A Prophet and a President

Why Black biography matters

Library of Congress; Peter Cavanagh/Alamy
Library of Congress; Peter Cavanagh/Alamy

He was the only student of African descent in his competitive high school, a circumstance that might have made him more self-conscious than he was, had it not been for a precociousness that made book learning easy. Even if he had wanted to slide by in his studies, his autobiography tells us that underachievement was barred shut by a single-minded mother who knew that college was her only son’s ticket to success in the larger world. “A curious determination was concealed in her softness,” he recalled. The father had deserted the family to make a professional second start soon after his son’s birth, leaving the boy’s mother to depend upon her own imagination and industry and modest help from relatives. It mattered to the boy that his birth was legitimate, although he would eventually learn that his roving father had failed to mention a previous marriage, still intact. Even then, the son would continue to dream of his father in faraway places pursuing a career.

He grew up near water and surrounded by mountains in a pleasant place relatively free of overt racial animus toward dark-skinned people. His status as a college-bound student put him in the company of the sons and daughters of the local rich and the powerful, a social access much advantaged by having a parent whose pigment and features were white. The ease with which he managed to wear his mixed racial heritage began to fray, however, in the senior year of high school, as the decision about college impended. Leaving the relaxed racial environment of home, he wrote of the need to find a fixed identity in the much sharper Black-and-white divisions he would encounter at college and in the larger society. He was beset by a crippling indeterminacy, a fear, he said, of “forever remain[ing] an outsider with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.” Although there was some brief wavering between the poles of whiteness and Blackness, he gradually embraced his African roots at a small liberal arts college. Indeed, he became, as he was pleased to say of his college experience, “quite willing to be a Negro and to work with the Negro group.” Then came the professional training at Harvard, where his academic distinctions were unprecedented. Another autobiographical passage confessed the need for a community where he “could put down stakes and test my commitments.” Fair to say, the young man claimed that his identity was in some sense the exercise of an option, an existential commitment made not because he had to be a Black man—a person born immutably Black—but because he decided to embrace the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.

Many readers will have guessed the identity of this racially ambiguous young man as one Barack Hussein Obama. You have guessed correctly. If you guessed that the subject was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, your choice would be equally correct, for what you have read is the result of the splicing together of strikingly similar biographical profiles and the interweaving of likeminded quotations taken from Du Bois’s autobiography, Dusk of Dawn (1940), and Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995). The objective of this biographical license is to explore the significance of the largely unsuspected parallelism in the racial coming of age of two of the most influential American men of the past 100 years. Du Bois, born in February 153 years ago in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Obama, announcing his presidential campaign on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, 14 Februaries ago.

Nearly a century and a half stretches between these dates, yet it may be argued without exaggeration that the surprising political event in Springfield on February 10, 2007, was inextricably linked to the birth in Great Barrington on February 23, 1868: ergo, no Obama presidency without the Du Bois civil rights legacy. As the very personification of status quo defiance, Du Bois exposed as fraud an American democracy based on enforced racial separation, and he became the piston that drove the intellectual and organizational dismantling of Jim Crow. He accomplished much by his pioneering social science scholarship, investigative journalism, and militant propaganda yoked to organized protest. The long march out of the 1896 constitutional paradox of “separate but equal” to the illusory 1954 equivocation of “all deliberate speed” would have been even longer and harder without the mind and pen of W. E. B. Du Bois. His death at age 95, on the day before the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, foretold the next epic chapter in the ongoing struggle of people of color to close the gap between their country’s ideals and its realities.

Interestingly, William Du Bois made an existential decision near the end of the 19th century, like Barack Obama near the end of the 20th, under the illusion that he could have chosen otherwise—that is, to choose, by virtue of his New England culture, education, and somewhat indeterminate racial appearance, not to become a second-class citizen. Du Bois found his calling soon after leaving his pleasant village in the mountains of western Massachusetts, where Black families were rarer than Democrats. That he saw his illustrious civil rights vocation in such existential terms was summed up shortly before his death, when his second autobiography, A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life From the Last Decade of Its First Century, insisted that, but for the race problem, he might have become “an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the established social order” into which he was born. “But just that part of this order which seemed to most of my fellows nearest perfection” was, for Du Bois, “most inequitable and wrong; and starting from that critique, I gradually, as the years went by, found other things to question.”

