Race has been a central in American history and culture since the colonial era despite the efforts of some to scrape it clean from the granite face of the past. The recent death of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd reminded me of an infamous interview the former Klansmen gave in which he suggested that racial problems are a product of Americans talking about race too much. In the same set of comments, Byrd used the phrase “white n.______” (insert racial expletive) to describe working class whites, whites who were, in his mind, not white enough.
The election of Barack Obama created a new kind of public discussion about race in the United States. More optimistic commentators suggest that America has taken the first steps toward becoming a post-racial society. Others would argue that racism today comes embodied in more subtle forms, linked with classist assumptions and encoded in discourses about the poor that seem straight out of Reagan’s America. This new racism emerges in a renewed hostility toward the marginalized and a proliferation of myths about those who receive minimal benefits from our fragile social services system. The urban legend of “the welfare mother in the Escalade” has replaced the Reaganite “welfare mother in the Cadillac” among tea partiers and blogging neo-fascists.
The Age of Obama is an age of contradictions. Too many seem to believe that Robert Byrd’s notion that a post-racial society is one in which we refrain from a discussion of race while expanding the categories of people we hate and oppress. Robert Stepto’s A Home Elsewhere attempts a reading of African American literature, specifically autobiography, in this complex context. Stepto argues that African American narrative must be read “knowing, and actually being stunned by the fact, that an African American writer is our president” (emphasis Stepto’s). The author refers, of course, to Obama’s elegantly written memoir, Dreams from My Father, which chronicles his youth, adolescence and early manhood as a time of struggle with the nature of his own racial identity.
Obama grew up with his white mother and grandparents, his Kenyan father an almost mythic figure whose infrequent appearances in his young son’s life reads like a series of regrettable failures and missed opportunities. In “Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama and the Search for Patrimony”, the strongest chapter in this short book, the author examines the college-age Obama’s interest in 20th century African American literature, specifically the literature of black identity created by Du Bois, Baldwin, Ellison and Malcolm X. Stepto notes that My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) by Frederick Douglass, the famed escaped slave turned abolitionist leader, was likely off of Obama’s reading list but should have been at the top. Stepto carefully traces how Douglass’ search for a father and efforts to build community with others in a struggle for justice parallels Obama’s own desire to find his identity in relation to paternity, a search that in Dreams from My Father culminates in his work as a community organizer.
Readers looking for a straightforward elucidation of how African American literature sheds light on the current “state of race” in Obama’s America will come away disappointed. A Home Elsewhere includes the complete text of the author’s 2009 Du Bois lectures at Harvard University, combined with three other essays and a fictional piece by the author. Stepto’s incisive analysis involves, for example, a very close reading of how writers from James Weldon Johnson to Du Bois to Obama himself have written about their “school day blues”, their initiation into racial difference by white classmates. Seldom does he connect these ruminations to the contemporary American situation.
Stepto does, however, connect both Obama and the work of African American writers to the larger American historical experience. The classic works of African American autobiography are a special subgenre of an American culture obsessed with the acts of self-creation associated with memoir. Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Barack Obama’s efforts to simultaneously describe and discover their experience, to wrestle identity out of the America’s race obsessions, are similar in approach to the river of autobiography that has flowed from American pens since Benjamin Franklin. Stepto shows that they differ from works by white writers, not only by the material conditions in which they were produced, but also in the nature of the readership they assume.
Modern literary theory assumes the unreliability and instability of the text, stressing the notion that the reader “re-authors” the text by bringing her own experiences to it. Stepto brilliantly suggests that the African American author has tended to face a hostile and unstable readership, one that she must distrust profoundly. Stepto argues that African American writers have attempted to negotiate the combative nature of the writer-reader relationship by subverting the nature of their own texts, presenting themselves as storytellers rather than “fiction writers”. This strategy, he argues, forces the white reader to become a listener and part of a community of listeners, rather than a critic engaged in America’s race rituals of hostile response or patronizing paternalism.
Stepto’s willingness to confront the white reader of African American classics becomes, in the end, the great strength of this book. While never truly coming to terms with the politics and public conversation of the age of Obama, the author does something at once subtler and more direct. In the introduction, Stepto quotes Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) description of how, in America, African Americans are “at once unseen and constantly observed”. Stepto’s meditations force the white reader, including and especially the allegedly “color-blind” reader in the Age of Obama, to confront this paradox, this internal security system of America’s racial and racist system of control.