The "Two Souls" of Barack Obama

By Gaines, Stanley O., Jr. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The "Two Souls" of Barack Obama


Gaines, Stanley O., Jr., The Western Journal of Black Studies


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. …

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