Barack Obama and the Legacy of the Model Negro

by Dax-Devlon Ross

 Before there were “good blacks” there were “model negroes.” And before there were “model negroes” there were Head Negroes In Charge. Though distinguishable, they are each part of a continuum, a tradition, that traces itself back to Frederick Douglass and is fully crystallized in Booker T. Washington. All three strains of the “acceptable” black are in conversation with one another. They borrow each other’s symbolic elements even as they put them to use – and are put to use – in their specific epoch to allay white America’s anxieties. Their emergences and particular characteristics are in large part dependent upon the contours of their counterpart— the “bad black,” the “black separatist” and “uppity nigger.” For example, Bayard Rustin once noted how, following Paul Robeson’s 1949 statement that blacks would not go to war against the Soviet Union because of it racial egalitarianism, the mainstream black leaders of the day – Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Roy Wilkins and Walter White – successfully used Robeson to gain ground on the integration front. Even as they isolated and denounced him, Rustin noted,

[H]is “wild” statement helped to make their demands, by comparison, appear reasonable and even modest; his implied threat of future disorder made the passage of their “responsible, middle-of-the-road” program seem more urgently necessary. (Duberman, 345)



Part I. The Head Negro In Charge at the Turn of the Century

When Booker T. Washington stood before an integrated audience on September 18, 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta and told whites, “[i]n all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” and implored blacks to “[c]ast down your bucket where you are,” the age of the Head Negro In Charge was ushered in. When Washington woke up the following day, he discovered that he had become a national phenomenon overnight. As he stepped out onto the streets that morning, whites rushed to greet him, to shake his hand. In him they had found their savior— the man who would instill blacks with core American values and maintain the status quo. Over the next twenty years Washington would rise to a level of unparalleled prominence in America as the chief spokesperson for black America. Whenever a riot or lynching occurred, the media would seek him out and he would obligingly give them what they were looking for: A suitably reactionary statement that generally assuaged white guilt and chided black deviance. His school, Tuskegee, would acquire an endowment that paralleled the most revered white institutions in the land. During Teddy Roosevelt’s administration he would be the first black ever invited to dine at the White House. Every four years the Republican Party would enlist his services to secure the black vote. Whenever another African-American was up for a prominent position, Washington’s stamp of approval was sought.Washington was acutely aware of his tenuous claim to power and worked fervently to maintain it by cultivating relationships with industrialists like Andrew Mellon. He also used his extensive “Tuskegee Machine” to derail the careers of potential rivals he could not control. Only after the first wave of the Great Migration and the rise of N.A.A.C.P. did Washington’s unmatched claim to authority within black America vis a vis white America begin to decline. Not long thereafter, the Wizard of Tuskegee died.

Although Washington had lost considerable power by the time of his death, he left a lasting impression on those who would assume his mantle. If one wanted power in the eyes of white America one had to, in a sense, emulate Booker T. One had to preach the gospel of patience, of humility, of thrift. One could not openly and directly challenge the status quo. One had to carefully couch one’s criticisms of racial prejudice in the most non-threatening terms. In short, one had to ‘know one’s place’ and be willing to ‘play ball’ if one wanted to be legitimized by the American establishment. Radical leaders like Dubois and later Garvey were only reluctantly acknowledged outside of black America because they could not be ignored. Their power was organic— it grew out of their relationship with an evolving consciousness within black America (and liberal white America). They bravely offered blacks a possibility that stood in stark contrast to Washington’s. They critiqued American racism, empowered blacks with positive self-imagery and denounced black leaders who conspired with the “enemy” in black America’s name. It is little wonder that throughout their respective lives Dubois and Garvey were targeted, isolated and censured by rival black leaders, the white press and ultimately the federal government itself.

 Ralph Bunche

Part II: The Model Negro and Post World War II America

America’s entry into World War II had marked the beginning of the end of Negro ethnic group insularity; an entirely new phase of American Negro life was underway. Until 1940, the word integration had not appeared, even in the language of the NAACP; the war inspired the first articles in Crisis, NAACP’s official publication, demanding the “integration of the armed forces.” (Prior to that, the organization’s theme had been civil rights.)

Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

Harold Cruse’s penetrating analysis of the strategic shift from the pre-World War II “civil rights” agenda to the “integration” agenda, is critical to any serious understanding of the development of the “model negro.” Before America’s entry into the war, A. Phillip Randolph had organized the original March on Washington to protest segregation in the armed forces and the ultra-racist hiring practices of federally financed defense corporations. Although Franklin Roosevelt was able to come up with an 11th hour plan to avoid the march and quell the unrest – Executive Order 8802 – the armed forces remained segregated until Truman was forced to abolish segregation in the armed forces in 1948 when Randolph threatened to march again. Three definitive factors compelled Truman to act as he did. First, while Roosevelt wrapped the nation’s war effort in the garb of the “Four Freedoms,” black Americans had chosen their own battle-cry: The “Double V” campaign. They had agreed to fight fascism abroad but only to the extent that they were fighting fascism at home as well. When they returned from the war they brought with them a new attitude and a new set of expectations. The various theaters of battle had awakened a militancy in them en masse and they were not going to be denied their civil liberties any longer. The militancy was reflected across the black spectrum as even moderate organizations like the NAACP worked with organized labor for the first time and preached against the evils of imperialism in the Crisis. The second factor was that the war with communist North Korea was imminent and the newly minted Leader of the Free World could not afford to spoil its international image. The third factor is entwined with the second but in need of further elucidation.

During his campaign in 1948, Truman actively sought and received the support of Walter White— the secretary of the NAACP. At that time the NAACP had a national membership of about 500,000 and was far and away the most influential black organization in the land. Truman’s adversaries in the election were Republican Thomas Dewey and Progressive Henry Wallace. Wallace’s egalitarian platform had attracted the likes of Dubois and Robeson and many other left-leaning blacks. His campaign demanded an end to segregation, full voting rights for blacks, and universal government health insurance. It included black candidates campaigning alongside white candidates in the south, and during the campaign he refused to appear before segregated audiences or eat or stay in segregated establishments. Wallace attracted blacks in droves and was able to appear on several state ballots primarily because of black signatures. Realizing blacks would be the deciding factor in the election, Truman had to find a way to win the black vote. Through Walter White he was able to create a compromise that would work out overwhelmingly in his favor: If White and others would actively support his candidacy, denounce Wallace as a Communist and cease criticizing American foreign policy, Truman would push for “integration.” White, desperate to distance the NAACP from the Communist tag that was increasingly being slapped on the organization and to save his own status as the HNIC of the moment, jumped at Truman’s offer.

Once mainstream black leadership had tied its ship to America’s Cold War politics, a “new negro” had to be fashioned to test the interracial waters and ready white America for the transition. This new negro had to defy their stereotypes and in many ways mirror the nation’s highest ideals. He had to be so American that they would overlook the fact of his race. At the same time he had to provide other blacks with an inspirational example of their own possibilities and be a model for their moral aspirations. This was a complicated but a necessary task, particularly since radical blacks like Robeson and Dubois, along with literary giants like Wright and Hughes, were relentless in exposing American hypocrisy abroad.

Sidney Poitier on the silver screen, Jackie Robinson on the playing field and Ralph Bunche – the first black Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1950 – in the political sphere are each the result of the search for suitable blacks to lead the integration charge. They were unique individuals who rose to fame at different stages in their careers, but they had several characteristics in common. They were educated, polite, spoke “proper” English, dressed conservatively; they were largely nonsexual beings, with nonthreatening dispositions and a sense of humor. Bunche biographer Charles Henry notes how despite their intelligence and conscience, “they were throwbacks to the mild-mannered “Toms” and humanized Christian servants of earlier eras; when insulted and badgered, they stood and took it.” (Henry, 166).

These characteristics would ultimately become the defining traits of the “model negro” and the standard by which other blacks would be judged. All three men came from humble, hard-working backgrounds— something the media was quick to grab hold of a play up as well. Fashioning them as truly American in the tradition of Horatio Alger was critical. By linking them to American meritocracy, they could be used as shining examples of the ultimate “fairness” of the American system even though their opportunities throughout their lives were by no means “ordinary” or indicative of the opportunities most blacks would obtain. Poitier, Robinson and Bunche were weapons in the fight against international and domestic Communism. Blacks who were susceptible to Robeson’s anger, Dubois’s intellect and Wright’s artistic imagery, would be pointed toward these newer constellations and told to believe in the promise of a new America, and, again, to be patient.

