Bill Ayers' Semi-Fictional Black Surrogates
Say what one will about the sanity of Ayers' educational philosophy, there is no denying his sincerity. He has been plugging away at educational reform his entire adult life. Dreams, I will argue, gave him the opportunity to address the one great obstacle to the reform of Chicago schools -- namely, an obstructionist black educational bureaucracy. To make his case in the book, Ayers employs three semi-fictional African American surrogates, the third of whom easily being the least fictional and most useful.
To be sure, there is much other evidence to believe that Ayers crafted Dreams: the comprehensive postmodern patois that Obama and Ayers share, the matching 50 or so nautical metaphors, the shared use of the Conrad-like triple-parallels, the nearly fetishistic eye and eyebrow metaphors, the three stunning parallel stories, the four matching errors, the same weary '60s worldview, the borrowed Ayers girlfriend in Dreams, the inarguably similar Homeric openings, the dramatically inferior writings of Obama before and after Dreams, and more. It is Ayers' strategic use of black surrogates, however, that will tell us why he involved himself in Dreams.
The first of the surrogates readers of Dreams know as "Frank." In real life, of course, he was poet, pornographer, and Communist Party member Frank Marshall Davis. Despite his influential role as mentor to the teenage Obama and his talents as a writer, Davis remains unknown to 99 percent of Obama supporters. The media are queasy about the "Communist" part.
In Dreams, Frank tells the college-bound Obama, "Understand something, boy. You're not going to college to get educated. You're going there to get trained." He continues, "They'll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They'll train you so good, you'll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit."
Not surprisingly, Ayers too has strong opinions about "education" on the one hand and "training" on the other. "Education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens," he writes in his 1993 book To Teach. "Training," on the other hand, "is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers." Adds Ayers, "What we call education is usually no more than training. We are so busy operating schools that we have lost sight of learning."
Just as Ayers makes the case that students are often stripped of their ethnic identity and "taught to be like whites," Frank argues that university expectations include "leaving your race at the door." I call Frank "semi-fictional" because Ayers used him to voice an educational philosophy that was not Davis's own.
As Davis makes clear in his own memoir, Livin' the Blues, he loved college! He was the rare African-American to get a college education in the 1920s, and he savored every minute of it. The years he spent at Kansas State University proved particularly rewarding. The campus was "beautiful," the students "usually agreeable," and his journalism department "excellent." It was here that he discovered his gift for poetry, a gift that was praised and nurtured by his uniformly white professors. In fact, he dedicated his second book of poetry to Charles Elkin Rogers, the department head with whom he shared "a fine friendship."
Throughout his memoir, Davis meets fellow black writers and cites their college backgrounds approvingly. He also meets open-minded white college students, whom he sees as the hope for America's racial future. His college poetry-reading tours on the mainland in 1973 and 1974 are huge successes. They fill him with hope and confidence. The "Frank" who speaks ill of university life is pure Ayers sock-puppet.
The second semi-fictional surrogate in Dreams goes by the phonied-up name "Asante Moran," likely a knowing tip of the hat to the Afrocentric educator Molefi Kete Asante. In Dreams, Moran lectures Obama and his pal "Johnnie" on the nature of public education:
"The first thing you have to realize," he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, "is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period.""Social control" is an Ayers obsession. "The message to Black people was that at any moment and for any reason whatsoever your life or the lives of your loved ones could be randomly snuffed out," he writes in his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days. "The intention was social control through random intimidation and unpredictable violence."
In Dreams, Moran elaborates on the fate of the black student: "From day one, what's he learning about? Someone else's history. Someone else's culture. Not only that, this culture he's supposed to learn is the same culture that's systematically rejected him, denied his humanity."
Precociously Afrocentric, especially for a white guy, Ayers has been making the same case since he first got involved in education. In 1968, as the 23-year-old director of an alternative school in Ann Arbor, he told the Toledo Blade:
The public schools' idea of integration is racist. They put Negro children into school and demand that they give up their Negro culture. Negro children are forced to speak, behave, and react according to middle-class standards.The third and most important semi-fictional Ayers surrogate is Barack Obama himself. Again, I say semi-fictional because the thoughts the Obama of Dreams voices about educational reform are no more his own than Moran's or Frank's are. What is more, these thoughts happen to match point by point those spelled out by Bill Ayers in a 1994 essay, the same year Ayers would have been polishing up Dreams.
