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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

The Myth of Self-Made Men (and Women) and the African American Imagination

To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

Conventional versions of the figure of the self-made man as white (and male) have excluded many groups and minorities, among them African Americans.

Yet, as the self-made man has been such a prominent figure of empowerment, emancipation, self-reliance, and autonomy in the American cultural imagination, it is perhaps not surprising that African American writers and intellectuals took up the image as well as its cultural scripts of success and appropriated them for their own ends. In this section, I will thus trace the critical as well as affirmative responses to the powerful cultural prototype of the self-made man that can be found in African American cultural criticism, literature, and popular culture from Frederick Douglass to Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama.

Scholars of slavery have argued for viewing the early African American literary form of the slave narrative as a modification of the success myth: When using a broad definition of the self-made man, we may consider the author/ narrator of the slave narrative as a subject that has refigured himself (or herself) as a free person. This kind of interpretation prioritizes notions of freedom and emancipation over ideas of upward mobility and economic abundance, and turns the African American freedman or runaway slave into a paradigmatic exemplum of the self-made man who triumphs over adversity due to his own strength and perseverance and infuses a strong moral sense into the discourse of the self-made man. Frederick Douglass (1817/18-1895) for instance documents in his autobiography his own process of emancipation in a way that strongly resonates with the myth of the self-made man. Douglass, who certainly had read Franklin (he quotes Franklin’s aphorisms every once in a while in his own writings), and admired him, among other things, for being the President of the first Abolition Society in America, has often been called “a sort of Negro edition of Ben Franklin” (Alain Locke qtd. in Zafar, “Franklinian Douglass” 99). In his writings, Douglass himself reacted ambivalently to being called a self-made man:

I have sometimes been credited with having been the architect of my own fortune, and have pretty generally received the title of a “self-made man;” and while I cannot altogether disclaim this title, when I look back over the facts of my life, and consider the helpful influences exerted upon me, by friends more fortunately born and educated than myself, I am compelled to give them at least an equal measure of credit, with myself, for the success which has attended my labours in life. (Life 900)

Rather than identifying with notions of the self-made man, Douglass reacts to this appellation with modesty, and seeks to give credit for his success to a collective agency of helpers and supporters of the abolitionist cause. Focusing on the assistance and support needed to become a self-made man, Douglass thus modifies the myth of the self-made man to suggest that there is a collective of helpers surrounding self-made men that should not be ignored for the purpose of elevating the individual in an undue manner.

Apart from referring to the self-made myth in his autobiographical writings, Douglass also wrote a talk titled “The Trials and Triumphs of Self-Made Men,” which he delivered in slightly different versions on more than 50 occasions in the US, Canada, and Great Britain between 1859 and 1893, and which has been referred to as his “most familiar lecture” (McFeely, Frederick Douglass 298). Even if “Douglass’ standard speech on ‘Self-Made Men’ accentuated the morality of success rather than its economics” (Martin, “Images” 275), it has a slightly chauvinistic ring to it that stands in contrast to many other descriptions he offers about antebellum and postbellum American society. In fact, it is astounding that he writes the following lines in the pre-Civil War version of the talk:

I seldom find anything either in the ideas or institutions of that country, whereof to glory. [...] But pushing aside this black and clotted covering which mantles all our land, as with the shadow of death, I recognize one feature at least of special and peculiar excellence, and that is the relation of America to self-made men. America is, most unquestionably and pre-eminently, the home and special patron of self-made men. In no country in the world are the conditions more favourable to the production and sustenation of such men than in America. (“Trials” 297)

In the version of this lecture that is included in John Blassingame’s edition of Frederick Douglass’s collected writings, we find the self-made man positioned at the heart of a work ethic that Douglass formulates in often proverbial and metaphorical language which frequently refers to labor, exertion, necessity, selfreliance, good work habits, industry, and uplift (ibid. 294, 298). That Douglass shares in the exceptionalist discourse of the self-made man to such an extent is perhaps somewhat surprising, and it seems awkward, if not outright cynical, that he would sweep aside his criticism of slavery that can be found elsewhere in his writings in the process; as to how it was possible for an ex-slave and abolitionist intellectual to embrace the hegemonic version of the success myth remains open to speculation.