The American media played a crucial role in the construction of the model negro. Unlike the HNICs from previous generations, the model negro wasn’t an organic creation of the group. He did not rise up through the ranks via race leadership. He was chosen – hand-picked if you will – for the benefit of white America – to assuage its anxieties – and only secondarily for the benefit of black America. He was also used in a way that was previously unheard of: Against militant blacks. Certainly there had been friction between black leaders in the past, but those clashes had taken place internally and had played themselves out in the black press. When Dubois attacked Garvey and vice versa it was because they had fundamental personal and philosophical differences not because outsiders incited them. Their vitriol appeared in their newspapers and magazines. White America was disinterested in the battle for directional supremacy taking place within the black community. They did not “pit” black leaders against one another. Black leaders had genuine differences of opinion that were largely based on class conflict. However, with the birth of the model negro came the practice of pitting one leader – the “uppity nigger”– against another, the model negro. We would of course see this dynamic play out in full with the media’s construction of Malcolm-Martin struggle a decade later.

Ultimately, all three of these men – Poitier, Robinson and Bunche – would struggle with their roles and would attempt to transcend them during the Black Freedom Movement a decade later. The tag of model negro would haunt Bunchie who grew weary of being the “token black” at the cocktail parties and eventually saw himself alienated from younger blacks who viewed him as a “sell-out.” Later in life Bunche would grow disillusioned and bitter toward America domestic policy and would voice solidarity with the Black Power radicals of the late-60’s. Jackie Robinson would also grow restless with his model negro status and would actively join the Movement once his playing days were over. By the end of his life he had also grown disillusioned with America and with the game he had integrated. Poitier, whose poise was the signature of his career, lent his conscience and his voice to the struggle for equality throughout the 1960s.


Part III: Post-Civil Rights and the Rise of the Good Black

[W]hites discriminated in [Colin] Powell’s favor because he challenged their negative stereotypes of blacks. First, he had succeeded in a respected white institution: the military. Second, he was the child of immigrants, a man whose family history highlighted America’s opportunities, not its racism. Third, he wasn’t ideologically radical. And, fourth, he didn’t look or sound stereotypically black. No one was blunter about this than Powell himself. Asked in 1995 to explain his appeal to whites, he volunteered that “I speak reasonably well, like a white person,” and, visually, “I ain’t that black.”

These words were culled from a New Republic article published two months ago. The article – Black Like Me – offers an explanation for white America’s love affair Barack Obama. It’s ultimate conclusion is that he makes them feel like they are fair-minded people. According to the author, Peter Beinart, there are “good” blacks and there are “bad” blacks. Obama and Powell are shining examples of the former. Like the generation of model negroes a half-century ago, they serve a vital function in the mind of white Americans: They assure them that they are not prejudiced.

What Powelll implicitly reveals through his remarks is that lighter skin was not necessarily one of the defining characteristics of the model negro a half-century ago but it is a defining mark today. Although Ralph Bunche was fair-skinned and could pass for a number of ethnicities other than African-American, both Poitier and Robinson were unequivocally black. The more important qualities of the model negro were his character; his intellect; his diction; and his exceptional talent.  Alternatively, the new leadership vanguard led by Cory Booker and Adrian Fenty – the new young mayors of Newark, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. – Obama and senatorial hopeful Harold Ford are all are peculiarly “non-black” in their appearance; their predecessors – the Sharpe Jameses and Marion Barrys and Harold Washingtons and Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons were all darker skinned. Beinart refers to a study that speaks directly to this very point and reveals America’s latent color bias. In the study, a political scientist doctored photos of a fictitious gubernatorial candidate to make him lighter- or darker-skinned and then showed both photos to focus groups. The study found that the groups were overwhelmingly critical of the dark-skinned black candidate.

The turning point between the good black and model negro was the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s. The awakening that took place during that time remixed the model negro into a figure of ridicule and contempt. One could no longer play that role and retain the support of the black community. People woke up to the ruse. They popped the balloon of false optimism. During that period the model negro became self-consciously aware of his own participation in the exploitation of his people. He began to wrestle with the limitations that had been placed upon him for the sake of the integration. Thanks in no small part to Malcolm X, he began shedding those qualities that were directly tied to white America’s standards of acceptable black behavior such as turning the other cheek and bearing insults with dignity.

