You know, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, when the march finally reached Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the crowd of thousands' and said "The arc or the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." He's right, but you know what? It doesn't bend on its own. It bends because we help it bend that way. Because people like John Lewis and Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and thousands of ordinary Americans with extraordinary courage have helped bend it what way. And as their examples call out to us from across the generations, we continue to progress as a people because they inspire us to take our own two hands and bend that arc.
Congratulations to all of you here at the NAACP who are busy bending that arc. Thank you.
--Barack Obama (2009e),
Speech originally delivered at the NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit, Michigan, May 1, 2005 (p. 122)
Several years ago, Barack Obama delivered a speech (a portion of which are reprinted above) on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement at a dinner honouring the NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund. That speech wove together strands of thought simultaneously capturing individual and collective responsibility. The speech was not published until 2009, after Obama was elected President of the United States; yet the speech offers useful insight into the longstanding beliefs and actions that have come to define Obama as presidential candidate and as President.
In the aftermath of the historic election of Obama as the first Black President of the United States, some critics (e.g., Asukile, 2008; Ball, 2008; Miah, 2009; A. Reed, 2009) contended that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama had distanced himself from his African heritage. If it were justified, then such a critique might lead one to wonder whether Obama had "bleach[ed] his Negro soul in a flood of [W]hite Americanism," to paraphrase W. E. B. Du Bois (1903, p. 45-46). In turn, if Obama really had exalted his American self at the expense of his African self, then one might wonder whether Obama had inflicted permanent damage to his psyche (for a discussion of the need for a healthy reconciliation of the "two souls" of African Americans, see Sellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, & Chavous, 1998).
The critique of Obama as having suppressed (if not having abandoned) his African soul is at odds with the Black consciousness that Obama displayed in his best-selling book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995/2008), which he wrote several years before the 2008 presidential campaign; in his major speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign (Obama, 2008a); during his victory speech (Obama, 2008b); and during his presidential inauguration speech (Obama, 2009g). Obama has not always acknowledged his debt to earlier generations of African Americans in his speeches; for example, Obama barely mentioned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the aforementioned speech on race and did not mention King at all in the aforementioned victory speech and presidential inauguration speech (as a reviewer of a previous version of the present paper observed). However, since becoming President, Obama has invoked King's name and memory in several speeches and proclamations (e.g., Obama, 2009a, b, c, d, f).
Obama's knack for referring to his African as well as his American selves in an understated yet eloquent manner (Williams, 2008) does not amount to denial of either aspect of his heritage (Waiters, 2007). Indeed, Du Bois (1903) left it to each African-descent person to decide for himself or herself how best to reconcile the "two souls" (Gaines & E. Reed, 1995). Given that multiple solutions exist with regard to individual African Americans' reconciliation of their African and American selves (LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993), Obama's own reconciliation process need not conform to a particular, externally imposed set of expectations.
Overview of the Present Paper
Scholars in the field of Black studies have made numerous important contributions to the "Barack Obama phenomenon," as Mazama (2007) put it. For instance, more than a year before Obama was elected President, the Journal of Black Studies devoted an entire edition to Obama (Asante, 2007; Burnside & Whitehurst, 2007; Clayton, 2007; Dorsey & Diaz-Barriga, 2007; Harris-Lacewell & Junn, 2007; Mazama, 2007; McIlwain, 2007; Waiters, 2007). However, relatively few scholars in Black studies have applied an explicitly psychological perspective to the Obama phenomenon (for exceptions, see Branch & Young, 2006; Sullivan & Arbuthnot, 2009; Waiters, 2007). It is precisely this gap in the Black studies literature that I shall attempt to help fill.
In the present paper, I argue that Barack Obama embodies the African and American selves that W. E. B. Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). As the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from America, Obama's life experience is by no means typical of African Americans as a whole (Williams, 2008). However, the fact that Obama is only one generation removed from his African roots could be construed as the basis for an especially strong African self within Obama (Franklin, 2009). In any event, a reading of Obama's life story (e.g., Obama, 1995/2008, 2006/2008) suggests that within Obama, both African and American selves are alive and well.