After Douglass’s awkward affirmation of the self-made man despite the institution of slavery and rampant racism in US society, other African American intellectuals also referred to and appropriated the white success mythology. The title of Booker T. Washington’s (1856-1915) Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901) for example clearly borrows from the notion of upward mobility, which in the book is connected to educational achievement and economic success. Like Franklin, Washington conceives of the public good and of republican virtue as compatible with economic self-interest and material gain, and many contemporaneous reviewers of his book - e.g. in the Nation (April 4, 1901), the New York Times (June 15, 1901), and Atlantic Monthly (June 1901) - pointed out exactly this parallel (cf. Kafka, Great White 9). Phillipa Kafka similarly holds that “Booker T. Washington was the mediator for African Americans of the European American success mythology as personified by Benjamin Franklin” (ibid. 3). She considers Up from Slavery as the narrative of a self-made man seeking to expand white success mythologies, as the text begins with the statement that “[m]y life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings” (Up from 15) and ends with Washington’s account of being awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1896 (he is also invited to dine at the White House by US president Theodore Roosevelt in 1901). In statements such as “I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life” (Up from 133), Washington’s wording echoes Franklin’s aphorisms. In contrast to more critical assessments of Washington’s accommodationist views, Houston Baker sees him as providing a “how-to manual, setting forth strategies of address (ways of talking black and back) designed for Afro-American empowerment” (Modernism 32) based on a realistic assessment of the options of African Americans in the Southern US at the time.

Even if Douglass and Washington, two of the most prominent figures who contributed to the discourse of black self-making, exemplify the tendency in the African American history of ideas to conceive of self-made success figures as male (just as in its hegemonic white counterpart), we find female embodiments as well, for example in Ann Petry’s naturalistic novel The Street (1946), whose protagonist, Lutie Johnson, a self-supporting, single mother, tries to emulate the ideal of self-making. At one point, having just found new employment, she imagines herself in Benjamin Franklin’s footsteps - almost:

She walked slowly, avoiding the moment when she must enter the apartment and start fixing dinner. She shifted the packages into a more comfortable position and feeling the hard roundness of the rolls through the paper bag, she thought immediately of Ben Franklin and his loaf of bread. And grinned thinking, You and Ben Franklin. You ought to take one out and start eating it as you walk along 116th Street. Only you ought to remember while you eat that you’re in Harlem and he was in Philadelphia a pretty long number of years ago. Yet she couldn’t get rid of the feeling of self-confidence and she went on thinking that if Ben Franklin could live on a little bit of money and could prosper, then so could she. [...]

You better get your dinner started, Ben Franklin, she said to herself and walked past the children who were jumping rope. (64)

As a Black woman, the novel suggests, the odds are against her, however hard she may try to make a living for herself and her son, and she begins to completely lose her sense of agency as she realizes that despite all her efforts at selfimprovement she will forever be kept down by the structural forces of racism and classism:

All those years, going to grammar school, going to high school, getting married, having a baby, going to work for the Chandlers, leaving Jim because he got himself another woman - all those years she’d been heading straight as an arrow for that street or some other street just like it. (426)

Petry, who was associated with the Communist Party, as Alan Wald points out (cf. American Night 88), addresses “the postwar crisis of the vision of the 1930s in relation to Black America” (ibid. 155). Failure, rather than success, is explored in her oeuvre, and this is also true for many other texts by African American women writers such as Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gayle Jones. Somewhat in contrast to Petry’s account of a failed self-made woman stands Alice Walker’s epistolary novel The Color Purple (1982), which narrates the story of two sisters, Celie and Nettie; even if their lives are characterized by acts of the most brutal patriarchal violence, abuse, and oppression, the novel ends fairly happy, with Celie becoming a self-made woman who supports herself as a tailor and owns her own house. The novel has been criticized for both its explicit depiction of violence and sexual abuse (according to the American Library Association, it is one of the most frequently challenged books) and for its somewhat implausible, (pseudo-)emancipatory happy ending.

