The following essay is by Houston A. Baker, Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University and author the recently published Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era.
“A week of rest and reflection has sobered me up almost completely. I am confident enough now to predict that a critical American conversation on race will never come by way of the President Barack Obama White House. I base my prediction on temporality: i.e., the past is prelude. Obama’s tepid and problematic pronouncements from the National Constitution Center during the general campaign revealed a hyper-sharp cautiousness and subtle evasiveness when addressing race: its origins, injuries, and continuing denials of social justice and human rights to black folk.”—Houston Baker
Nashville, TN: November 11, 2008. On election night, 2008, busy schedules and autumn good luck brought together at Nashville’s heralded Midtown Café my wife and I, in company with President Hazel O’Leary of Fisk University and Provost Richard McCarty of Vanderbilt University. The provost had been trying to schedule a dinner for weeks. Finally it came together on election night, and a marvelous dinner it was. Working with our best manners to still jitters of worst expectations, and struggling quietly to maintain the decorum to check our collective desire to rush to the nearest television screen, we shared experiences. What was most striking about the first part of our evening was its crisp amiability. We are roughly on par in age; we are well-paid academics; we are ably situated in a southern city filled with high hopes for the future.
Yet, we were all aware of the stakes. Polling sites in Appalachia, white midwestern suburbs, and black zones of impoverishment would color our future. In the course of our conversation, President O’Leary invoked the era of Civil Rights in Nashville: Diane Nash, James Lawson, Nikki Giovanni and so many other black dissidents, racially and violently humiliated on southern streets, yet singing: “We Shall Overcome.”
I thought of my older brother, John Thomas Baker, who threw himself into the Nashville struggle during his freshman year at Fisk like he had been born and bred in the briar patch of black liberation collectivism. I told stories at our election night dinner of my long haul from Little Africa (a Louisville, KY, ghetto where I spent a significant portion of my youth) to a Vanderbilt Distinguished University Professorship.
I met my wife Charlotte Pierce-Baker, who hailed from Jim Crow precincts of Washington, D.C., at Howard University. It was 1961, and things in the U.S. were definitely on “racial lock down.” My wife is now full professor and interim Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt.
Our Provost compared his experiences at the University of Virginia with ours, as he praised the role of a courageous cohort of white Nashville faculty who made Vanderbilt the first southern, traditionally all-white university to integrate officially its student body.
Then we went home. Full. Nervous. Expectant.
It was as though we had diligently and politely “stated the theme”—the only one—for November 4, 2008. Stated it with trepidation, anxiety, and, of course, as a conjuration against disastrous returns.
Much of our nervous, humorous, and historical conversation that night—with its racial recall and hilarious storytelling—seemed, at least to me, to have little connection to what I have thought, and continue to think of the guiding premises of President-Elect Barack Obama’s relationship to race in America. There was, I thought, an unspoken disconnect between his address to race and ours. Nothing in the former senator’s primary or general campaigns has convinced me that he has, or will ever, come forward and declare unequivocally his commitment to addressing urgent matters of Black Majority interests. He has always appeared to me as a man dapped out as what one black Los Angeles blogger terms: “A Magic Negro Politician.” President-Elect Obama’s life is, and has been, marked by social and family burdens, to be sure. But his life, by any account, has also always been “beautiful.” Shaped, for example, by the type of sharp, aesthetic oxymoron represented by a mother on food stamps, while her son Barack enjoyed a private school education.
Long before Election Day, I had given up attempts to inspire critical dialogue (especially among black intellectuals) about the necessity to recognize that Black Americans have “no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” (I thank my Vanderbilt colleague, Professor Hortense Spillers for reminding me of this unimpeachable rule.) Not a single person challenged in my book Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era has done anything but barricade himself in silence. Not a peep. Not one of them has displayed “self-conscious manhood” (Du Bois’ phrase for black critical consciousness) that would, at least in the name of “the people,” have answered my critique in its call for a significant discussion of majority racial interests. A debate? A forum? A discussion? Nada. “How far,” I thought to myself, “we are from the robust contestation and critical thought of black folks from the end of slavery into the twentieth century.” In conventions, uplift forums, reading societies, astute periodicals and newspapers, church gatherings, historically black colleges and universities, they, our intellectual forbearers, brought the noise, challenging each other and all received ideas as they sought to better their general lot. By contrast, most of today’s frequently televised, published, and broadcast so-called “black public intellectuals” are hungry only for pay and praise received for what I deem their “half thought” and “sartorial sheen.” They have no critical edge whatsoever; they would never risk a thoroughgoing critique of the ghastly state of the black majority, nor dream of summoning energy and organizational effort for a radical policy initiative to relieve black suffering.