Du Bois’s death the day before the 1963 March on Washington foretold the next chapter in the struggle of people of color to close the gap between the country’s ideals and its realities.

The existential chords in Dreams From My Father are differently sounded in what journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault aptly described as “one of the most powerful books of self-discovery I’ve ever read.” I would add that Dreams From My Father might well be the most revelatory personal narrative ever written by a major American public figure—certainly by an occupant of the Oval Office. Obama’s odyssey from Hawaii to the mainland was advantaged by a hindsight that allowed him, by the time he left Harvard as the first minority editor of the Harvard Law Review, to construct a coherent African-American persona. He tells us that in his search for a fixed self or coherent identity in high school and undergraduate college, he was put off by the anguish in the writings of Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin: “Each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem,” Obama sighed—“all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.”

As is discernible from Washington Post journalist David Maraniss’s comprehensive biography, Barack Obama: The Story, or from Harvard philosopher James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, a somewhat speculative recapitulation of the 44th president’s intellectual formation, Obama constructed his cultural persona piecemeal over time—cautiously, pragmatically, strategically—until the day when his mainland evolution as a Black man with white ancestry was fully achieved within the chrysalis of his wife’s gregarious Southside Chicago family and friends. He had learned over time how to choose what worked best for him from his self-willed and perennial-graduate-student mother, his devoted white middle-American grandparents, the Indonesian “Army Man” stepfather who taught him to box, the peers who came in multiple colors but mostly lighter than his, and above all, from his dark totem, the absent Kenyan father. “I was raised,” Obama tells us, “as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a black child and as a white child. …  And so, what I benefitted from is a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me.”

One understands why one of his most perceptive interpreters, the Indian sociologist Dinesh Sharma, described Obama as the first “global president,” a leader whose understanding is truly transnational. Similarly, one must ponder Maraniss’s discovery that because of his subject’s need to “absorb all the traditions,” the future president’s ambition had always been to subsume divisions of culture and society, politics, and economics, in a cool consensus of “No-Drama Obama” pragmatism. True, the title of Obama’s campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, was inspired by one of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, yet one might have predicted early on that neither Wright’s standing nor the intrepid title would be secure from the book’s underlying political science optimism. Candidate Obama insisted that “facile expectations and simple explanations are being constantly upended … that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed. … The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.” Perhaps not quite a belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, but such conflict-averse statements in The Audacity of Hope did suggest an above-the-fray high-mindedness that could be problematic.

For his campaign message, nevertheless, candidate Obama channeled the e pluribus unum mythos of American Exceptionalism as seldom before by a credible public figure. Not only did he minimize the significance of political labels, but racism was also seen as an old problem that the candidate’s generation—he called it the “Joshua generation”—could refute and even move beyond as it honored Rosa, Whitney, John Lewis, and Martin of the Moses generation. Freshman Senator Obama had made an unforgettable debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he struck a memorable exceptionalist chord by assuring us that “there is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” Racism, as he wrote in Audacity, “was subject to refutation.”

Amazingly, candidate Obama served up an incomparably fine refutation of a 250-year-old scourge at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, where he succeeded for the first time in American public debate in triangulating race, class, otherness, and opportunity. In proclaiming that his life story had “seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts,” the candidate had turned the race wedge on itself by transforming the third rail of national politics into a causeway from original sin to American exceptionalism at its finest. In so doing, Obama, the first nonwhite president, had seemed to resolve those dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably posed by Du Bois’s foundational text, The Souls of Black Folk. The media, the public pontificators, the liberal establishment, and even much of red state America crooned about the dawning of a postracial nation.

