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  • Ari Patrinos

Two Interpretations of 'Black Freedom': Self-Reliance & Institutional Racism

At the turn of the twentieth century, two basic interpretations of 'black freedom' emerged from the black Southern & Northern leadership, respectively. In the South, Booker T. Washington's opinions prevailed, and his concept of black freedom was based on what Ralph Wald Emerson called: 'Self-Reliance'. This is effectively the 'black Republican' view today. In the North, the voices of figures like William Monroe Trotter & especially WEB Du Bois emerged most prominently in time. In today's lingo, Du Bois saw the progress of black freedom as primarily a function of the progress of the fight against ‘institutional racism'. Consequently, black freedom required calling out institutional racism, in order to persuade the powerful Federal Government to intervene & reform less powerful, but racist, state and local institutions. This is more or less the view of black leaders in the Democratic Party today, and its 'central character' is the 'black radical activist', who agitates to make everyone 'aware' of America's institutional racism, in order to effect more Federal Government reform of state and local institutional racism. In contrast, in Booker's story, the main character is the 'black statesman', who guides other black Americans to Self-Reliance, kind of like Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad.


These interpretations are in fact the product of two distinct Afro-American oral traditions, one Southern and one Northern. These traditions had not yet merged in the same way that they have today, because no mass migration had yet happened of Southern blacks to the North, and the Civil Rights Movement had no yet joined these two 'black Parties'. The only thing that really linked these two Parties were leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and their slave narratives, but the two Parties' interpretations of these slave narratives were very different, respectively. Partly, because, unlike people like Trotter & Du Bois, the Southern blacks still remembered the experience of being slaves. Booker T. was much closer to the institution of slavery than people like Trotter & Du Bois, who had only read about slavery in books. Unlike the others, Booker T. actually composed his own preeminent slave narrative, Up From Slavery, and Booker's slave narrative redefined the genre, as well as the interpretation of slavery and its aftermath.


Booker T. saw a limited role for the Federal Government in his understanding of black freedom, because he views black dependence on the Federal Government as another mode of servitude, an 'exchange of white masters', so to speak, just like characters in Aesop's Fables. Consequently, he sees a limited role for the radical black activist, who ultimately should be subordinate to the agenda of the black statesman. Otherwise, you have a situation where agitating runaway slaves, who don't know the path to the Mason-Dixon line, are trying to re-direct the journey of Harriet Tubman. Subsequently, this can only lead to getting nabbed by the slave-catchers and everyone getting 'sold down the river'.


The danger of people like Du Bois 'going off the reservation', so to speak, is that they are like the black 'slave agitators' of old. They are skillful at getting other slaves to run away with them, but they mistake their ‘powers of persuasion’ for knowledge of the path to the Mason-Dixon line, and this just gets everybody caught & 'sold down the river'. All these black slave agitators think they are the next Harriet Tubman, but in fact there is only one Harriet Tubman, and that is how Booker T. views himself in the post-emancipation world of the black South, where approximately 90% of the Afro-American population resided at that time. He is the successor to Harriet Tubman and ultimately, to Frederick Douglass. He is the next logical step in black American leadership.


Du Bois sees himself as the true successor to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. as a usurper and impostor, a 'false-prophet', so to speak. While Du Bois' interpretation of Booker evolved over time, in the end he paints Booker as the 'bad head house slave', who effectively runs the large plantation on a daily basis, in conjunction with the white overseer, while the powerful white master attends to 'affairs of state' with other powerful white masters. In today's pop culture, Du Bois' (and especially Malcolm X's) interpretation of Booker T. is best depicted by Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. This is a cinematic portrayal, but it does capture how powerful the head house slave can become under the right circumstances. Potentially, the white master might come to trust and love this guy (or gal) more than he trusts and loves his white friends (or his white wife). This represents the bizarre dynamics of American Negro Slavery, and the deep emotional intimacy that occurred between certain white masters and black slaves. This head house slave can potentially bend the will of some of the most powerful men in the country, and even affect the course of domestic or foreign policy, even American history, if he (or she) is clever enough, and he (or she) works for someone like US Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or Andrew Jackson, and so on. The problem is that the 'bad head house slave' is still a slave, and he (or she) is actively preventing other slaves from running away and reaching the Mason-Dixon line. This is how Du Bois paints Booker in the end, and Malcolm X also appears to follow Du Bois in this interpretation of Booker, as seen in his 'parable of the house slave and the field slave'.


Malcolm X's parable directly references Booker's opening chapter of Up from Slavery. This parable, in conjunction with the rest of the narrative of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, has proven over time to be a far more devastating and effective attack on the interpretation of American history, that is presented by Booker's famous slave narrative, than anything Du Bois ever said or wrote. These two view Booker, like Stephen of Django Unchained, as too personally and emotionally invested in the institutionally racist system of the Jim Crow South to try to reform it. He only reinforces the racist system. Moreover, Booker T.'s so-called 'black power' is illusory, because it all depends on being a slave to his white master, who has the real power. Ultimately, this disagreement comes down to three different interpretations of American history, which leads to three different interpretations of the character and conditions of 'black freedom'. These three guys: Booker, Du Bois, and Malcolm X, have very different interpretations of slavery and its aftermath, partly because their proximity to the institution of slavery is very different. Their experiences are very different. There will never be a final solution to these questions, but what is important is that the debate can continue to illuminate the central issues at stake, and lead to greater clarity of purpose in the long run. My generation of black Democratic leaders & activists, 'Generation X', has adopted The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a postmodern urban slave narrative, as their unofficial interpretation of American history. This book is effectively a ‘bad field slave narrative’. The real challenge for the black intellectuals of the GOP is to find a way to update Booker's slave narrative, in a way that can address Malcolm X's implicit critique of Up from Slavery, while maintaining the classical structure of the slave narrative, without yielding to the temptation of Malcolm X's and Alex Haley's postmodern reinvention.




Il Trovatore (Aristarchus Patrinos) ; ~1250 words; September 3, 2020



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