Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama, or re-incarnation of W. E. B. Dubois

Many thanks to everyone for keeping up the passion and interest in American politics and the upcoming election in this time of autumn melancoly and désoeuvrement.

In response to that article by Jeff Sharlet on the supposed failure of Obama to live up to the liberational theology modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream," I feel like something was missed in measuring Obama against the criteria of the Civil Rights movement only. As someone interested in the history of black radical thought, I feel like Obama has many more compatriots to whom he can be equally contextualized. I am thinking in particular of the early W. E. B. Dubois (before he started entertaining the idea of a separate black existence in white America as the condition of the genuine advancement of blacks). Obama resembles Dubois not only in his background (black-white métisse, raised by white mother) and life experiences (stellar student who made a splash in a mainly white elite university, socially involved in black communities and interested in promoting grass-root forms of self-embetterment). I don't know if Obama has the culture of a Dubois (in ancient philosophy, Shakespearean sonnets, Negro spirituals, German music, etc.), but I do find that his philosophy bears many resemblances to Dubois's vision of a black elite, particularly in the essay "Of the Training of Black Men." In this essay, Dubois makes clear his distaste for the (white) notion that black folks should mainly be trained for vocational purposes and not be expected to attain the lofty ideals of higher eduction. Dubois recognizes that the idea that black students ought not read Aristotle and instead should concentrate a technical eduction is deeply racist. As someone who had graciously received "the gift of New England to the freed Negro," which was not money "but character," he could not tolerate the idea that blacks should be excluded the rights of all human beings with spiritual aspirations and be urged to content with being "an ignorant, turbulent proletariat."

When Dubois demands for the right of black folks to ask, like all dignified human beings, "Is not life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?" he is recognizing that "liberation" from material depravity MUST be accompanied by an inner, psychological, spiritual sense of self-worth. The emancipation of the Negro must be understood as both material as well as spiritual, and this cannot be done without a projectile, as it were. That is to say, there needs to be some kind of materializatio (incarnation) of a spiritual ideal, not of what is but what is possible. Here I quote Dubois:

"Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground. Thus it was no accident that gave birth to universities centuries before the common schools, that made fair Harvard the first flower of our wilderness."

Is this elitist? No, I think it is realistic and historically accurate. It is not in any way contradictory to the egalitarian ideal of Christianity, since we all know from the history of Christianity itself that the idea of absolute equality of men and women, slaves and masters, whores and emperors had to stick around for more than 2,000 years before we ever saw something resembling like an institutionalized form of that equality in modern democracy. This goes to show that ideal is important, because it paves the blue-print for future change. There is nothing un-American nor un-Christian about the notion of a responsible elite: in fact, we in this country even have a rather glorious tradition of patrician philanthropy. I am getting off-track, but I just don't agree with the view of Obama as a failed or compromised liberationist. I believe Obama to be a true American, a re-incarnation of the possibility of material and spiritual liberation of not only the black folk but all folks. In that sense, he is also a true Christian, despite the fact that he might not practice the form of Christianity that I myself identify with.

1 comment:

gale said...

Joyce, I'm not sure that the black uplift component of Du Bois's writings is all that different from the Social Gospel (liberalism) of the Progressive Era. But I have to plead some ignorance on the subject. A historian, Ed Blum, just wrote a book on the subject of Du Bois's religious views (he was long thought to be an atheist) - it's been well-reviewed. He gave a talk at Rice, but I was teaching so I missed it and can't comment more . . .

I would guess that Du Bois lived in deep tension with the Social Gospel (the followers were mostly white), just as many black abolitionists had all kinds of ambivalent feelings toward white abolitionists earlier in the nineteenth century. I know more about this subject, of course: white antislavery activists often hit the ground running, and few had much interest in what black people wanted or needed for themselves.

After the Civil War, (and before) the Black Church had its own kind of uplift theology, something akin to the reformist Protestantism of the Social Gospel, but also distinct. Yet blacks knew, in a way that many (especially the male) whites didn't, what it meant to be treated as inferior. (White women reformers often had a slightly different take - they weren't into "muscular Christianity." - see Hull House.)

If you're interested, the black theology of the early twentieth century is discussed in a recent article in the Nation (posted on the NYU site for religion and the media,, examines the relationship between Martin Luther King, Sr.'s and his more radical son.

So, I would think that Du Bois embraced this kind of Social Gospel-racial uplift to a degree (as you show in your posting), BUT, he was also concerned with the paternalism of whites, many of whom probably treated him as an inferior.

Perhaps this sensitivity and awareness of paternalism (or materalism/domesticity in the case of many middle-class and upper-class women activists of the era) is what is so appealing about Du Bois's own views. Du Bois makes the Social Gospel more palatable to those of us in the present who would otherwise shudder at the invasive, and dare I say, missionary, sensibilities of the white Progressives from the era.

Unlike white (and often male) reformers who already knew what was best for the downtrodden immigrant, black reformers were more likely to ask what the needy needed. Just a hypothesis.

Where Obama fits into all of this? Not sure. I don't think I agree 100% with Sharlet (if you're reading, thanks for commenting!) I think that as Obama blends red and blue states, white and black heritages, and various other points of view in himself, he is also, religiously speaking, blending the Social Gospel liberalism with elements of the King legacy. And maybe this is what Du Bois did as well (again, not having read the Souls of Black Folk in a long while, I defer to others on this point.)