America.  It was what Thomas Mann describes in the prelude to his novel,“Joseph and His Brothers” as a provisional origin in which a “given community . . . may find reassurance…and, personally and historically speaking, come to rest there.”  It was a utilitarian racial myth.  The concept of race, indeed, is a utilitarian myth.

In “Black Boy” (1945), Richard Wright, showed – many have argued over-emphasized – how blacks internalized the psychological cleft that Du Bois had posited and reported on forty years earlier.  The novelist James Baldwin wrote that, in the book, Wright was “shouting curses.”  (In that sense, “Black Boy” has much in common with Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” in the authors’ use of the rant, or curse, as a literary device – primal screams that clear away psychic ancestral cobwebs and bring catharsis.) In the story, written with the arc of a traditional slave narrative – a tale that bends northward toward freedom and self-discovery – the fatherless Wright lives in a world fraught with peril.  He is caught both between an antagonistic white world and his family’s fear that his precociousness might upset the finely calibrated machinery of Southern racial relations and imperil him.

Wright shows how the pressures of white racism can be internalized and then reenacted within the black community.  Threatened with beating, he beats others.  Left alone by his ailing mother, bored and angry, the young Wright lights a match and burns down his house, nearly killing himself and his siblings.  He lynches a kitten to spite his hateful, and soon-to-be absent, father, a man ground down by the world.  Among his classmates he must continually fight to survive.  He drives his grandmother into a fit of hysteria after making a lewd remark.  Deep down it is not the insult but Wright’s incorrigible nature that enrages her because she knows that it will bring grave danger in a wider world that demands deference from blacks.

But all is not closed to Wright.  “Each event spoke with cryptic tongue,” he writes. “And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings.” Like a flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk, Wright’s story is a tale of unlikely development, the story of a boy’s growing consciousness. Like Obama’s story, Wright’s is a bildungsroman in which “words do matter” (as Obama responded during one debate to Hillary Clinton’s criticism of his windy rhetoric) and epiphanies occur – I will return to them later – in, and in relation to, libraries and language.

Wright’s book explores the paralyzing force of ideology, the distortion of what’s real by ideas, from American racism to what he considers the suffocating effects of his family’s religiosity.  But, importantly, at every turn, he, like Obama (and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”) resolves to retreat and later reemerge in order assume the responsibility he shares with Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, of creating “the features of his own face.”

“My faith, such as it was, was welded to the common realities of life, anchored in the sensations of my body and in what my mind could grasp, and nothing could ever shake this faith, and surely not my fear of an invisible power.”

The great power of Wright’s writing comes from the dramatic friction between oppressive social structures and the individual’s struggle to subsist and even grow.  “Invisible power” alludes not just to the myths of religion or American racism, but to the myth of race itself, for, while black, Wright’s protagonist is as alienated from his family and community as he is from the wider world.  Blackness is not enough.  He embraces a calculus beyond ideology, beyond modern mythology.

If “Black Boy” is a vertical journey toward a freer, more complicated individuality, Obama’s story is one that stretches laterally across the globe, from Indonesia to Chicago, New York to Kenya, one in which he must confront racial and familial myths in his search for personal integration.

Obama, whose mother, Anne Dunham, was a white Kansan, grew up both black in America and as an American abroad in Suharto’s Indonesia (Suharto gained power in an American backed anti-Communist purge in 1965 and is said to have killed over half a million people).  Obama’s experience of power relations was, in contrast to Du Bois and Wright’s cosmology of black and white dualities, complex and multi-hued.  If blackness meant being caught between worlds, Obama’s worlds were caught between worlds; he was a Black Boy for a global age.

In Jakarta, Anne, an anthropology student, taught English while her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, a University professor blacklisted by the government as a possible Communist, was forced to work as a geologist for the Army.  In one memorable scene, Lolo, who would eventually become a successful business liaison to Western oil companies and die at 51 of a liver ailment, teaches the young Obama, who has returned home bloodied by schoolyard bullies, to box.  Obama writes, “The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable, and often cruel. My [white] grandparents knew nothing about such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them.”  As the writer David Samuels has suggested in his fine New Republic essay “How Ralph Ellison Explains Obama,” Obama identifies with his dark-skinned stepfather, whose unsentimental view of power was forged beyond the mechanisms of black oppression, over his white mother and grandparents, whom he repeatedly characterizes as naïve.  For example, it was in Indonesia that Obama was first exposed to the notion of blackness, one refracted through the prism of his mother’s white liberalism.

“She was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism…To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.”

But it was also his mother who awakened Obama every morning at four to teach him English, a regimen that helped form the foundation of his eloquence, a key in his political success.

Unlike Wright, who experiences power only as the central aspect of racism, Lolo teaches Obama that power knows no color, that it needn’t be opposed reflexively as a facet of one’s liberalism, as his mother might have believed. Make friends with the powerful, or better yet, Lolo teaches, become powerful yourself.  The young Obama comes to believe this through his admiration for a charismatic, dark-skinned man, a stand-in for his absent African father.

With only an incipient sense of race, the young Obama one day ventures to the library at the American embassy, where he spends time leafing through a copy of Life Magazine, in which he sees a photograph of a black boy who had attempted to burn off his shameful skin:

“Seeing that article was violent for me, an ambush attack….that one photograph had told me something else: that there was a hidden enemy out there, one that could reach me without anyone’s knowledge, not even my own.  When I got home that night from the embassy library, I went into the bathroom and stood in from of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me.  The alternative seemed no less frightening-that the adults around me lived in the midst of madness…my vision had been permanently altered…I now faced the prospect that her account of the world and my father’s place in it, was somehow incomplete.”