A reviewer asserted that Obama is the son of an African man, period. Such an assertion is understandable, given that Obama's White American mother went to great lengths to affirm Obama's Black heritage in the absence of Obama's Black Kenyan father (Fuchsman, 2009). However, denying Obama's biracial heritage not only may lead to misunderstanding with regard to others' perception of Obama (Sullivan & Arbuthnot, 2009) but also may lead to misunderstanding with regard to Obama's perception of himself (Branch & Young, 2006). Thus, I place equal emphasis on the influence of each of Obama's parents upon Obama's social-psychological development.
Definitions of Key Terms: Soul and Self
William James's perspective. In The Principles of Psychology, William James (1890/1950)--who was one of Du Bois's mentors during Du Bois's years as a doctoral candidate at Harvard University (E. Reed & Gaines, 1997)--distinguished between soul (i.e., an immaterial, spiritual entity that presumably directs individuals' mental phenomena but exists independently of individuals' bodies) and self(i.e., individuals' awareness that they are distinct from, yet interrelated with, other entities in their physical and social worlds; see Hall & Lindzey, 1970). James (1890/1950) believed that psychological science would be best served by dropping the term "soul" and retaining the term "self' within its professional vocabulary.
Despite James's (1890/1950) qualms about the usefulness of the term "soul" in psychology, James (1901-02/1960) resurrected the term "soul" in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James's (1901-02/1960) Buddhist-inspired definition of soul as "a succession of fields of consciousness [whereby] in each field [one can find] a part, or sub-field, which figures as focal and contains the excitement, and from which, as from a center, the aim seems to be taken" (p. 200) is analogous to James's (1890/1950) definition of pure Ego (the reflective aspect of the self) as the particular stream of consciousness that constitutes individuals' sense of uniqueness or personal identity (Hall & Lindzey, 1970). The term "soul" implies that a divine entity ultimately is responsible for individuals' insight into their personal experiences; whereas the term "pure Ego" implies that the brain ultimately is responsible for individuals' insight into their personal experiences. In The Principles of Psychology, James (1890/1950) had recommended that readers decide for themselves whether to accept or reject the term "soul."
James's (1890/1950) self-theory is holistic in its emphasis on psychic unity as a prerequisite for mental health (Hall & Lindzey, 1970). Kurt Goldstein's (1934/1995) organismic psychology drew directly upon James's self-theory for inspiration. In turn, Goldstein's concept of self-actualization formed much of the basis for humanistic theories such as Carl Rogers's (1961) self-actualization theory and Abraham Maslow's (1962) self-actualization theory.
W. E. B. Du Bois's perspective. A reviewer of the present paper pointed out that Du Bois (1903) derived the concept of double consciousness from a broader religious interpretation of the divided soul marking human beings, as was evident in James's (1901-02/1960) writings and in much of nineteenth-century philosophical and theological thought. In addition, as a reviewer noted, a similar appropriation regarding the divided soul or double consciousness figures prominently in nineteenth-century conflicts over sexual identity.
By the same token, important differences between James's and Du Bois's perspectives on self and soul also are evident (Stewart, 2008). James (1901-02/1960), who did not deal extensively with gender, racial, or religious differences, believed that a divided soul by definition is unhealthy. Conversely, Du Bois (1903) believed that a divided soul or double consciousness not only is unhealthy but also is influenced greatly by an individual's gender, racial group, and/or religious group membership (Curtis-Tweed, 2003). Stigmatization may lead to the development of a divided soul or dual consciousness among members of socially disadvantaged groups, although it does not necessarily follow that stigmatized persons will develop low self-esteem (Jones, 1997).
