On Intangible Influences

In the final chapter of his 2011 book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Randall Kennedy comments on several of Obama’s critics on the black left, including author and Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, who, he says, went from vigorous support for Barack Obama the candidate to vocal opprobrium after Obama’s first 100 days in office. Dyson observed, for example, that Obama “runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.” His about-face initially puzzled Kennedy:

The odd thing about Dyson’s sharp turnabout is that it seems not to have been triggered by any substantial change in Obama’s mode of operation; he was as diffident regarding race prior to his election as after it. Rather, it seems that an important, perhaps key, factor in Dyson’s about-face was the long delay of an invitation to the White House.

Kennedy cites a YouTube video interview of Dyson to support this conclusion. In general, such assertions can rest only upon reasonable guesswork – short of a direct confession. At the same time, the effect of emotion on the historical record may be hard to pin down, but it’s also impossible to entirely dismiss.

In his biography of Booker T. Washington, Up from History, Robert J. Norrell argues that the disagreement between Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois (and his allies) emerged not from authentic programmatic differences but from “personal acrimony,” and he offers a weight of evidence to support his claim. We can only wonder now: What would a genuine alliance between the first African Americans to whom Harvard University awarded a doctoral degree (Du Bois) and an honorary doctorate (Washington) have looked like? What might it have achieved?

Norrell suggests that Du Bois’s own mostly negative estimation of Washington has excessively and inappropriately tarnished Washington’s reputation. My own broad reading on Washington and Du Bois, however, has left me more skeptical as to claims that Washington’s standing in the ivory tower – irony possibly relevant if not intended – accurately reflects how he’s viewed by the contemporary American black community. In an article in The Atlantic already linked to on the blog, Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions that, not so long ago, his “Black Panther father…used to force-feed us doses of Up From Slavery.”

It’s also possible that Du Bois’s own firm opposition to Washington may have softened in his later years. Or perhaps not. Regardless, in 1955, four years after Du Bois married his second wife, the author Shirley Graham, she penned an admiring biography of Washington, Booker T. Washington: Educator of Hand, Head and Heart. It begins:

This is the inspiring story of a modern Moses who led his people out of bondage…

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