A similarly powerful encounter occurs in “Black Boy” when Wright pursues his yearning for literature after first being introduced to it by a schoolteacher reading “Bluebeard and His Seven Wives.”  Wright must forge a note to borrow books from the library.   It reads:

“Dear Madam:  Will you please let this nigger boy – I used the word ‘nigger’ to make the librarian feel I could not possibly be the author of the note – have some books by H.L. Mencken?  I forged the white man’s name.”

One of the Mencken books is “Prejudices” (1919).

For Obama, the library both connects him with his American heritage and introduces him to the particular burdens of his blackness.  Wright, who unlike Du Bois and Obama emphasizes the static identity into which he is born and that he seeks to escape, must endorse racism as a means of manipulating his way out of its mental confines.  Unlike Wright, whose consciousness grows outward toward greater complexity, Obama’s starts with complexities – an understanding of power learned beyond American borders, his characterization of his mother’s guilt-fueled Negrophilia, and finally, introduction to the brutal psychological effects of racism – that he struggles to synthesize and integrate as he begins his adult life in the United States.  Wright boils over, Obama boils down.

Obama’s father met and married Anne while studying at the University of Hawaii in the early sixties.  Obama writes vividly of his Midwestern grandparents’ acceptance of this man from a far-off land and in doing so unfurls the true breadth of his American heritage, which underscores just how reductive the concept of race really is to begin with:

There was nothing in their background to predict such a response, no New England Transcendentalists or wild-eyed socialists in their family tree…theirs were the faces of American Gothic, the WASP bloodline’s poorer cousins: and in their eyes one could see truths that I would have to learn later as facts: that Kansas had entered the Union free only after a violent precursor to the Civil War, the battle in which John Brown’s sword tasted first blood; that while [a relative] had been a decorated Union soldier, his wife’s cousin was rumored to have been a second cousin of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; that although another distant ancestor had indeed been a full-blooded Cherokee, such lineage was a source of considerable shame to [Obama’s great-grandmother] who blanched whenever someone mentioned the subject and hoped to carry the secret to her grave.

With ancestry this varied and contradictory, the discerning, introspective Obama could rest upon no mythic “provisional origins” for long without encountering complicating factors.

Without the funds to attend Harvard, where he had planned to pursue his PhD, Obama’s father left the family when Obama was two, returning to Nairobi also to be blacklisted by the Kenyatta regime for his incorruptibility.  He became depressed and drank heavily before dying in the early eighties in a car accident.

Like the fatherless Wright who is repelled by pieties of religion and racism and periodically retreats to reassemble his self, Obama also travels through a range of situations as he struggles with his own identity and decides just what type of black man he will be.  He writes: ”I was different, after all, potentially suspect; I had no idea who my own self was.  Unwilling to risk exposure, I would quickly retreat to safer ground.”

Obama moved to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend high school while his mother stayed in Indonesia.  Obama meets Ray, another black boy, on the basketball court.

Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes, …I would question his judgment if not his sincerity. We were not living in Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii. We said what we pleased, ate where we pleased; we sat in front of the proverbial bus. None of our white friends, guys like Jeff or Scott from the basketball team, treated us any differently than they treated each other. …Well, that’s true, Ray would admit.

In college at Occidental, then Columbia, Obama organizes anti-Apartheid rallies, hangs out with the black power and anti-colonialist cliques, and ponders just what it means for him to be black.  Eventually, he leaves a lucrative job after college and becomes a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side.  One wonders if this is in some sense a search for a black American authenticity to counterbalance his father’s idealized African-ness.

After a difficult Chicago experience with a few modest victories – he mostly learns of the intransigence of those with vested interests – Obama finally travels to Kenya to meet his father’s family before enrolling at Harvard Law School.   Here he comes to understand the complex reality of his father’s life and person:  the pressure he found himself under as the first from his region to study abroad; his numerous wives and children; the pride that reduced his professional power and status; his drinking and eventual mental decline.  Obama meets Ruth, an ex-wife of his father’s, who after hearing that Obama met his father only once when he was ten, responds, “Well, you were lucky then.  It probably explains why you’re doing so well.”

It is during this section that Obama begins to ponder just what is missed by myth and ideological “positions,” that for example, black power couldn’t get his African stepbrother, Bernard, a job.  Real needs are not always best addressed in rhapsodies:

“My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya.  Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and keep to themselves.”

Obama also writes of the elaborate divisions and ancient animosities between tribes in Kenya. Obama’s quest for a workable self is pulled forward by the vacuum of his father’s absence, but as he proceeds his father’s memory becomes demystified and so does Africa: his notions of blackness and unity are shed for complex, hard truths. “It was as if we [his family] were all making it up as we went along.  As if…the code that would unlock our blessings had been lost long ago, buried with the ancestors beneath a silent earth.” Obama’s memoir suggests that his pragmatism, his inclination to search past comforting myths, generalities and poses to accept his multi-faceted self is what forms the basis of his, and now in large part, our national politics.

Barack Obama is not just America’s first black president, he is in some sense (his middle name is Hussein; he grew up in Indonesia; half of his family is of the Luo tribe of Kenya) also our first international one.  Are these two characteristics not linked? Obama skipped over Du Bois’s precarious color line and largely evaded the crushing machinery of American racism that Wright dissected because his life and heritage compose a web of global lineages of which race is but a mere part.  It is as if Obama had somehow parachuted in over the top of American history and its racial burdens to insert his self into our national narrative so as to pull us out of its more myopic confines.  And he has pledged to do so in the fashion of Du Bois’s mentor and one of the founders of American pragmatism, William James, to reach beyond ideological boundaries, and do, as the President-elect said in a recent television interview, “whatever works.”


Photo reproduced from artasauthority.