Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Thoughts on Black America — and its history

11 Jul

Check out this interesting essay by Taru Taylor (on turnrow’s Web site):

Native Son for President

The essay deals mainly with Obama and his autobiography Dreams of my Father, arguing that Obama echoes the self-reliant attitude of Booker T. Washington in Up from Slavery and rejects W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

Having recently read Up from Slavery, I found myself disagreeing with Taylor on many points. I haven’t read Dreams of My Father, and I’m like three pages into The Souls of Black Folk, so I’m not able to comment on the whole essay; but, maybe once I’m finished with DuBois, I’ll revisit the essay and see what else I have to say.

The main problem with this essay, for me, came about in the third section:

“Douglass truly was fighting for his freedom. His moral fervor was on point. We, us Blacks, can only empathize for him and appreciate his struggle when we first of all understand that we are indeed free. Any Black American who nowadays says that he is not “free,” who fails to understand that his people have been free since 1863, insults the freedom-fighting legacy of Douglass. I say again that Dr. DuBois and his so-called “Talented Tenth” are anachronisms. The farther back 1863 recedes from our present, the more and more out of turn they speak. “Equality” is a dead letter. “Equity” names the game. Thus is Washington our archetype for manhood; Tuskegee Institute, our prototype for civilization. Up from Slavery is our narrative point of departure, with all due respect to Douglass’ autobiography. The conventional wisdom of the civil rights movement insists that the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which occasioned the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, legitimates its emphasis on “equality.” Its tortured logic insists that “separate but equal” is a contradiction; that white facilities and institutions and Black facilities and institutions can’t be separate and at the same time equal. It insists that the “whites only” water-fountain and the “Negroes only” water-fountain are inherently unequal. Its “struggle for equality” has amounted to a process of assimilation. The polite word is “integration.”
The writer does not see why a “whites only” fountain and a “Negroes only” fountain can’t be “separate but equal.” Of course the Supreme Court’s turn of phrase meant to connote segregation. It was a code for white superiority and Black inferiority. Facilities and institutions have tended to be unequal. But Booker T. Washington and his disciples have insisted upon the denotation of “separate but equal:” equity. They took the Supreme Court at its word. Their complaint, for example, was not that schools were separate, but that they were separate and inferior, with shorter terms than those of white children, nor were public school funds equitably distributed.
The zero-sum game that is American politics had morphed from slavery, which ended in 1863, into Jim Crow segregation, less blatant since the 1960s, but still ongoing. The civil rights activists thought to solve the problem by means of integration: Black society assimilating into white society in order to bring about social equality. Booker T. Washington had a better idea. In his Atlanta Exposition Address he said, “In all things purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He meant to build up Black society as a parallel civilization, with Tuskegee as its prototype. Malcolm X captured what Booker T. was up to when he distinguished “separation” from “segregation.” He said, “Segregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors; separation is done voluntarily by two equals.” He went on to describe Black control of politics, of economics, of business, and of civic organization as criteria for separation as opposed to segregation.
Of this zero-sum game named Jim Crow, the civil rights activists seem to think that it’s rigged: whites win, Blacks lose. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” they’ve concluded. A token few, that is. Booker T. Washington was more thoughtful. We can win, eventually. We can beat ’em, the white supremacists. In Up from Slavery he remarks upon slavery’s destruction of white initiative, so reliant had the whites become upon Blacks. He saw how it had eroded all sense of discipline amongst the whites of the south. White and Black were codependent. He concluded that slow, methodical, generation-by-generation uplift, of the “nation within a nation” as he called Black America, would bring about its independence. Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare is what he seems to have had in mind. Dr. Du Bois and his followers have emotionally reacted against the connotations of “separate but equal.” Thus, they have agitated. Washington and his disciples advocated for its denotation. Thus, they have built.”

When Taylor discusses Washington, she uses words like “manhood,” “equity,” and “independence.” In particular, she focuses on Washington’s push for self-reliance in Up from Slavery, and Taylor argues that he wanted to build up an equal, independent black society right up beside the white’s society.

That’s not the way I read it. True, Washington is arguing for self-reliance; he harps upon it constantly, using the example of the students at Tuskegee making their own bricks and building their own buildings. To have a solid foundation, you have to be self-reliant, Washington says. Yet, at the same time, Washington criticizes those blacks who want to learn Greek, Latin or obtain any other kind of education in the classics. When he does this, it’s as if he’s a flashing yellow traffic light in each of their faces: slow down, don’t catch up to the white man too fast. He — the white man — scares easy.

In other words, Washington wants blacks to be self-reliant, but only when it comes to bricks. Not medicine. Not law. Don’t reach too far, or else they’ll slap your wrists.

Sure, I definitely believe that Washington was trying to be realistic. Let’s think about the times. There’s the Klan, there’s a lot of poor whites seething in rage at black men moving right from the shackles of slavery into local politics, there’s a whole race of people who can’t get farther than 10 miles up the road from their former owners, if that. And, while some people read Washington as a power-hungry white (black) man, I think he was geniunely acting in the only way he thought his race could overcome their history. He created an institution, from the ground up, that offered education to people who could only dream of it before.

But to say that Washington created a program that would allow blacks to obtain indepence from whites, that they would be equal with them: I cannot agree with that. Washington might have wanted progress for his fellow blacks, but was he really obtaining it? One could argue no — in fact, he set them back. Tuskegee taught students to make bricks, to farm land, to repair clothes: it continued an education in doing the white man’s work — something former slaves were well acquainted with! Washington’s institution pre-packaged new workers, with the illusion of self-reliance, and sent them out to work below the white man. And this made them economically indispensible; so please, white man, realize you need us and eventually, when you’re used to the idea, we’ll learn some Latin. What progress.