Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama, Washington and Dubois

In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama's election, a number of commentators expressed an impatience with the emotional reactions to his victory. America didn't vote for its first black president, this argument went, but for a gifted politician who was the better choice among the two candidates running. To focus on the former accomplishment was in some way to denigrate the latter one. I happen to think that people did, in fact, vote based on the political aspects of Barack Obama's campaign. It's just that they celebrated the historic aspect of his victory, and understandably so.

But as much as Obama's victory was a collective victory -- for American blacks and their historic struggle first for liberty, then justice, then equality and ultimately dignity, as well as for the generations of progressives who fought alongside them over the years and generations -- it was also an individual victory. As always when the color line has first been broken, it took a gifted personality, because a black person must still outperform their white counterpart just to reach the starting line. It's easy to forget that the flawless campaign that Obama waged was not only the reason for his victory, but a prerequisite for his candidacy in a way that could never apply to a white candidate.

I'd meant to write yesterday, too, that Obama's victory will have an enormous impact on the formation of black Americans' identity, and sure enough, I waited a day and Jesse Washington at the AP beat me to it. What Washington touches on obliquely, but ultimately leaves unexplored, is the way in which Obama's victory represents the resolution of the historic conflict within the black community about how best to address the injustices and unfulfilled promises of American society. It's a conflict that goes back to the schism between the self-reliance, "up by the bootstraps" school of Booker T. Washington and the integration model advocated by W.E.B. Dubois.

Washington's model of black self-reliance would take on numerous forms during the 20th century, from Marcus Garvey's call for actual repatriation to the African continent, to the militant advocacy by the Black Muslims and subsequently the Black Panthers for a separatist cultural identity. The true significance of Jeremiah Wright, which was not examined during the campaign for obvious reasons, is that he represents the separatist current of black American cultural identity grafted onto the globalized awareness of Malcolm X in his post-Hajj, anti-colonial incarnation.

On the other hand is Dubois' integrationist model of the NAACP, one that gathers steam with the opposition to "separate but equal" and the landmark victory of Brown vs. Board of Ed., before growing into the broad coalition of the early civil rights movement and the inspirational model of Dr. King, the Freedom Riders and SNCC.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts a favorite taunt that he would pull out during his campus speeches, when black professors in the audience used their personal success to challenge his advocacy for separatism."White people have a word for a black professor," he'd say, pausing to let the suspense build: "It's 'Nigger.'" (The back end of his taunt, that "We know what you say about us when we're not around, because we've got black folks who pass," would be portrayed to comic brilliance by Eddie Murphy in his classic Saturday Night Live skit two decades later.)

This refrain -- that no matter how many doors blacks break down, the innermost sanctum of the American mansion will forever remain offlimits -- became the ultimate replique pulled out against the inheritors of Dubois who argued that only by integrating American society would blacks achieve social and economic justice. And it is precisely this refrain that Barack Obama's victory has finally, at long last, put to rest. It is no coincidence that Obama entered the campaign with the Dubois-like David Axelrod perched on one shoulder and the Washington-esque Wright on the other, and that he emerges from it victorious alongside the former and disabused of the latter.

Since the violent disillusionment of the late-1960s and the anti-climax of the 1970s, the two currents vying for black America's identity have coexisted in grudging mutual acceptance. Integration has achieved a momentum that can no longer be either denied or stopped. At the same time, the rollback of some of the policies that led to its advance and the stubborn persistence of racism in America have reinforced the ongoing need for a double identity that oppressed minorities throughout history have used as their own inner sanctum of succor and support.

And despite the initial triumphalism of the AP's article, I imagine that it won't be easy for American blacks in general to give up that inner sanctum. (Based on the little I've read about the Obamas and how they arrived at Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United congregation, I have a hunch that the next four years are going to be harder on Michelle than on Barack.) Nor, for that matter, is it necessarily apparent that the time to do so has come. The impact Obama's victory has on the future evolution of black American identity will ultimately be determined by whether it actually results in advancing social and economic justice for American blacks -- a project that remains inconsistent and incomplete.

The reality of a post-racial America has not yet arrived. But Barack Obama's victory suggests that it just might, and that's something we can all be proud of. So while a lot of work remains to be accomplished, it's only right to celebrate this enormous success along the way. 

Posted by Judah in:  Race In America   

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