Stories and Legends
This essay is adapted from Thomas J. Sugrue's Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, out in June from Princeton University Press. Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Printed by permission.
"Rosa sat so Martin could walk/Martin walked so Obama could run/Obama is running so our children can fly!" Circulated widely during the last weeks of the 2008 presidential election, this short piece of verse encapsulates the relationship of Barack Obama to collective memories of the civil rights movement. It is a story of debt: Obama owes his success to the past generation of civil rights protesters. It is a story of redemption: Obama's political career realizes their dream that skin color be no longer a bar to ambition. And it is a story of hope and promise: Obama's victory will open up extraordinary opportunities to the next generation. The poem is powerful because it unself-consciously provides Obama with a political genealogy in the most important social movement of the twentieth century and offers a teleological view of America on an inexorable path of progress.
Obama himself emphasized his place in the unfolding history of civil rights at key moments during his long presidential campaign, most notably in one of the more extraordinary speeches of his career, in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007, before a mostly black audience at an event commemorating the city's voting rights march of 1965. Joining Obama were Congressman John Lewis; C.T. Vivian, a minister and close aide to the Reverend King; and Artur Davis, a young, black Harvard Law graduate and a Democratic rising star who hoped to be one of the first African-Americans elected to statewide office in Alabama since Reconstruction.
It was one of Obama's most moving speeches, a virtuosic performance, delivered in the sonorous tones of someone who had learned the art of rhetoric from the pulpit of the black church. Obama seemed to be channeling King himself in his cadence, his mix of exhortation and analysis and his easy use of biblical imagery. The speech culminated in an extended allusion to the book of Exodus. "So I just want to talk a little about Moses and Aaron and Joshua, because we are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses. We're in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African-Americans but on behalf of all of America; that battled for America's soul, that shed blood.... Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh, the princes, powers who said that some are atop and others are at the bottom, and that's how it's always going to be." He traced his own lineage to their struggle. "It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the United States Senate." Ultimately the story was one of liberation from bondage. "The previous generation, the Moses Generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side." Obama simultaneously paid respect to the elders of the civil rights struggle, situated his career as their legacy and offered a story of redemption. For those Americans—especially white Americans—who believed that the struggle for racial equality was nearly finished, these words were a balm.
If the struggle was 90 percent complete, what remained to be done? Raising his voice, Obama exhorted the "Joshua Generation" to remember the freedom struggle of the 1960s, to exhibit "the sense of moral clarity and purpose" of those who came before them and, in a riff familiar to black churchgoers but surprising to most white commentators, called for parental responsibility, criticizing "daddies not acting like daddies" and exhorting a fictional, feckless "cousin Pookie" to "get off the couch and register some folks and go to the polls." At the core of the speech was Obama's vision of the civil rights struggle as one of individual initiative and self-transformation. "If you want to change the world," Obama solemnly intoned, "the change has to happen with you first, and that is something that the greatest and most honorable of generations has taught us." He reinforced the profoundly individualistic understanding of the freedom struggle and its challenge to hearts and minds.
The metaphor of Moses and Joshua, the freedom fighter and the nation builder, offered a powerful framework for Obama's campaign, one that rooted the rootless Hawaiian in the history of the Southern freedom struggle, but with the past as a prologue to a more glorious future. It was Obama's shorthand explanation of the long sweep of black politics from the legislative gains of the mid-1960s to the early twenty-first century. Obama positioned himself as the heir to King and the civil rights movement, but also as part of a vanguard of black politicians who jettisoned a now untimely and divisive sense of racial grievance and embraced mainstream, "middle-class" values (which many commentators interpreted as "white"), rather than appealing to race consciousness. Moses led the Chosen People from the bondage of racial oppression; Joshua would lead them into a multiracial Canaan, where Egyptian and Jew, white and black, pharaohs and prophets would live side by side. Obama signaled the major theme of his campaign: nation building through the restoration of a common national purpose that Americans could achieve by transcending the old divisions of race, ethnicity, religion and party. And Obama provided a wide range of commentators with a compelling, but ultimately problematic, framework for discussing the past fifty years of racial politics, one that emphasizes discontinuity, generational division and novelty, suggesting that the United States has decisively entered a "post–civil rights era."
The Moses/Joshua metaphor, for all of its power, does not do justice to Obama's relationship to America's long, unfinished struggle for racial equality. The relation between Obama and civil rights history is at once more powerful and more oblique than the conventional narrative would lead us to believe. To understand Obama's place in modern American history requires going beyond King and Parks, Moses and Joshua, to the real Obama and to the relationship of history, memory, biography and national politics. To understand Obama's relationship to America's racial past—and to make sense of how he places himself in it, including what he left in and what he edited out—requires situating him in the context of the contested cultural, intellectual and political milieu of the period from the 1960s to the present. The history of civil rights in modern America is one of remembering and forgetting, of inclusion and exclusion.
Barack Obama was, by his own telling, an unlikely Joshua. Born in Hawaii in 1961, he was both too young and too distant from the heart of the black freedom struggle to have direct memories of it. Hawaii occupied a distinctive place in America's racial history: it was a polyglot, polychromatic part of the far-flung American empire, a place with a troubled history of conquest and unfree labor. By World War II, the island territory had become "the first strange place," where the very mixing of Asians, Americans of European descent, native islanders and African-Americans was so transgressive that the military feared its becoming a seedbed of "mongrelization." It is no surprise that Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan national, and Stanley Ann Dunham, a Kansan of European descent, whose courtship and marriage would have been illegal in many states and offensive in most, found Hawaii a propitious place to begin their short-lived interracial relationship in 1959.
If Obama was, in part, the product of a hybrid racial culture in Hawaii, he also came of age in the 1970s, at a moment when notions of race, ethnicity and national identity were in profound flux throughout the United States. It was the beginning of America's age of multiculturalism, when young blacks looked back to a mythical pan-African past and "white ethnics" began celebrating their origins after generations of being uprooted from their ancestral homes and being encouraged to jettison their foreign ways. What had been stigmatized—whether skin color or ethnic heritage—became a source of self-esteem. In one of the most influential journeys of self-discovery in the '70s, Alex Haley took readers and television viewers in search of his own, mostly fictional African "roots." Haley's lesson, that to know your history was to know your authentic self, reflected an increasingly influential current in mainstream American education and culture in the 1970s.
As a high school student at Honolulu's Punahou School, Obama embarked on his own quest for authenticity. Even if he was still uncertain and uncomfortable about his African roots, he did not embrace his European-American heritage. Instead, he gravitated toward blackness, growing his hair into an Afro, emulating black basketball stars and seeking out the company of self-identified black Hawaiians. His search for self-understanding drew him inexorably toward the continental United States, to African America and to Harlem, the souls of black folks, and the civil rights and black power movements that played out a world away from his childhood homes.