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois (1903) used the terms "soul" and "self' as if they were interchangeable. Consider the following passage from The Souls of Black Folk:
After the Egyptian and Indian, and Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois, 1903, p. 45)
Du Bois's (1903) equation of "soul" with "self" probably reflected Du Bois's immersion in African American culture, especially African American religion (Long, 2001; for an example, see Du Bois, 1978). Like Du Bois (1903), I shall treat the terms "soul" and "self" as synonymous. However, like James (1890/1950), I shall leave it to readers to decide whether the conscious insight implied by "soul" and by "self' is divinely inspired.
The Souls of Black Folk: African and American Selves
At the beginning of the present paper, I liberally paraphrased part of a paragraph from W. E. B. Du Bois's classic, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). All or part of the paragraph in question has been cited by many scholars (e.g., Gaines & E. Reed, 1994; Moses, 1975; Phinney, 1996; Pinn, 1995). For the purpose of comparison with Barack Obama's writings (Obama, 2007a, b), I present the pivotal quotation from The Souls of Black Folk:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of [W]hite Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. (Du Bois, 1903, p. 45-46; reprinted in Du Bois, 1986, p. 365)
Throughout his long life, Du Bois fought for social equality on behalf of African-descent persons in the United States and, ultimately, around the world (R. D. Coates, 1999). Not only did Du Bois' efforts in organizing the Niagara Movement pave the way for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); but Du Bois served as editor of The Crisis, which was the primary publication outlet of the NAACP (Kirk, 2009). However, Du Bois may be most renowned for his literary works, most notably The Souls of Back Folk (1903).
Like few books before or since, The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois, 1903) captured the essence of African American psychology (Gaines & E. Reed, 1994, 1995). To some extent, as noted above, Du Bois's self-theory was influenced by William James's (1890/1950) earlier self-theory (E. Reed & Gaines, 1997). However, unlike James's self-theory, Du Bois's self-theory explicitly focused on the role of race in shaping individuals' identities (Stewart, 2008).
According to Du Bois (1903), in American society, persons of African descent are made to feel as if they must choose between the African self (which is stigmatized by society; see Goffman, 1963/1990) and the American self (which is not stigmatized). Neither the African self nor the American self inherently is unhealthy. Rather, Du Bois argued, the societally induced conflict between the "two souls" is unhealthy (Sellers et al., 1998). An analogous conflict is unlikely to exist within persons of European descent, who do not have to choose between European and American selves (Gaines & E. Reed, 1995, 1995). This is not to say that persons of European descent are immune to threats to self-unity. Rather, the combination of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination that threaten African-descent persons' self-unity (White & Parham, 1990) is unlikely to threaten European-descent persons' self-unity.
Integrating W. E. B. Du Bois's Self-Theory with Hazel Markus's Self-Construal Theory: African/Interdependent and American/Independent Selves
One of the most popular theories in cross-cultural psychology is Hazel Markus's (2008; Markus & Kitayama, 1991) self-construal theory (for a review, see Fiske, Mitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998). According to self-construal theory, one may distinguish between interdependent and independent selves. The interdependent self is based on an understanding of the individual as connected to others; whereas the independent self is based on an understanding of the individual as separate from others.
Initially, self-construal theory (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) did not directly reflect Du Bois's (1903) self-theory. However, in recent years, Markus (2008) has drawn upon Du Bois's (1903) self-theory in elaborating upon her own self-construal theory. An integration of Markus's self-construal theory with Du Bois's self-theory suggests that the African self is an interdependent self; whereas the American self is an independent self. Markus's self-construal theory often describes interdependent and independent selves as polar opposites. However, Du Bois's self-theory makes it clear that the two selves can coexist within one person.
Barack Obama's Two Souls
They know too much, we have all seen too much, to take my parents' brief union--a [B]lack man and a [W]hite woman, an African and an American- at face value. As a result, some people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose--the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between the two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife's six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates, so that you need not guess at what troubles me, it's on the nightly news for all to see, and that if we could acknowledge at least that much then the tragic cycle begins to break down ... well, I suspect that I sound incurably naive, wedded to lost hopes, like those Communists who peddle their newspapers on the fringes of various college towns. Or worse, I sound like I'm trying to hide from myself.
--Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995/2008, p. xv)
Obama's African self. A reading of Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995/2008) leaves no doubt that Obama's African self is well-developed. From his years working as a community organizer in the United States, to his visits to his ancestral home in Kenya, Obama repeatedly affirmed his African heritage long before he entered most Americans' (including most African Americans') consciousness. By the time that Obama was a teenager, he realized that despite his biracial heritage, in the eyes of American society, Obama was Black. Ultimately, Obama embraced his interdependent, African self (Branch & Young, 2006). Consider the following quote:
In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn't much detail to the idea; I didn't know anyone earning a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn't answer them directly. Instead, I'd pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won't come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.
That's what I'll do, I'll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change. (Obama, 1995/2008, p. 133)
In the years since Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995/2008) was published, Obama's became a political star of the highest order. During that time, Obama earned a reputation as a progressive politician (Walton, Allen, Puckett, & Deskins, 2009). Especially relevant to the present paper is the A (Excellent, 100%) that Obama received from the NAACP in 2007 regarding votes on major civil rights issues in the U. S. Congress (Gamber, 2007).
We hold these truths to be self-evident. In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country's borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamouring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life, the same questions that I sometimes, late at night, find myself asking the Old Man. What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don't always satisfy me--for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail. (Obama, 1995/2008, p. 437-438, emphasis in original)
Some scholars in Black Studies (e.g., Clayton, 2007; Mazama, 2007) have described Obama's presidential campaign as an attempt to transcend race. A reviewer of the present paper went so far as to contend that Obama's own comments on race, such as Obama's (2009e) first presidential speech to the NAACP, fuel the perception that Obama is promoting the notion of a "post-racial society." However, closer inspection of Obama's (2009e) first presidential speech to the NAACP reveals that Obama views African Americans' ongoing quest for social equality as a special instance of Americans' ongoing quest for fulfilment of the American Creed. As a pragmatist, Obama undoubtedly understood that in order to be elected President of the still-racial and still-racist United States of America, he could not pursue racial politics as usual (Asante, 2007). As Atwater (2007) anticipated, Obama's appeal to Americans to live up to their own creed was a primary factor behind the election of Obama to the U.S. Presidency. Banks (2009) concluded that Obama promotes "neo-racialism," not "post-racialism."
... I ... think [that the Democratic Party] can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think [that] America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think [that] much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.
--Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006/2008, p. 10-11)
Obama's American self. If Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Obama, 1995/2008) represented Obama's celebration of his African self, then The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Obama, 2006/2008) represented Obama's celebration of his American self. In The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Obama (2006/2008) did include one chapter specifically dealing with race. However, even in that chapter, Obama (2006/2008) emphasized his unwavering belief in the ideal that, like any other American, he can and should be judged by the content of his character, rather than by the color of his skin. Clearly, Obama's American, independent self is well-developed (see also T.-N. Coates, 2008). Consider the following quote:
In a sense I have no choice but to believe in [the] vision of America [as articulated in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech; Carson, 1999/2004]. As the child of a [B]lack man and a [W] hite woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who's half Indonesian but who's usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I've never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe. (Obama, 2006/2008, p. 231)
Throughout The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Obama, 2006/2008), Obama's ambitiousness is obvious. Scarcely a decade has passed from Obama's election as Illinois State Senator in 1996, to Obama's election as U. S. Senator in 2004, to Obama's election as U. S. President in 2008. Unfortunately, Obama missed so many votes while campaigning in 2008 that the NAACP gave him an I (Incomplete, no grade given) for his votes on major civil rights issues (Abdur-Rahman, 2008).
And so I do my best to answer the accusation that floats around in my own mind--that I am selfish, that I do what I do to feed my own ego or fill a void in my heart. What I'm not out of town, I try to be home for dinner, to hear from Malia and Sasha about their day, to read to them and tuck then into bed. I try not to schedule appearances on Sundays, and in the summers, I'll use the day to take the girls to the zoo or the pool; in the winters we might visit a museum or the aquarium. I scold my daughters gently when they misbehave, and try to limit their intake of both television and junk food. In all this I am encouraged by Michelle, although there are times when I get the sense that I'm encroaching on her space--that by my absences I may have forfeited certain rights to interfere in the world she has built. (Obama, 2006/2008, p. 348-349)
The point that I just raised regarding Obama's absence from key U. S. Senate votes on civil rights legislation in 2008 must be taken in context. All U. S. Senators who were presidential candidates in 2008 received I's from the NAACP (Abdur-Rahman, 2008). The NAACP's report card in 2007 is more informative: Unlike Obama, Republican presidential candidate (and U. S. Senator) John McCain received an F (Fail, 7% grade) for his votes on key civil rights issues in the year before the 2008 presidential context (Gamber, 2007).
Yes, Government must be a force for opportunity. Yes, Government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our own future, each and every day. And that's what the NAACP is all about. The NAACP was not founded in search of a handout. The NAACP was not founded in search of favors. The NAACP was founded on a firm notion of justice, to cash the promissory note of America that says all of our children, all God's children, deserve a fair chance in the race of life.
--Barack Obama (2009d), Remarks during the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the NAACP on July 16, 2009
A comparison of the comments that then-Senator Barack Obama made to the NAACP in 2005 (reprinted at the beginning of the present paper) with the comments that now-President Barack Obama made to the NAACP in 2009 (reprinted directly above) indicate that Obama has been consistent in pursuing the dual themes of individual and collective responsibility that have defined his public and private life. As the years have passed, Obama has made the theme of individual responsibility increasingly prominent in his speeches. However, that theme has always permeated his words and actions; and that theme has always been accompanied by an unwavering belief that the United States Government can and should be pressed into service on behalf of Americans in general, and on behalf of African Americans in particular.
At the outset of the present paper, I introduced the theme of Obama's double consciousness. Taken together, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Obama, 1995/2008) and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Obama, 2006/2008) capture Obama's "two souls" in a way that likely would have made W. E. Du Bois proud (see Gates, 2009). Critiques of Obama notwithstanding, Obama's words and deeds have consistently affirmed Obama's African and American selves over the years.
In conclusion, the "Barack Obama phenomenon" identified in the present paper suggests that Du Bois's (1903/1969) pre-Civil Rights Era concept of Black double consciousness remains relevant to understanding the social-psychological experiences of African Americans. Although Obama's (1995/2008, 2006/2008) autobiographical account is unique, it nonetheless speaks to individual African Americans and to other persons whose selves historically have been experienced as divided. Obama's ability to navigate between their African/interdependent and American/independent selves stands as testimony to Obama's cosmopolitanism--not the opportunistic, "free-floating" type of permeable identities (Appiah, 2006) that have been derided by critics (and noted by a reviewer of a previous version of the present paper) but, rather, the authentic type of cosmopolitanism that characterizes individuals who are equally at home within various communities. Obama's effectiveness in functioning as a citizen of the world has captured the imagination of followers within and outside the United States; and Obama's "two souls" have served him well as he has become arguably the most powerful person on Earth.
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STANLEY O, GAINES, JR.--BRUNEL UNIVERSITY
Stanley O. Gaines, Jr. is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, School of Social Sciences, Brunel University (United Kingdom). He authored the book, Culture, Ethnicity, and Personal Relationship Processes (Routledge, 1997); and he has written or co-written more than 80 additional publications in the fields of ethnic studies and close relationships…