Barack Obama and His Fathers

Peter C. Myers

April 1, 2008

The great mission of America, Frederick Douglass hopefully declared in 1869, is to provide “the [most] perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen.” Now, at long last, one hundred thirty-nine years later, the consummation of that mission seems to many to be at hand in the impending nomination and election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Or, at least, it did seem at hand before recent controversies enshrouded it in doubt.

Sparking the controversies were revelations of Obama’s long and close association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the sulfurous, Afrocentric pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. The candidate responded reluctantly but, in the end, ably. In March, he fashioned an impressive speech, “A More Perfect Union,” to explain his association with Wright. Yet the whole matter left his campaign functioning suddenly less as a balm than as the latest irritant of America’s racial and partisan wounds. However eloquent his speech, its effect was both to buoy his admirers—”Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage,” the New York Times dubbed it—and to solidify the ground under his detractors, who grew in number and intensity.

How and why did this singularly uplifting candidacy come to this pass?

To find the answer, we must turn first to Obama’s finely crafted memoir, Dreams from My Father. Therein we find, contrary to some suggestions, that Obama was drawn to Rev. Wright not so much by considerations of expediency in his career as a neighborhood organizer and, later, a candidate for the Illinois state legislature, but mainly because of a deeper longing in his soul. The young activist’s attraction to the fiery pastor affected both his heart and his mind with a lasting power that the middle-aged candidate could not possibly disown. To understand this, however, is to understand the main difficulty in the posture of trans-racial, trans-partisan unifier that constitutes the core of Obama’s unique appeal.

Dreams tells the story of a sensitive young man’s struggle to appease two deep emotional hungers—a father-hunger and a race-hunger, mutually inseparable and jointly irresistible. Deprived by a hasty divorce of a father scarcely known but remembered to him as a forbiddingly noble figure, suffering the further dislocation incident to his racially divided heritage and to his life with a restlessly itinerant mother, the younger Obama sought, well into his adulthood, to discover a coherent personal and communal identity through the recovery of his paternal, African heritage.

In other words, his memoir tells the story of a younger Obama working his way through a classic case of the affliction diagnosed by one of his main father-mentors in the black protest tradition, W.E.B. Du Bois. In his renowned book, Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois memorably lamented that the African American “ever feels his 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.” To reconcile those strivings, to bring peace to the war between those ideals, Du Bois continues, is the black American’s most ardent longing—”to merge his double self into a better and truer self…to be both a Negro and an American,” and both in full.

So, in Dreams, Obama recounts his struggle to transcend this dividedness, this “two-ness” that amounted in practice to a disabling half-ness. He meandered through his teen years, adept enough at slipping back and forth between black and white worlds, painfully frightened by the thought that he truly belonged to neither, lapsing frequently into the escapist, self-pitying anger of “a young would-be black man,” and longing finally for the achievement of a fully human, fully integrated wholeness. And in the entire course of his passage into adulthood, no one else supplied his need for racial identity as powerfully as did the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

In Wright’s church, Obama found the racial community for which he hungered. Trinity “embodies the black community in its entirety,” he explained in “A More Perfect Union”—”the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. … The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.” And at the center of Trinity, shaping its character and driving its success, stood Rev. Wright—minister of Christ, apostle of black unity and authenticity, and, in his special concern to bring his gospel to “young brothers like yourself,” an unmistakable father-figure to Obama.

Especially notable in Obama’s recent depiction of his church is the power he ascribes to it both to solidify the bond of black community and also—more surprisingly—to serve the cause of interracial integration and unity in America. Trinity assures all its members, he says, quoting a passage from Dreams, “that their fates remained inseparably bound, that an intelligible ’us’ still remained,” and that “this black church” could serve as a “vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.”

One might reasonably wonder how strident appeals to racial nationalism, such as those heard in Trinity, could serve the cause of integration into the larger, interracial world. Obama does not clearly explain this, but his suggestion seems drawn from a traditional, relatively moderate variant of black nationalist thought, also traceable to Du Bois. The idea is that integration on properly equal terms requires, first, the achievement of genuine self-respect among blacks, independent of the diminishing influence of white opinion, and that the achievement of this self-respect requires, in turn, the cultivation of a provisional, temporary sense of black solidarity.

