Obama, Wright, and How the Post-Civil Rights Generation Will Rise to Power


When the Black Freedom Movement withered away from disuse and neglect, it left a generation of enthusiastic young activists-to-be with unprecedented "access" to white dominated institutions, but no movement with which to affiliate. What's a determined mover-and-shaker to do? Get a job, that's what. While the author's friends settled in as corporate lawyers, management consultants and other odd jobs, she was fortunate enough to become - for a time - a "professional feminist" working for "reformist" non-profits. But financial pressures pushed her towards academia, and the realization that "I and others in my group" are "repositories for the Civil Rights generation's left-over hopes and dreams." Barack Obama, she now understands, has been the "symbolic beneficiary and repository" of those dreams - which is not the same thing.

"If he will break with Wright in order to win the presidency, I wonder where he'll land on policy issues that affect black people."

During this U.S. presidential election season I have often joked that I have taken a vow of silence. As a black woman with both feminist and black liberation politics, I got tired of having my brain picked on how to think about the race versus gender spectacle of this election.  But watching and listening to recent events in Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has propelled me to speak up now.

I am a "professional" black feminist.  I am part of that strange generation, the post-Civil Rights access babies, who have lived the contradiction of being able to be professional activists with hardly any experience in mass social change movements.  Don't get me wrong, my fellow access babies and I would have experience in those movements if those movements existed within the U.S.  But, for the most part, they haven't during our time, and I and others in my group have been both beneficiary and repository for the movements of our real and politically-adopted parents. We're beneficiaries of the gains achieved by those movements, and repositories for the Civil Rights generation's left-over hopes and dreams.

"We wanted to be activists, but there were no radical movements to plug into."

It's kind of confusing to be able to be a professional so-called "activist."  When I was in my 20s I used to joke that if I was going to write a book about my generation I would title it, Sincerely Confused.  I find our generational confusions about society, change, organizing, and activism to be earnest, even endearing.  Throughout my 20s - during the 1990s - my friends and I struggled earnestly to find radical movement.  So we kept getting jobs in "social change" non-profits and were heartbroken to learn that we had to tap-dance for rich white funders only to do reformist work that barely felt like it was changing anything.  But what choice did we have - almost all of us were black and had gone to college.  And even though some of our parents may have even gone to college too (thanks to the Civil Rights Act), we were saddled with student loans as a result of the leftovers of President Reagan's rising cost of education.  Oh yeah, I forgot to say that we were the ones who appeared to survive the 1980s and even make it to college while our cousins and friends went down in crack, violence, and life-altering young pregnancies. So we wanted to be activists, but there were no radical movements to plug into, and we HAD TO GET A JOB to pay our loans, or make our mommas proud (or at least not worry them half to death), or even just keep an apartment.

I came out of college with a soul passion to end sexism - particularly sexism in my community, the black community.  It was easy to be a black feminist in college - I had a lot of time on my hands, you put up a flyer and people would actually come to an event.  I had a lot of friends who had the same soul passion too.  Now most of them are corporate lawyers, management consultants and other odd jobs (they're trying to pay back their student loans).  But I was the trooper.  While my comrades were falling to the left, to the right, I stayed the course and they were so proud and envious of me for having the integrity to be a professional feminist.  They were too scared to even try and I was showing that you could do it.  I had my feminist odd jobs until I realized in the late 1990s that I was on a dangerous economic course to go under, like so many black women activists have, and that I needed to do something fast quick in a hurry.

So, of course, I went back to my college advisors, those black feminists who had fired me up and set me on this course.  And you know what they all said?  Get a Ph.D. like us.  One of them even wrote in her book on the history of black feminism that the only place that black feminism has survived is "in the halls of the academy."

"Academia was just like the non-profit world in its attempt to kill all radicalism."

So off I went, to a place where I knew I would finally be free to do uncompromised black feminist work!  Yes!  The academy.  No?  Oh.  Oh well...another rude awakening, I guess.  It was just like the non-profit world in its attempt to kill all radicalism in you as part of its initiation rituals, just with more confusing rituals and the need for nicer clothes (and, who knew, not even much more money - you spend the difference on the fancy clothes!).  And here was the kicker.  The one thing I knew was that I was the first generation who had the luxury of not having to split myself off and have either "racial" politics OR "gender" politics.  I got to have it all.  I got to live between worlds and historical constructs as a black feminist.  I was not bound by the U.S. constitution that constructs race and gender as separate systems, or the fact, as feminist and critical race legal theorists have shown, that it is legally impossible in the United States to ever make a claim based on simultaneous or intersected race-and-gender oppression.  No, I was going to live at that intersection and change the world!

Rude awakening #3.  In order to get my Ph.D., I had to decide whether I was a women's studies black feminist or a black studies black feminist, oops, I mean womanist.  I thought being a second generation black feminist, I could circumvent the question as to whether I was in bed with black men or white women.  I was in bed with black feminists - there were enough of them in power that they were my bosses and advisors.  But now what they want to know is am I in bed with the black women who are in bed with white women or am I in bed with the black women who are in bed with black men.  Boy, it just gets more and more confusing, doesn't it?

I jest, but the fact that I had to make that choice was one of the most painful moments of my life. And I share this long personal story because I think it is relevant to what we are seeing unfold in the current U.S. presidential election and in the recent Sen. Barack Obama/Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy.  I believe that what we are seeing unfold will define the next generation of black power.

Obama reminds me of so many of my friends, a lawyer, "community organizer," with all the internalized rhetoric of social change movements and no real experience in them.  Someone whose reality was shaped by the media culture of 1960s and 1970s and the repetition of sound and image filtered bits of that era through to the present.  Someone who can't tell the difference between ideals, images, words, and reality.  Someone who the Civil Rights generation desperately hoped would exist, and now fetishizes, even manipulates.  The one who will realize "our" (i.e., their) dreams.  Oh, he is so familiar to me - as beneficiary and repository.  He is so familiar to me as sincerely confused.

"I believe that what we are seeing unfold will define the next generation of black power."

But wait.  There is a glitch.  He's not a post-Civil Rights access baby.  He is a bi-racial child of what education theorist John Ogbu calls a "voluntary minority" - as opposed to us "involuntary minorities" like African American descendants of slavery who just can't seem to get that chip off our shoulder and accept the benefits of being American.

In the last few days I have been trying to figure out why so many black people feel betrayed by Obama's disavowal of Rev. Wright.  At that moment, it seemed to me that he was the same person with the same politics he's had from the beginning of his candidacy.  Obama said this in his response to Wright's National Press Club speech, that he has been the same person throughout this campaign, and that is an honest, accurate statement.  But then I realized what had changed, why black people suddenly felt betrayed.  He was forced to firmly reveal his choice, just like me.  When pressed, I had to reveal that I was more of a feminist than a black nationalist in my heart - I literally could not get a degree, a piece of societal "power" without landing in society's existing structures.  And when reality hit Obama - the reality of how you rise to power in the United States - he couldn't continue to live between the lines.  He had to land and show that political office is more important to him than alliance with African American community and, dare I say, black identity.

As an African American, I have personally been offended by Obama's strategic deployment of black identity throughout his campaign.  And I couldn't figure out why more black people were not offended as well.  But now I realize - oh, they never saw him, and they weren't listening to what he was saying.  He has been symbolic beneficiary and repository.  We hoped that the mainstream white liberal rhetoric that "we have overcome race" could be merged with "I'm black and I know what time it is."  He appeared to live both - or did he - or did we just think his brown skin, strategic alliances with African American leaders, and an intermittent black-ish accent meant we knew his politics?

"We hoped that the mainstream white liberal rhetoric that ‘we have overcome race' could be merged with ‘I'm black and I know what time it is.'"

Maybe he manipulated, but I know we did.  We manipulated the sounds and images of Barack Obama into a dream for which some of us had hoped.

I do believe that Obama is heartbroken that he had to choose the presidency over Wright, white liberalism over black identity.  I can only imagine that this has been the struggle of his whole life, a black child raised by white people.  But now that we know where he lands when pressed, what do we need to be doing black people?  And if he will break with Wright in order to win the presidency then, if and when he becomes president, I wonder where he'll land on policy issues that affect black people.  Because the structures of law and policy will make him have to pick a position on issue after issue, over, and over, and over again.

I guess one benefit of being a "professional" black feminist is that I can see all of this unfolding. Maybe it's good I went to graduate school after all.