At around the age of 7, Barack Obama saw a picture in Life magazine of a black man who had tried to peel his skin off, and Obama had an epiphany. “I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation,” he wrote in Dreams From My Father. “I know that seeing that article was violent for me, an ambush attack.”
At around the same time, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was involved in a quite different ambush attack. At Martin Luther King’s side when he was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet, Jackson appeared on television the next day with the civil rights leader’s blood on his shirt. The formative events that shaped the last generation of black leadership could not be more different from those that have informed this one.
Obama was born in 1961, the year the Freedom Riders rolled through the South and were met with chains, clubs and firebombs. He was just 2 when Dr. King made his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. By his seventh birthday, both King and Malcolm X had been assassinated, and Congress had moved to protect a right to vote he wouldn’t be able to exercise for another eleven years. Obama knows those years and places only from the history books, and even that knowledge is less than reliable. When he went to Selma, Alabama, to address the Brown Chapel AME church on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday earlier this year, he credited the demonstration for enabling his parents, a mixed-race couple, to fall in love. It turned out he had been born four years earlier.
Obama is the most prominent figure in what has been cast as a new generation in black politics. It’s an illustrious list that includes, to name a few, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former Tennessee Congressman and Democratic Leadership Council chair Harold Ford Jr., Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty. As the civil rights movement forced open the doors of academe, corporate America and elite universities, this new generation strode through. Booker is a graduate of Yale Law School and a Rhodes scholar; Obama went to Columbia and Harvard law; Patrick and Brown were at Harvard. Ford was at the University of Pennsylvania.
The emergence of this cohort has filled the commentariat with joy–not just because of what they are: bright, polite and, where skin tone is concerned, mostly light–but because of what they are not. They have been hailed not just as a development in black American politics but as a repudiation of black American politics; not just as different from Jesse Jackson but the epitome of the anti-Jesse.
“[Obama] is in many ways the full flowering of a strain of up-tempo, non-grievance, American-Dream-In-Color politics,” wrote Terence Samuel in The American Prospect recently. “His counterparts are young, Ivy League professionals, heirs to the civil-rights movement who are determined to move beyond both the mood and the methods of their forebears.”
There are many problems with this. Chief among them is that this “new generation” is itself a crude political construct built more on wishful thinking than on chronological fact. Patrick, born in 1956, is hailed as part of it, but hapless New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was born the same year, and civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton, who was born just two years earlier, are not. Obama and Booker are always mentioned as members of this new club, but Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who was born between them and spent his twenty-first birthday in prison protesting apartheid, is not.