The essay by Ayers and his nominal co-author, former New Communist Movement leader Michael Klonsky, has the kind of title one would expect from a former merchant seaman fond of nautical metaphors: "Navigating a restless sea: The continuing struggle to achieve a decent education for African American youngsters in Chicago."
The "Obama" excerpts are all from Dreams. The Ayers excerpts come from "Navigating."
- Obama: Chicago's schools "remained in a state of perpetual crisis."
- Ayers: Chicago schools remained in a "perpetual state of conflict, paralysis, and stagnation."
- Obama: Problems include a "bloated bureaucracy" and "a teachers' union that went out on strike at least once every two years" as another.
- Ayers: The "bureaucracy has grown steadily in the past decade." Ayers also confirms "Dreams" math, citing a "ninth walkout in 18 years."
- Obama: "Self-interest" is at the heart of the bureaucratic mess.
- Ayers: "Survivalist bureaucracies" struggle for power "to protect their narrow, self-interested positions against any common, public purpose."
- Obama: Educators "defend the status quo" and blame problems on "impossible" children and their "bad parents."
- Ayers: An educator serves as "apologist for the status quo" and "place[s] the blame for school failure on children and families."
- Obama: One problem is "an indifferent state legislature."
- Ayers: One problem is an "unwillingness on [the legislature's] part to adequately fund Chicago schools."
- Obama: "School reform" is the only solution.
- Ayers: The only solution is "reforming Chicago's schools."
For reasons both ideological and practical, Ayers did not wish to confront this bureaucracy. In none of his writing, in fact, can he bring himself to challenge black leadership, however flawed. He inevitably traces Chicago school problems to white people: Mayor Daley, Chicago businessmen, unnamed "professionals," Reagan education secretary William Bennett, even "right-wing academic Chester Finn." In "Navigating," he disingenuously affirms the black activists who gripe that assaults on the bureaucracy were based not "on hopes for educational change, but on simple Chicago race politics."
On this racially tender issue, not so strangely, Dreams tells a different story. Obama openly chides the black "teachers, principals, and district superintendents" who "knew too much" to send their own children to public school. "The biggest source of resistance was rarely talked about," Obama continues -- namely, that these educators "would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before."
Black obstructionism was "rarely talked about" because white people who did would almost invariably be called racist, and blacks feared blowback from the bureaucracy. Ayers himself would not talk about it, at least not publicly. In the Obama of Dreams, however, Ayers finally had someone black who could voice his own private opinions publicly.
As to the claims of these educators, affirmed in "Navigating," that "cutbacks in the bureaucracy "were part of a white effort to wrest back control," the author of Dreams says teasingly, "not so true." Not so true? In these three words one can anticipate Obama's potential return on Ayers' investment.
Bill Ayers surely recognized this. Tom Ayers likely did, too. Dreams was a careful book, one written to launch the career of a deeply indebted and highly malleable Chicago politician, maybe even a mayor -- one who saw the world through white eyes, as the Ayers family did, but one who could articulate the city's real problems in words that only an African-American could access.
In 1994, however, Obama was still struggling with a book commissioned three years earlier. He had already blown one advance and was struggling with a second. As Ayers surely knew, a published author -- indeed, the author of "the best memoir ever produced by an American politician" according to Time Magazine -- had a much better political future than a failed writer with a contract hanging over his head.
In retrospect, the completion of the book by Ayers seems part of a calculated launch. With Ayers' help, Obama assumed the chairmanship of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) in February 1995. The Annenberg Foundation had breathed the CAC to life that same year with a $50-million grant to be matched by $100 million from other sources. The money was to fund educational reform projects.
Ayers was the co-founder and guiding force behind this massive slush fund. Ayers' own radical projects received enough funding to raise eyebrows even within the CAC. As a chairman more than a little indebted to Ayers, Obama seemed indifferent to possible conflicts of interest as he happily signed off on Ayers' adventures.
In June of 1995, Dreams was published, and in September 1995, Ayers hosted a campaign kick-off for Obama at Ayers' home. In November 2008, Ayers had the nerve to tell the audience of ABC's Good Morning America, "I think he was probably in 20 homes that day as far as I know. But that was the first time I really met him."
This background makes sense of Ayers' decision to rescue Dreams from an Obama whose sluggish work ethic and sophomoric writing style were betraying their shared ambitions. Having been called in to rescue a few books myself, I have a good sense of the effort Ayers put into the project. It was considerable. If Tom Ayers were indeed behind the Obama launch, as the mailman suggests, he could have made it worth Bill's while. Someone apparently did.