The Wright-Obama Split in Historic Perspective

Sen. Barack Obama's recent fallout with Rev. Jeremiah Wright transcends daily news. The gravity of their broken friendship commands larger perspective. Now that they have separated into opposing camps, it is possible to see their argument replaying Black America's central conflict: Booker T. Washington vs. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois.

Every Black American is either Washington or Dr. DuBois. He either aspires to self-reliance, or feeds off white guilt. He either proactively affirms himself, or he perpetually reacts against his imagined white master. If Washington's disciples must show restraint, lest self-reliance corrupt into pride, then Dr. DuBois's followers are consumed by the deadly sin of envy.

Washington's philosophy of self-reliance and Dr. DuBois' sophisticated resentment are contradictions, not contraries. One is true and the other is false. For the modes of existence available to Black America -- self-help or protest -- are not mutually inclusive, like yin or yang. Black existential choice comes down to Washington or Dr. DuBois. Lately, that dilemma has manifested thus -- Sen. Obama or Rev. Wright.

By founding Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute in 1881, Booker T. Washington established the prototype for modern Black civilization. His school encouraged enterprise and industry. Washington founded the National Negro Business League, in 1900, to comprehend the socio-economic organization that had Tuskegee for its base of operations. He understood that property rights, to wit "life, liberty and property," are the soul of citizenship; that protection of property is the US government's basic purpose. He designed his educational system and economic policy to build a nation within a nation of property-owners.

Dr. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) dismissed Washington's emphasis on property rights as a sellout. He libeled the Black capitalist as an "Uncle Tom." Capital formation drove Washington's "Tuskegee machine," but Dr. DuBois discarded it in favor of protest. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded by white liberals in 1909, has presided over the civil rights movement ever since. Dr. DuBois's followers, the Black bourgeoisie vanguard, the so-called "Talented Tenth," do resent their liberal white masters. But they most passionately hate the Black who would master the universe. They exemplify the crabs that Washington once described, jealously combining to pull back into the barrel the one crab that would climb out.

But climb out Washington did. He picked up where the great freedom fighter, Frederick Douglass, had left off. Douglass, a former slave, had demanded "equality." Washington commanded "equity." Douglass had justly fought for "freedom and equality." Washington encouraged responsible citizenship via acquiring property. He taught self-help and self-reliance. He instilled discipline.

Sen. Obama's politics evoke those values. It therefore comes as no surprise that Talented Tenth preacher Rev. Wright is now trying to pull Sen. Obama back into the crab-barrel, just as Dr. DuBois had tried to pull Washington a hundred years ago.

What is this crab-barrel today? It is the slave mentality that resents the white man and envies the Black upstart. It is the netherworld wherein the Talented Tenth, for their role as middleman between white mastery and Black unrest, earn honorary white status and token privileges. It is where the Talented Tenth feed as parasites off white guilt. It is the limbo between white bourgeois heaven and Black proletarian hell.

White guilt is the crab-barrel's necessary condition. Thus do the Talented Tenth's civil rights activists eagerly await proofs of white guilt, such as last Fall's "Jena Six" case and the recent police shooting death of Sean Bell. Thus do the Talented Tenth's pseudo-militants use conspiracy theories to allege white guilt, for example Rev. Wright's claim that the US government invented AIDS to destroy the Black race. Thus does Rev. Wright's resentment of white guilt, masquerading as "Black liberation theology," perpetrate slave religion. For resentment defines the slave mentality.

But Sen. Obama, like Washington before him, embodies self-help as opposed to resentment. He affirms responsibility as Black uplift's necessary condition. His presidential ambition nobly affirms Black identity. Indeed, it affirms American identity.

Sen. Obama or Rev. Wright? Black America must choose.

King Solomon had faced a similar dilemma, of two women claiming the same child. He chose wisely by dint of his sword: "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, half to the other." He knew the true mother for her willingness to give up her child if only her child be saved. Conversely, the false mother revealed her falsehood when she said, "Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it." Love of the child overwhelmed the true mother. Envy of the true mother damned the false mother.

The choice between Sen. Obama and Rev. Wright is not between Washington and Dr. DuBois so much as it is between the true mother and the false mother. Black America must now raise the sword. We must choose.

Taru Taylor is Professor of English at Semyung University, Jecheon, South Korea.