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Stories and Legends | The Nation

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Stories and Legends

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Obama's adolescent search for his roots led him first to the canonical works of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. But their accounts of black life did not speak to Obama's already irrepressible optimism or his experience in Hawaii. "In every page of every book," Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, "in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect." He found them "exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels." But Obama had an epiphany when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley. As Obama recalled, Malcolm's "repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me." It was telling that a young man who had spent his childhood inhabiting an in-between world of race and ethnicity found himself alienated from those writers who struggled with what Du Bois memorably called their "two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Instead, Obama gravitated toward a mixed-race man—Malcolm was nicknamed Detroit Red because of his skin and hair color—who rejected his white roots, banished the thought of twoness and had become an icon of assertive black masculinity and racial pride.

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About the Author

Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of...

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Obama's dalliance with Malcolm sparked his interest in black radicalism. In high school he befriended Frank Marshall Davis, a longtime black radical who had followed a common trajectory from the interracial leftism of the postwar years to a more militant race-conscious politics. A poet, journalist and sometime labor organizer, Davis had an unkempt, graying Afro, his own expression of blackness. Obama was something of a Davis protégé: the two spent hours together drinking and discussing black life and politics. In one memorable conversation, Davis told Obama that "black people have a reason to hate. That's just the way it is." Davis's sentiments put him in the company of those black militants who eschewed nonviolence and attempted to channel black pride and racial anger into oppositional politics. But there was not much of a black power movement left by the time Obama was in high school, and even less of one when he attended college. Black power had never been as powerful or popular as its adherents and the news media had asserted, and by the late 1970s many of its most vocal proponents had burned out, hardened by sectarian struggle and embittered by police harassment.

Even if black power was institutionally weak, it lived on in a mix of racial pride and grievance and a celebration of resistance and African culture, exemplified in the late-night "bull sessions" that Obama joined with fellow black students at Occidental College in California from 1979 to 1981 and, even more, on the streets and in the shops of Harlem, which he got to know intimately over the next fours years, first as a student at Columbia University and then as a New York City resident. He spent long days "walking from one end of Manhattan to the other," visiting Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and shooting hoops at neighborhood basketball courts. New York in the early '80s was America's most heterogeneous city, a place marked by its own peculiar history of racial resentments; it was home to the country's largest concentration of black nationalists, querulous and splintered over arcane debates from the late 1960s, and who found common cause only in their belief in the irreducible racism of white America and their outrage against police repression.

If Obama flirted with black nationalism, his time as a community organizer in Chicago in the mid-1980s introduced him to another current of the long black freedom struggle, one every bit as militant as black nationalism and built on a black community consciousness, even as its practitioners eschewed the goal of racial separatism. "What really inspired me," Obama recalled in a 2007 interview about his early career, "was the civil rights movement. And if you asked me who my role model was at that time, it would probably be Bob Moses, the famous SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] organizer.... Those were the folks I was really inspired by—the John Lewises, the Bob Moseses, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the Ella Bakers." Obama's choice of these activists—along with his use of the past tense—offers a revealing glimpse into his racial politics and how they shifted over time.

The four were among the most militant in the nonviolent freedom movement—none of them were consensus builders. Baker and Moses, in particular, provided interesting analogies for Obama. Both launched their careers in the North. Baker was a left-leaning activist in Harlem in the 1930s, swept into the Popular Front alliance of civil rights activists and Communists. Moses, a native New Yorker and schoolteacher, led SNCC's mostly off-camera organizing efforts in the Mississippi Delta. Both—like Obama, working on Chicago's South Side—viewed community organizing as a discipline, not simply as a tactic (even if they came from different, but related, organizing traditions). Both Baker and Moses were among the most revered activists of their generations. But unlike Obama, who quickly learned the power of his own personal narrative and wove it into his speeches, his writing and his interviews, both were intensely private, preferring to remain in the background, doing the hard, everyday work of organizing but seldom serving as spokesmen for the movement and leaving their personal lives hidden from even their closest associates. Obama was an activist-politician whose sensibilities and style emerged in the confessional culture of the post-1960s era; Baker and Moses, by contrast, exhibited a reticence born of the notion that, ultimately, their personal stories did not matter.

In the 1960s, Moses, Baker, Hamer and Lewis had combined elements of the prophetic and the disruptive in their work. Each was committed to the power of the ballot box, though only Lewis and Hamer aspired to political office. But grassroots organizing and protest did not provide skills that translated easily into the art of electoral politics and lawmaking. Hamer quixotically ran for Congress but faced insuperable obstacles to her election in the barely post–Voting Rights Act South. And by the late 1960s, she had joined the welfare rights movement, advocating for the expansion of citizenship rights for impoverished women and calling for a destigmatization of welfare. She was ultimately more prophet than politician. Neither Moses nor Baker, like most grassroots activists, aspired to electoral politics and continued their work behind the scenes. Lewis, by contrast, ultimately ran a successful campaign for Congress from an overwhelmingly black Congressional district in Georgia, using his position less to legislate than to serve as a voice of conscience and a national advocate for racial equality.

By the time Obama moved to the Windy City in the summer of 1985, he was both a voracious reader of civil rights and black history and a keen observer of black social movements, and had arrived at a sophisticated understanding of the syncretism that defined black politics. In an essay from 1988, Obama argued that "from W.E.B. Du Bois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and boardroom negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches." Obama perceived the fundamental pragmatism that animated the long black freedom struggle: few activists were ideologically pure. They debated, revised and reformulated their political positions, rejecting strategies that did not seem to be working, experimenting with new ones and forging alliances that, to many outside observers who expected ideological consistency, seemed unlikely. Civil rights and black power were fundamentally intertwined in ways that most commentators—trapped in a binary framework that pitted the two against each other as irreconcilable—could not grasp.

Obama's description of the synergies between integration and nationalism, between Martin and Malcolm, was an apt description of black politics in the post-'60s years. Over Obama's lifetime, the color of American politics had changed dramatically. In 1965 only 193 blacks held elected office nationwide; just twenty years later, when Obama began working as a community activist and political organizer in Chicago, that figure had risen to 6,016. But black politics defied simple characterization. Some politicians were the heirs of black power, particularly those with safe seats in overwhelmingly black districts, who did not depend on white electoral support and who could use explicit race-based appeals to rouse their supporters. They had incentives to adopt a politics of race pride and consciousness. In the handful of majority-black cities (notably Newark, Gary, Washington and Detroit), black candidates often donned dashikis, engaged in theatrical denunciations of whites and described their candidacies in terms of black power, even though many real black power advocates lacked the patience, the political skills and the willingness to be "co-opted" by the two mainstream parties necessary to win elected office. Conversely, many ostensible militants made their peace with white business leaders and civic elites.

 

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