However that might be, it was in view of its powers to unify and elevate that Obama protested, against critics’ calls for his dissociation from Wright’s ministry, “I can no more disown [Rev. Wright] than I can disown the black community”—no more, even, “than I can my white grandmother.” Beyond the expansive familial affection he expressed for his pastor and church lay a studied, stubborn reaffirmation of his campaign’s central animating principle, the principle of radical unity or inclusion. “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

This sentiment of expansive American inclusiveness receives a further affirmation near the end of Obama’s memoir. In the 1869 speech quoted above, Douglass remarked that the U.S. was “a country of all extremes, ends and opposites,” a country destined to welcome “the people of all races and of all creeds.” In the epilogue of Dreams, Obama adds his own reflection on the words of the Declaration of Independence, We hold these truths to be self-evident, hearing in them “the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers … the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews … in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. … I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition. … And yet, in the conversation itself … I find myself modestly encouraged.”

In all these voices, Obama hears the conversation of his American family. In the words of Jefferson and Lincoln, and especially those of the great black protesters, of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, of Du Bois and Douglass and Martin Delany, he hears his, and his people’s and his country’s, moral and spiritual fathers. All are to be honored and cherished, their failings and blindnesses and mutual differences along with their struggles and achievements and virtues. It is in this vision, it seems, that he finds his remedy for the Du Bois problem, the dividedness and dislocation that ultimately consumed Du Bois himself, along with many others.

It seems a stirring vision of affirmation, Whitmanesque in its large embrace. But in the scope of his expansive inclusiveness, Obama, too, must confront Whitman’s question: “Do I contradict myself?” Among the sharply disparate visions bequeathed, in particular, by the fathers of the protest tradition, must he not finally choose? And is it not clear, despite his expressions of even-handed, eclectic inclusiveness, that in fact he does choose—and that his vision of inclusive unity is more partial than he is willing forthrightly to acknowledge?

Granted, Obama’s words contain much that is genuinely encouraging. A left-liberal at heart, he pays respectful notice to several important conservative ideas and principles. The notion of self-help is “quintessentially American,” he grants in the race speech, “and yes, conservative”; whatever one’s particular grievances, it is imperative that all take “full responsibility for [their] lives.” That means especially “demanding more from our fathers,” whereupon he concedes a claim anathema to most liberals, “that welfare policies for many years may have worsened” the “erosion of black families.” Above all, he affirms, all “must always believe that they can write their own destiny,” and, contrary to the teaching of Rev. Wright, the hopefulness necessary to self-elevating effort is amply justified by America’s founding principles and by its progressive historical trajectory.

There is considerable force, too, in Obama’s specific extenuations concerning his pastor. By pointing to much that is admirable in Wright’s works and also in his sermons, he can reasonably deny that Wright’s radical anger is the most serious part of his ministry. “The Audacity to Hope,” which reduced a skeptical, twenty-six year-old Obama to tears and drew him into the church, is in most respects a beautiful and uplifting sermon. And in Wright’s more hateful and irrational pronouncements, there may be an element of performance, as Obama seems to suggest lightly by pointing out his minister’s special concern to recruit young black men, many of them likely angry and oppositional. Also plausible is his suggestion in Dreams that black-nationalist venom such as Wright’s functions as a catharsis, a harmless venting of frustrations in a relatively private, racially segregated forum, contrary to critics’ view of it as incitement to antisocial actions. Lest we be unduly alarmed by the frequency of such expressions in black churches, we might consider: Does the evidence show that the subclass of criminals in the black community receives any significant formative experience from church attendance—even from attendance at Afrocentrist or black-liberationist churches?

Concede all this, however, and Obama’s Wright problem remains—looms much larger, in fact, than his particular association with an anti-American pastor. Wright signifies the truly serious shortcoming in Obama’s unity appeal in that he is emblematic of Obama’s longstanding sympathy, evident throughout his reflective life, for virulent critics of America on the radical Left. In Dreams he tells of an early mentor, his grandfather’s friend “Frank,” revealed by others to be Frank Marshall Davis, noted African-American poet and member of the Communist Party. He tells also of how he was drawn to socialist conferences as a college student, and describes himself shortly after his graduation, in his position at a consulting house to multinational corporations, as “a spy behind enemy lines.” It seems Obama could find himself home at heart in Wright’s church, in significant part, because he sympathized with the radicalism of Wright’s anger at America, even if he disagreed with its particular focus. The pattern continued in his Chicago Hyde Park association—apparently somewhat closer and more regular than he has lately acknowledged—with proudly unrepentant Weather Underground bombers William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.

