Further Thoughts on Obama's 1995 Video

The passage from Dreams from My Father that Obama reads in his recently unearthed 1995 book presentation video contains the following lines, “I looked to corroborate this nightmare vision. I gathered up books from the library -- Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois (sic).”

What caught my ear were two things, one consequential, one superficial, both revealing. Starting with the superficial, the pronunciation of “Du Bois” is something of a shibboleth on the left, meaning a word whose pronunciation is used to “differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups.”

A black Communist, W.E.B. Du Bois himself wrote in a letter to a newspaper, "The pronunciation of my name is Due Boyss, with the accent on the last syllable." The pronunciation was well known on the left for the confusion it caused. In 1964, the Communist Party USA sponsored a national youth organization, the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs of America. As the story goes, the FBI, upon hearing of these clubs, confused them with the Boys Clubs of America and put the latter under surveillance. This was something of a running joke in leftist circles.

In the 1995 video, Obama pronounced “Du Bois” the way Blanche DuBois did in Streetcar Named Desire, as the French would, Due Bwah. In Dreams, he spelled it that way too. I think he made this error because he did not actually read Du Bois or talk about Du Bois but rather imported the reference -- and the anger implicit in it -- from his muse, the terrorist emeritus Bill Ayers. Ayers did read DuBois. “W.E.B. DuBois’ greatest book was called John Brown,” Ayers said in a published interview in 2012. “Nobody reads it, but it was a great book.”

At least five other authors Obama cites in Dreams -- Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin -- Bill Ayers cites in his writings as well. As an aside, both Obama and Ayers misspell Fanon's first name in the same way as "Franz." They both also incorrectly refer to the South African city of Sharpeville, the site of an incident iconic on the left, in the possessive as “Sharpsville” or “Sharpesville.”

Although I could find no example of Ayers spelling “Du Bois,” I cannot believe he would mispronounce it. If he had, his buddies in the Weather Underground would have smoked him out as an FBI plant. That’s what shibboleths are for.

However shaky his hold on this literature, Obama gives no suggestion that his reading, real or imagined, of Marxists like Hughes, Wright, Fanon, and Du Bois was in any way problematic or a mere phase in his development. He moves on to no new school, embraces no new worldview. Once on the mainland, he needed a way to rationalize his anger, and authors like these gave him all the excuses he needed.

Of more consequence in the 1995 video is Obama’s description of the anger he felt. In fact, he introduced the passage he was about to read by saying, “I am a very angry young man at the time this passage takes place.” If Obama was exaggerating the depth of his anger, he was being at least partly honest when he cited, as cause, the absence of his father.

In his biography of Obama, the Washington Post’s David Maraniss suggests a corollary source, the absence of his mother. “What was upsetting him,” Obama high school friend Keith Kakugawa told Maraniss, “[was] that his mother took off again. She never had time anymore.”

Black conservative activist Jesse Lee Peterson has astutely made the observation that fatherless children, black or white, grow up angry at their parents, their fathers for abandoning them, their mothers for driving the fathers away. If white children park their anger in a hundred different places, black children are encouraged from early on to direct their anger at white people and the “white” establishment.

Obama came late to this game. As he told his book audience, it was not until his last years in high school that he began to “struggle with what it means to be a black man in America.” Isolated as he was from black American culture, he regretted that he had no “father figures around to guide me and steer my anger.”

Unfortunately for America, the father figures Obama found steered his anger in a highly destructive direction. One was Communist Frank Marshall Davis. In the passage Obama read, it was Davis who assures Obama “that black people have a reason to hate.”

On the mainland, Obama looked for father figures to continue his education. He found one in Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright. He found another in Bill -- “the last communist” – Ayers. The two tag-teamed the insecure Obama. Ayers, in fact, described Wright as a “distinguished theologian and major intellectual,” meaning that Wright too spelled “Amerikkka” with three Ks.

The passage Obama read in the 1995 video had Ayers’s fingerprints all over it. The difference between the eloquence of the words Obama read and the tortured syntax of the words he spoke was obvious to anyone who has seen the 1995 video. Besides, Ayers was a master of “rage.” In his writing, he speaks of it the way that Eskimos do of snow -- in so many ways, so often, that he feels the need to qualify the varieties.

A former community organizer who named his kids Malik and Zayd, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama’s head and directing Obama’s anger away from his absent parents and towards white America. Like Wright, Ayers reinforced Davis’s message “that black people have a reason to hate.”

Davis was born in 1905 in rural Kansas. Obama was born in 1961 and raised in Hawaii. He lacked the real experiences to justify the race hatred Davis and others insisted was his birthright. So he had to make them up, as he did in the passage he read in the video.

Obama-friendly biographer David Remnick concedes that many of the grievances Obama cited in Dreams were  “novelistic contrivances,” but if Obama “darkens the canvas” or “heightens whatever opportunity arises” to score a racial point, he does so, according to Remnick, “obviously” because he is going “after an emotional truth.”

Shelby Steele, who is biracial himself, has seen these kind of “truths” played out around him from the time he was a boy in a still segregated world. In his underappreciated 2008 book, The Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, Steele dissected Obama’s soul with more precision than anyone before or since, and he did so before Obama had won a primary. The book’s subtitle, by the way, only seems to suggest a miscalculation on Steele’s part. The “win” does not refer to the election.

Obama’s dilemma, as Steele sees it, was that in his quest to seem an “authentic” black man, Obama has felt compelled to exaggerate the state of black victimization. Rather than fix problems, many of which are generated within the black community, the newly authentic Obama has fixed blame. 

When Obama has attempted to address moral issues, some more authentic black leader could be counted on to slap him down, as Jesse Jackson did in July 2008 when he threatened “to cut his nuts off.” This posture has not made for a useful governing strategy. Instead, says Steele, it “commits [Obama] to a manipulation of the very society he seeks to lead.”

In his desperate quest for authenticity, Obama has manipulated events in Sanford, Florida, in Ferguson, Missouri, and from the Oval Office itself. In so doing, the president America elected to heal its racial divisions has deepened them, perhaps beyond repair.

And still he rages on, insecure, uncertain, not even knowing how to pronounce “Du Bois.”