By contrast, Du Bois had set the ground rules for American race relations almost 120 years ago in a prediction in concise language that had been internalized by generations of African Americans and conceded as unalterable gospel by the American majority—that the problem of the century was the color line. Du Bois’s famous color-line problem was actually a problem without color, for it was starkly black and white. He could have had no conception that our 21st century would not be piebald, however, but many colors—and increasingly minority white. Even so, to concede that a historic racial dyad has been displaced by a polychrome present does not mean, Du Bois might well have argued, were he among us to assess the meaning of white supremacist militancy and GOP legislative obstructionism, that race has been transcended as a potent and perdurable force in our national life. Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race still would remain the predicate of our American experience long after the formal dismantling of segregation.

White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (2005), a timely book after Du Bois’s own mind, posited a potent racialist paradox exactly as Du Bois would have anticipated. The seven authors write that in a historically white society,

color brings problems. And if people of color cry foul, if they call attention to the way they are treated or to racial inequality, if they try to change the distribution of advantage, if they try to adjust the rules of the game, white Americans (whose race and racial advantage are invisible) see them as asking for special privileges. They are seen as troublemakers.

Candidate Barack Obama had presented himself as racially untroublesome and reassuringly pragmatic. As public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson told PBS journalist Gwen Ifill, Obama had winked reassuringly at African-American voters while articulating an agenda designed for universal appeal.

One might say that the 44th president had entered office as a reassuring reformer whose agenda of change might have seemed just progressive enough to intrigue old troublemaker Du Bois. After all, Obama’s powerful mantra of change gave millions of voters good reason to expect a democratic (small “d”) reset—a clean break with warmongering, cultural obscurantism, the unfeeling incompetence of the response to Hurricane Katrina, and material relief from the geyser of wealth rising above the rest of us. “A government that truly represents these Americans,” The Audacity of Hope promised, “will require a different kind of politics. … It won’t be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf.”

At the time of his death, Du Bois was still lucid and confrontational, living in self-imposed exile in Ghana. Five years later, Martin Luther King Jr. praised him as the sage “history cannot ignore.” When Dr. King spoke these words to a capacity audience in Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968, Dr. Du Bois had been excised from his country’s mainstream narrative as a Marxist scourge whose warnings against omnivorous capitalism disconcerted liberals and enraged plutocrats. “The organized effort of American industry to usurp government surpasses anything in modern history,” he had thundered in one of his last editorials in Monthly Review. Long before his demise, Du Bois had modified his famous prophecy about the primacy of race in the 20th century: the fundamental problem was not racial inequality but the economic inequality of the races, he decided.

Because the meaningful understanding of race was inseparable from the mitigation of economic inequality, Du Bois might well have anticipated distressful outcomes from a presidency in which race seemed to be of incidental importance. Yet all must recall election night, November 4, 2008, when President-Elect Obama addressed a tearfully exultant nation from Chicago’s Grant Park. As the first Black president spoke, a deeply moved Congressman John Lewis said, “We have witnessed tonight in America a revolution of values, a revolution of ideals. There’s been a transformation of America, and it will have unbelievable influence on the world.” Americans everywhere, high and low, seemed to concur. In his book The Promise: President Obama, Year One, journalist Jonathan Alter reported the following exchange:

On Chicago’s LaSalle Street a working-class African American who grew up in Chicago stopped a white reporter. “Congratulations!” he said.

“Congratulations to you,” the reporter replied.

“No, it’s you folks, the Caucasians, who did this, who should get the credit.  We knew we’d vote for Barack today, but we just weren’t sure y’all would.”

But “y’all” didn’t—55 percent of white voters went for John McCain. In the euphoric aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, few Americans, irrespective of color, had scrutinized the demography of the results. And some of us who did (including then– NAACP chairman Julian Bond) recall our submitted op-eds being returned as post-racially inappropriate by The New York Times and The Washington Post. One could imagine how disconcerting would have been an op-ed written in the world-weary spirit of a Du Bois prognosticating an even larger white majority vote against the president in 2012, as would be the case. Even before the president-elect took office, Robert Kuttner, a leading progressive economist, predicted in a smart little book titled Obama’s Challenge that the president would lose his solid majority in the 2010 midterm congressional elections if he failed to act audaciously.

If he did act, Kuttner believed, Obama would enter the special ranks of transformative presidents after Lincoln: FDR, LBJ, and, yes, Ronald Reagan. Transformative presidents know who they are. Transactional presidents are less than the sum of their convictions. Great presidents are not postpartisan, centrist, or too pragmatic or transactional to take risks in the service of principles. Faced with a civil rights revolution, Lyndon Johnson had asked, “Hell, what’s the presidency for?” The key to greatness was living up to the audacity of hope, Kuttner and several other economists insisted, which meant turning a deaf ear to the siren songs of conventional economic wisdom.

Indisputably, the 47-year-old 44th president owed his election to a disaster in which he had played no significant part: the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Predictably, within a score of weeks in the Oval Office, the party’s progressive base was already impatient for a demonstration of presidential activism evocative of the first hundred days of the New Deal. The distress experienced by so many people of color was only barely mitigated by disability payments and food stamps. Millions drowning in subprime wastewater demanded that the federal government force Hank Paulson’s megabanks to grant them relief. Predictably, the GOP had rebuffed presidential overtures out of hand while simultaneously castigating every proposed mitigation as worse than the problem it addressed.

To read the early judgments of Bob Woodward, Jonathan Alter, Ron Suskind, and Paul Krugman, to say little of the skeptical writings of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Obama’s economic policies fell far short of audacious. Even worse, he seemed almost perversely unreceptive to alternative recommendations. “He’s our kind of guy,” the new president was reported to have said after interviewing Timothy Geithner for the Treasury secretaryship. Not only was Geithner an acolyte of Wall Street’s Lawrence Summers, but he had also forgotten to pay his back taxes. The selection was of a piece with the president’s resistance to the economic recommendations of venerable Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, who pushed for a new Glass-Steagall Act to restore the New Deal firewall between investment and commercial banking functions. Volcker warned that $1.3 trillion was the minimal stimulus figure necessary to jump-start the national economy and rebuild America’s outdated infrastructure, and he was seconded by neo-Keyneseans of the Robert Reich and Laura Tyson stripe. But such warnings were deemed politically impractical in the face of solid Republican resistance.

Obama’s first-term persistence in a futile strategy of conciliation with his loudest critics puzzled and even enraged many people who, like Krugman or Maxine Waters, or new media pundit Jelani Cobb and finally the astute Michael Dyson, believed that moderation in the service of change was a vice. It was certainly true that the American people were reliably polled as being tired of Washington’s divisiveness, but many veteran observers argued the virtue of—yes—audacity. In any case, the results of the 2010 congressional elections were even worse than Kuttner had feared—the highest loss of House seats by a president since 1938. Still, by the end of his first term in office, the president had taken bold steps to save the auto industry over the objections of some of his top advisers and Wall Street’s dire predictions. He approved the first federal Consumer Protection Bureau, albeit without the Harvard professor who conceived and agitated for it, Elizabeth Warren, and also with the concession demanded by the Chamber of Commerce to lodge the consumer bureau in Geithner’s Treasury Department. Above all, there was health-care reform, the signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency, but also an insurance industry bonanza.

As a historian and a biographer, I should resist the temptation to divine the what-if judgments Du Bois would have delivered upon the political aftermath of the Obama presidency, were it not that he spoke presciently to our times on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Souls of Black Folk. Reissued with a new preface by Du Bois himself, 10 years before the March on Washington, Souls reiterated that he still thought “today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century.” But today he saw “more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellow men.”

One discerns in the considered statements of both Du Bois and Obama on the subject of race in America very different intellectual and policy consequences. Du Bois’s thinking moved from the primacy of racial subordination to the centrality of the economics of class discrimination, yet ever mindful of race as a component of America’s DNA, whereas Obama regarded race as of limited value in formulating an economics of redress because he saw a differently constituted American DNA. The president’s gestalt was to have awkward, painful consequences both for his most committed, if increasingly frustrated, voting blocs and, indeed, also for himself as he confronted fierce opposition from groups that saw themselves as ideologically and culturally delegitimized and demographically imperiled.

Eighty years apart, Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama faced the same enemies: congressional obstructionism, a hostile Supreme Court, Wall Street, and a South rising again.

For Du Bois, racism defined the American social contract. For Obama, who conceived his persona as the alloy of ingredients in which the African-American experience was assimilated the better not to be imprisoned in it, the less said about race relations the better—whether the Reverend Wright’s fulminations or Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s unwarranted mistreatment by a local cop. In that regard, the winter 2010 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, presented an engrossing essay collection titled “Race in the Age of Obama,” edited by Washington University scholar Gerald Early. Most of the authors were unpersuaded of the vaunted postracial transmogrification, and they saw race as an abiding problem that dare not speak its name—the great evasion that precluded a systemic overhaul of taxes and institutions that would finally move this country in the direction of honest social democracy. Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby’s contribution, “Justice and Racial Conciliation: Two Visions,” channeled a Du Boisian suspicion that the Obama administration’s universal remedies for social and economic disparities left vast numbers of poor Black and brown people to wait patiently for a long time before a rising tide caught their leaky boats.

Unmistakable disappointment surfaced in Black weeklies like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier over what appeared to be a stock Obama speech exhorting his Black middle-class audience to shrug off past discriminations, ignore inadequate conditions, cease complaining, mind their domestic morals, and get ready for success. Atlantic Monthly senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed the troubling public statements in “How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America,” a critique that skirted outright censure. Still, Coates thought that Black people “deserve more than a sermon.” It would be hard to deny the truth of Dyson’s The Black Presidency. “If Obama’s delivery on race is sad and disappointing,” he writes, “the failure of most black Americans to hold him accountable is no less so.”

Were we to press our speculations of his posthumous opinions further, we would probably hear old contrarian Du Bois insist that the problems experienced by the 44th president were not unique, that these same problems were experienced in the same intensity by the 32nd president of the United States—the former denounced as illegitimate by reasons of birth and race, the latter as a traitor to his class. Some 80 years apart, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Hussein Obama faced the same enemies: congressional obstructionism, a hostile Supreme Court, Wall Street, and a South rising again.

The German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel cautioned that historians serve the public best as prophets in reverse rather than as commentators of fast-moving current events. The Obama presidency did indeed end with much to its credit, but the vision of a national postracial reset that defined its historic debut had already been fatally belied by worsening disparities now become irrevocably color-coded, by Supreme Court majorities disingenuously mocking African-American and Latino voting rights and poised to cancel women’s reproductive rights, by criminal justice system outrages sparking corrective protests, Black Lives Matter, and long-overdue policing of the police. Much of this climaxed in the cause and effect of the dystopic Trump quadrennium, which was nothing less than white supremacy finally authorized to speak its demographic truth. What is to be said of the American experiment now that we have seen the best of us defied by the worst of us?

Du Bois had an intellectual’s license to commend visionary projects that no American politician could fully embrace even if she wanted to. But politics without audacity leaves a commonwealth at risk. A long-ago Du Bois op-ed reads as existentially pertinent to the next midterm election: “My friends note, an election is coming up,” he announced. “So what?” he asked rhetorically:

We are ruled by a minority armed with wealth and power. This usurpation we must resist. Here is a program for those who have not lost hope and who yet believe in America. … Heal the sick as a privilege, not as charity. Make private ownership of natural resources a crime. Stop interference with private and personal belief by religious hypocrites. Preserve the utmost freedom for dream of beauty, creative art and joy of living. Call this socialism, communism, reformed capitalism or holy rolling. Call it anything—but get it done! Perhaps this is insane, but to me it is reason, right and justice.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Levering Lewis has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, one for each volume of his biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. He is also the author of King: A Biography and, most recently, The Improbable Wendell Willkie.


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