The point is not that this elegant, mild-mannered senator may be fairly characterized as a Marxist (or any other kind of) revolutionary. He credibly presents himself as a pragmatic reformer, impatient with the fecklessness of dogmatic ideologues. What is fair to say, however, is that in Obama’s inclusive America, special solicitousness is to be shown to America’s radical critics on the Left. The principles that inform his vision, those from which he would begin any process of political bargaining, belong to a precinct of liberalism that disdains to police very vigilantly the borders it shares with socialists and other leftward radicals. It is for just this reason that America’s impassioned critics across those borders are so enthusiastic about his candidacy.

Although Obama as candidate has generally taken care to downplay this dimension of his thinking, a closer look at his words not only in Dreams but even in “A More Perfect Union”—to say nothing of his unguarded remarks in San Francisco, where he condemned the “bitterness” of rural voters who “cling” to their guns and their God and thus conceal from themselves the true, economic causes of their anger—strongly suggests that he views America much as the anti-capitalist Left has long viewed it: as an oligarchy disguised as a democracy. In Dreams, he notes the populist vision of “working class solidarity” that he shared with his fellow organizer Marty Kaufman, who identified “the real enemy” as “investment bankers … politicians,” and “fat-cat lobbyists.” There, too, as we have seen, Obama in his own voice targets multinational corporations as the “enemy.” He softens these sentiments but reaffirms them in their essentials in “A More Perfect Union.”

In Obama’s populist vision, unity is at best partial and secured by a spirit of division. In a thoughtful discussion of black nationalism in Dreams, he wonders whether genuine self-respect among blacks depends upon hatred of whites, and he answers No. He never directly addresses the analogous question whether working-class and middle-class solidarity and security depend upon animosity toward the upper classes, but the scattered indications he provides point to an affirmative answer. Then and now, the premise of Obama’s economic populism appears to be class conflict. Having grown beyond the black-nationalist critique represented by Rev. Wright and others, he seems to affirm in its place its close cousin, the class-based critique upon which Du Bois and the later King (each inclined to demonize American capitalists) ultimately ran aground.

To progress meaningfully in the direction of a more perfect American union requires more. We should all be grateful for a campaign that urges us to listen respectfully, and does so itself, to a broad range of voices left to right, radical to conservative. But in the end we must choose well among those voices. Meaningful progress toward unity requires that we transcend class conflict no less than race conflict; that we conceive of America as more than a trans-racial coalition of victims; that we heed the voices and examples of all of America’s progressives—its rising, enterprising, inventive, productive, hopeful classes no less than its aggrieved.

For Obama, this might begin with a deeper understanding of his paternal heritage. In a pivotal passage in Dreams, he confesses that he had imagined his father as harboring qualities he sought in himself, “the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois [sic] and Mandela.” Finding his moral and spiritual fathers in the great black protesters of the twentieth century, he neglects to include Frederick Douglass, whom he mentions only perfunctorily in his epilogue. This is both surprising and unfortunate. In his endeavor to achieve a still more perfect, genuinely inclusive, non-oppositional vision of American union, he might learn much from the thought and example of Douglass.

Despite the obvious differences in the two men’s circumstances, Obama could find much common ground with Douglass. Like Obama the offspring of mixed-race parentage, Douglass felt even more acutely than Obama the pain of a divided identity, and he struggled even more energetically than Obama to recover and vindicate his (maternal) African and African-American heritage. Like Obama he was adept at navigating back and forth between his black and white relations—once describing himself as “a very sensible modification of black” to some North Carolina Republicans, and yet insistent upon black solidarity to the point of occasionally charging “treason” against those African Americans he judged disloyal to their people’s cause.

Like Obama again, Douglass was attracted for a time to anti-American extremism. His early mentor, the fevered abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, bears an obvious relation to Obama’s Rev. Wright; Garrison’s disunionist condemnation of the Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” is closely akin to Wright’s “God damn America!” Above all, Douglass like Obama longed to belong, longed for a true home—first in the abolitionist and African-American communities, but finally in an America unified in its devotion to humanitarian principles. For Douglass, in fact, western modernity signified a progressive realization of the ideal of human unity, and post-slavery America was the spearhead of western modernity.