Please, don’t “hate on me.” At least not for the wrong reasons. Certainly, on November 4, I desperately needed to never see another Bush, or to hug another Clinton. The species of political celebrity and wealth building of the Bushes and Clintons—complete with sexual scandal involving an intern and implicit spousal tolerance for such behavior, along with the Pax Americana thug life of Bush Thought—seem displaced, at least for the moment. I rejoice in the displacement. President-Elect Barack Obama was definitely the name I touch-screened on Election Day.
Still … and here’s the thing … there is something about personal history that will not let reason and intellectualism be captains of the racial playing field. I thought, despite my jitters, that I had a calm, rational handle on whatever the results might bring, having weighed in the balance the clear “cons” of Senator Obama and his campaign. Yet, seated in our comfortable home with its amenities, bright lights, and flat screen … when the voice said: “It is official, Senator Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States,” I was a man drowning. All my life was on flashback. I saw Little Africa, my parents despair on cold days when the car would not start, the blood violence of Civil Rights, my very, very “white looking” maternal grandmother who worked her entire life as a “domestic,” my uncles and aunts and cousins who were capable of much more than America would allow them even to try. And I flooded. My tears rolled like a current of Black familial mourning. I wanted my family back in the light of a new day. I wanted them to see this moment and enjoy its orchestral swell. I wanted them to tell me with metaphysical certainty that in this election night moment of victory I had no choice but to believe a new world was a’borning, especially for black majority interests.
I ached for the presence of my ancestors. I wanted them to join and reassure me, as satisfied spectators and authoritative witnesses, that the black majority was poised for a better future. I was in a zone of heady confidence. And longing. In fact, my wife reminded me just this past Friday (7 November) that in my melancholy-and-glad moment of tears, I actually said: “I would go anywhere [Barack Obama] told me and do whatever work he wished … at half my present salary!” What was I thinking?
Like global millions of people, I was lost in sublimity!
The type of critical conversation—studious, policy-oriented address to the great American dilemma of race that our country has so desperately needed for centuries, and never more desperately than now—seemed to me on election night on the brink of realization. The instant was monumental and emotional. It was light after the dark, dictatorial bleakness of “unitary executive years.” We who are a bit older knew (and feared) that the glitter of it all would privilege sartorial black intellectuals and white broadcast pundits to declare the dawning of an American age of post-racial transcendence. And, of course, they have rushed to such judgment with abandon.
A week of rest and reflection has sobered me up almost completely. I am confident enough now to predict that a critical American conversation on race will never come by way of the President Barack Obama White House. I base my prediction on temporality: i.e., the past is prelude. Obama’s tepid and problematic pronouncements from the National Constitution Center during the general campaign revealed a hyper-sharp cautiousness and subtle evasiveness when addressing race: its origins, injuries, and continuing denials of social justice and human rights to black folk. Perhaps many have forgotten that the President-Elect’s “race speech” was an exorcism of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Black Liberation Theology, and genealogical connection of the candidate, Senator Barack Obama, to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was, in the end, a paltry political feint, rather than a boldly honest address.
Today is November 11, and I know my tearful sublimity on election night was an oceanic fantasy, one spurred by the earlier dinner conversation and shaped by black familial mourning. The historical melancholia of national exclusion that has marked American black life, of course, finds relief whenever and wherever it can. “Black Firsts” have always drawn tears that lie too deep for thought.
Today, though I am again plumping down solidly for reason when I predict that there will not be any salient, timely, and perspicacious relief for the black majority flowing, like a mighty stream of righteousness, from a “post-racial” Obama White House. It is not going to happen. It is true that the sublime—like Niagara Falls—has a way of blinding us to “small,” human miseries like the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex and its manifold extensions such as Guantanamo and “black ops,” U.S. financed holding facilities across the world. The U. S. led lock down of designated “rabble” and “undesirables” will continue under the Barack Obama presidency as surely as day gives way to night. Black majority disfranchisement and incarceration will continue to trump the misery of other Americans. While it appears that some chimera called “Black Americans” are now on the ascent, we have never been, at our majority base, more disempowered. And President-Elect Obama’s first executive appointments have been eerily reminiscent of les temps perdue.
Immediately after my wife’s reminder of my tearful enthrallment with the “First Black President of America,” she and I agreed that what we really needed to do was call President O’Leary. We needed to know what locally we could do about the dire state of Fisk University, one of the most amazing Historically Black Universities in existence. We thought it advisable to act locally, rather than to entertain sublime fantasies of election night, 2008, as the gateway to a “post-racial” America. We are confident that we have not come remotely close to a national condition or a platform where the black majority will soon receive equal rights, opportunities, and rewards. Mount Zion (now burdened by global economic crisis) is monstrously far off. We do not believe, in short, that dreams from our fathers will soon become executively, materially, and audaciously true.