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Saturday, January 17, 2009

From DuBois to post-racial Obama

By Prof. Ali A. Mazrui

DuBois died at about the time Obama was born in the early 1960s. But this was not a case of the torch being passed to a younger generation of African-Americans or a case of reincarnation. The two historic figures turned out to symbolise entirely different paradigms of inter-group relations in American history.

DuBois and Obama were both products of inter-racial marriages. They both carried names that betrayed their bi-cultural descent. Barack Obama’s name betrayed his Luo ancestry from his Kenyan father. William Edward Burghardt DuBois’ name echoed his French legacy. Both leaders suffered from identity crises in their early years.

DuBois was much fairer in skin-color than Obama. However, overtime, DuBois came to associate himself with Black identity more passionately that did Obama. Indeed, DuBois finally saw himself as an African first and ultimately naturalised as a citizen of Ghana.

Conversely, Obama saw himself as less of an African, despite his Kenyan fatherhood. In terms of preferred policy, W.E.B. DuBois was a Black Atlanticist. He dreamt of unification of Global Africa as a new racial Commonwealth in the world system. In contrast, Obama sees himself as fundamentally American, forever a citizen of the United States.

DuBois became the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1895. His pre-doctoral degree was from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1990 Obama became the first African-American to be elected President of the Harvard Law Review. His pre-law degree was from Columbia University in New York.

In his younger years, DuBois was often regarded as ‘not-Negro-enough’ partly because he was fair-skinned, and partly because of his upper class demeanor. In his early political career, Obama was similarly demeaned as ‘not-Black-enough’ more because he was brought up in a white family than because his mother was white. In later years, Obama’s brilliant academic performance at Harvard earned him the stigma of ‘elitist.’

DuBois’s vision for African-Americans had two contemporary rivals. Booker T. Washington preferred African-Americans to temporarily forego political power, civil liberties and higher education in the liberal arts and the liberal professions. His ‘Tuskegee Machine’ put an accent on ‘industrial education’ for Black youth instead, at least for a while. Washington’s influence peaked from 1895 to 1910.

In contrast, DuBois’s vision of education for the Black youth focused on cultivating what he called the ‘talented tenth’ in preparation for Black entry into ‘modern civilisation.’ The major rival vision in DuBois’s era was that championed by Marcus Garvey. Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, mobilised a large following of African-Americans in the 1920s to pursue private enterprise, and aspired to emigrate to Africa en masse. DuBois and Garvey disliked each other; they debated abusively and even exchanged racial epithets.

In different ways, both DuBois and Marcus Garvey were Black Atlanticists. While DuBois aspired to send to Africa some members of his ‘talented tenth’ of the Black Diaspora to help uplift Africa, Garvey believed in a kind of Black Zionism. To Garveyism, returning to Africa was an entitlement of all African descendants in the Diaspora. But since most of Africa was still colonised during Garvey’s time, his dream was even more remote than DuBois’ sending of the ‘talented tenth.’

Barack Obama’s dream of a post-racial America also has had rival paradigms among African-Americans. As disciples of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young believed in the integration of African-Americans into mainstream US culture. Yet, they retained and defended Black race-consciousness. They promoted a multi-racial America; Obama championed a non-racial America.

Another Black school of thought in Obama’s life was manifested by his Pastor of 28 years, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright’s ideal America was far from non-racial like Obama’s dream. Nor was Wright’s preferred America multi-racial like that of Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. Ultimately, Jeremiah Wright was racially a separatist, although his own church preached multi-racialism and racial integration. But a more fundamental shift that took place from the world of DuBois and the era of Obama was a tilt from colour prejudice to cultural prejudice.

Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University New York

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