Yet, to reflect on these comparisons with Douglass is also to sense a measure of luxuriance in the spirit of alienation that bedeviled Obama as a younger man. The latter’s particular longing for identity and communal solidarity seems symptomatic of a malady in some sense natural to black members of the post-Civil Rights generation, heirs of what may be considered black America’s Greatest Generation. For members of this younger generation unreservedly to glorify their elders would carry the risk, by acknowledging the relative ease of the circumstances they inherited, of diminishing themselves and their own achievements. Their natural incentives are then both to profit by and to devalue the fruits of the parents’ victories—the full citizenship, with its myriad accompanying opportunities—that they could only inherit, could not win for themselves. Their temptation is to measure up to their heroic fathers and mothers by shouldering similar burdens, or contriving to do so, even at the cost of renewing the spirit of old grievances.

For Douglass, born into a country whose governments at every level abetted his and his people’s enslavement, reaching his maturity amid circumstances that compelled him to ask seriously, “What country have I?,” the struggle for identity and belonging involved no such abstraction. His youthful identification with America’s radical enemies was perfectly natural, and his mature rejection of them—more complete than Obama’s corresponding, more equivocal renunciations—and his development of a fully reflective embrace of American identity and citizenship were hard-won achievements. Just as he learned the worth of education first by being deprived of it as a slave, so he learned the meaning of America through long and deep reflection, born of his experience as a genuine outsider.

It was in the maturity of this reflection, sharpened through hard experience, that Douglass found resolution of the tensions with which he, like Obama, long struggled. Struggling to reconcile past with future, ancestry with modernity, Africa with America, reverence for the elders and solidarity with their sufferings with eagerness to begin anew, Douglass found the answer in an enlarged vision of America itself—of America as a genuine novus ordo seclorum, an ever-broadening heritage of revolutionary dynamism, of free labor, of self-made men and self-improving nationhood.

At his best, Barack Obama, too, exudes hopefulness and promise, exemplifying in his person, his extraordinary life and career, and his campaign’s animating theme much of what is good, just, and progressive in the spirit of America. Even at this relatively early point, his campaign’s remarkable success demonstrates anew the power of the idea in America that fortune favors the young, the bold, the enterprising, those who herald new beginnings and brighter futures. His meteoric rise as a force in American politics seems to hold the promise, at the level of the nation’s public life, of the reconciliation between past and future, or the redemption of past by future, that he has long sought in his personal life.

One hopes that Obama will come fully to comprehend the promise that his candidacy and public career hold forth. One hopes that he can achieve a still clearer, larger appreciation of his own correction of Rev. Wright, who “too often failed” to understand “that embarking on a program of self-help requires a belief that society can change.” With these words, the candidate perhaps supplied an encouraging indication of continuing development in his own reflections on the true conditions of freedom and responsibility and on the solid ground for his trademark hopefulness in the moral dynamism that is essential to America.

One hopes that, having moved beyond the preoccupation with race as an impediment of freedom and civic unity in America, Obama will move still further, beyond the accompanying preoccupation with class divisions. One hopes that he will come to embrace a fuller conception of American civic unity, grounded in more genuinely inclusive and unifying principles; that he will develop a fuller conception of personal agency and progressive activism, moving beyond the truncated model of agency as political protest; that he will enlarge his populist vision, heavily laden at present with a structural critique of American political-economic institutions, and develop a greater faith in free labor and free enterprise.

Truly to fulfill the promise of his extraordinary campaign—to articulate a vision of genuine reconciliation between past and future, blacks and whites, labor and capital in America—Obama must transcend the visions of the twentieth-century’s civil-rights fathers as well as its economic populists, both still heavily represented in the elite academy that did much to form his mind, in which racial reform depends upon structural transformation of America’s political economy. He would profit by a careful reconsideration of the moral and political thought of the nation’s founders; and he could find his way to them via the greatest of the nineteenth century civil-rights fathers. In the principles and the example of Frederick Douglass, Obama could find his true bridge to the broader America, and the model and the solid ground to support a truly audacious hopefulness.

Peter C. Myers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His most recent book is Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism.