I want to start by recounting two far-flung moments in American ethnic history. The second is from Booker T. Washington--the first is more recent. It comes from the New York Times News Service, February 2, 1994, the day after Deval Patrick was appointed assistant attorney general for civil rights. I offer it as a pointedly concentrated rendering of a familiar piece of the cultural liturgy. "Patrick's entire life," the Times intones, "has been one of overcoming obstacles. His rise from poverty to success is the kind of story that even some conservatives would cheer."1 The significance of this formula is precisely in its brevity. Its short-hand and unselfconscious reference to terms that are elaborated in countless texts, and its deliberate association of those terms with "conservative," which is to say self-consciously "American," identities suggest how thoroughly settled these terms are, by now, in our vocabularies. Only the barest hint is necessary since the operative language is so deeply embedded in the cultural code.
The generic story of self creation in America condensed by the Times is a simple and familiar one. A boy is born into obscure poverty.2 But, taking full advantage of such opportunities as life offers, and by dint of native abilities, hard work, and good character, he leaves his low past behind and achieves the solid American success he had barely dreamed for himself. The potency of this script is reflected in its broad use--so common as to seem almost natural, a cultural habit, a routine. As the official organizing interpretation and shaping ideal for numberless American narratives from Franklin's fragmented "Memoirs" to Nixon's, it has remained so powerful in our culture--even long after it had been made an object of parody by the militantly disillusioned like Nathaniel West--precisely because it embodies in individual terms the past and future of the nation. Patrick's appointment is so resonant because it encourages us to associate that promise of personal success and fufillment with a "civil right."
The second incident, from near the end of Booker T. Washington's work of automythography, Up from Slavery, relates what I take to be the defining moment of the book.3 Traveling by train in Georgia, Washington is invited to sit with two white Bostonian women of his acquaintance in a car full of white Georgia men. To Washington's discomfort and the obvious dismay of the Georgians, one of the women orders a meal, and, unable to get away, Washington rushes through his dinner under the glare of Southern eyes. Afterwards, Washington moves apprehensively to the smoking car to find out how things stand. But, once there,