Just as Bayard Rustin observed how Robeson’s “wild” remarks widened the parameters of possibility for moderate black leaders in the Cold War era, the model negro benefitted from the radicalism of the 1960s. The revolutionary demands made by H. Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton and Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver and Amiri Baraka and so many others not only made it possible for charismatic civil rights leaders like Marion Barry and Coleman Young to get elected into office in urban centers in the 1970s, they also opened the door for the good black who we now see rising to prominence in national politics. Because the militant black radical of the ‘60’s was willing to go to the extreme – violence and death – others could negotiate their way into the good graces of white America even though they too had moderately progressive agendas. White America also became more self-conscious about its prejudices during the period of turmoil. They had no choice— the revolution was being brought to them whether they wanted it or not. As they confronted their previously unconscious prejudices, they came to see that they were being given a choice: Either they go beyond mere symbolic tokenism and give up some of their privilege or risk having it taken from them by force. They chose to open the doors of opportunity for more blacks than ever before to rise into the ranks of the middle-class. In the 70’s they gritted their teeth and retreated to the suburbs, taking their wealth with them. In the ‘80s they stood by while the civil rights generation exhausted its political capital trying to hold together de-industrialized, crime-ridden cities. By the ‘90s they’d amassed enough ammunition to mount a comeback. They could argue that the failure of urban America was the result of short-sighted, inept leadership. The cities were crumbling because of poor management, and nepotism— because “bad blacks” had bamboozled their own community. It was time for the urban experiment to come to an end.

The good black is ultimately the latest invention of the American imagination. The good black doesn’t have to be Jackie Robinson (in fact, it’s best if he is not if he is to garner support from the black community) but he can not be Jesse Jackson either. He has fewer hurdles to leap in order to be accepted by whites, but those hurdles are higher they’ve ever been before. Not only must the good black still speak a dialect white America is familiar with, come from a background that emphasizes America’s possibilities rather than its limitations, and hold relatively moderate political views, he must have achieved at a “prestigious white institution” and preferably not look “too black.” In an America that has offered blacks an ever-widening piece of the pie since the unrest of 1960s, only a handful will have the motivation and ambition to become the good black. Put differently, even though one need not be the good black in order to achieve the American Dream, if one seeks the support of white America one still must meet its standards of acceptability.

The decisive difference between the model negro, the HNIC and the good black resides in the content of their power. The model negro was supposed to be an ostensibly powerless symbol and the HNIC derived his tenuous power from his ability to lead the group in whichever direction his white patrons wanted. Meanwhile, the good black – Obama now; Booker, Ford and Fenty in the near future – has the potential to be the leader of the free world. The stakes are infinitely higher and as a result white America’s deep-seeded prejudices are truly being called to task.

Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with the good black, just as there was nothing wrong with the model negro. Despite being creations of the American imagination, both are essentially positive forces. The trouble is that the good black like the model negro allows well-intentioned white Americans off the hook too easily and runs the risk of disillusioning minorities who naively invest faith in someone who looks like them. The very notion of a good black allows white America to hold onto white privilege by defining the acceptable qualities of black identity so that even a black candidate – which is what Obama is being sold on whether he says it or not – is predetermined by white standards of valuation, which have been declared “fair” before anyone can question them. Obama is articulate. He graduated from Harvard Law. Ethnically, he’s as American as they come. His experience is that of a black man. Anyone who dares challenge these standards by looking beneath the surface at their weighted underpinnings is attacked for being “jealous” or “negative.”

Already we’ve seen Sharpton unfairly pitted against Obama in an effort to create a controversy that would invariably ‘ice’ the elder black leader out of the political process by destroying his credibility. As students of history it is our responsibility to ensure that does not happen. Whether or not we like the Sharptons is not the issue. He has earned the right to speak, and he speaks for a considerable number of people. Given the circumscribed history of black political engagement it is critical that even as we elevate a new voice into the political discourse, we not be coerced into silencing others. That has been the story for more than a century now. From Booker T. tangling with Dubois for the ear (and dollars) of the few whites who were willing to listen and assist blacks, to Ralph Bunche being called upon to denounce Paul Robeson for his “unpatriotic” remarks, to, now, Barack Obama’s ascent being used to eliminate his embattled civil rights forebears, blacks have been required to fight each other for too little, too long. It is high time that custom comes to end.

Works Cited

Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography, (New York: Ballantine Books 1989)

Charles P. Henry, Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other?, (New York: NYU Press, 1989)

Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, (New York: New York Review of Books, 1967)

Paul Beinart, Black Like Me, (The New Republic, 2.05.07)