Hollywood films constitute another arena in which we find many representations of black social mobility and immobility. It is noteworthy that even quite recent productions often depict African American characters as being content with holding subordinate social positions, even if they are the protagonists of the films in question. In Driving Miss Daisy (1989) for example, the African American Hoke (Morgan Freeman) is happy to be employed as a chauffeur by the elderly Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy), and even though the film acknowledges racism and anti-Semitism, it also affirms a racially stratified social order. The controversially discussed adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller The Help (2011), which again portrays African American characters in a position of servitude, arguably similarly downplays past and present racial discrimination and black subordination by way of a sentimental politics of representation. Another puzzling example that calls for a thorough critique of black representation is The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) starring Will Smith as Chris Gardner, a homeless African American salesman and single parent who against all odds lands an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm, is then taken on as a paid employee, and finally goes on to become a millionaire. Instead of using its premise - unemployment, social insecurity, and poverty in an increasingly finance-driven economy - to formulate a critique of the financial sector in particular and of US society at large, the film thus turns out to be yet another celebration of individualism and self-reliance. Gardner tells his son: “Don’t ever let somebody tell you, you can’t do something. [...] You got a dream, you gotta protect it. [...] If you want something, go get it. Period.” This American Dream narrative may well be described as postracial, if only for the very fact that it does not acknowledge the blackness of its protagonist: as Gardner is never interpellated as black and racism is never explicitly addressed in the film (cf. Gerund and Koetzing, “This Part” 203), The Pursuit of Happyness seems to deny race as a factor that co-determines social (im)mobility by once more celebrating the exception as the rule.

Self-making as a cultural script has been used to fashion African Americans as heroes and heroines not only in the realm of business and enterprise but also in many other areas such as the entertainment industry, sports, and - less often - politics. Media personality Oprah Winfrey for instance, who grew up in rural poverty, went on to become one of the richest self-made women in the US, and can easily be considered to be the most prominent icon of black female success. In her talks, she affirms notions of expressive individualism and the myth of self-making by once more reiterating the claims that hard work, moral integrity, and discipline lead to material success and that experiences of crisis and failure - rather than being indicative of larger social, political, and economic problems - constitute chances for self-improvement. In this sense, her philanthropy and the laudatory discourse within and by which her philanthropic and charitable activities are framed and promoted (not least by herself) function as complementing and enhancing her own success myth: philanthropy and charity become part of an entrepreneurial scheme that - not unlike Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s approach - attempts to forestall and defuse any critique of structural injustice and inequality. Again, because Oprah Winfrey has her own autobiographical narrative of success and conversion to offer and to share, she can speak with the authority of experience about the business of self-making, adding positive thinking and pop psychology in “a trademark combination of pathos and uplift”

(Watts, Self-Help Messiah 495) as enabling forces to the myth while figuring as a living exemplum herself.

Barack Obama - whose rise to the highest political office in the US has often been rendered according to the standard narrative formula of the success myth - has also himself appropriated the myth of the self-made man in many instances, for example in the following passage from the speech he gave in Berlin on July 24, 2008:

I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city. The journey that led me here is improbable. My mother was born in the heartland of America, but my father grew up herding goats in Kenya. His father - my grandfather - was a cook, a domestic servant to the British. (“World”)

Whereas Obama here appropriates the cultural script of the white success mythology to frame his own family’s story (from domestic servant to US president in the course of two generations) and more generally contributes to the mythic discourse of the land of opportunity in his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), he has also somewhat inconsistently and provocatively issued criticism of the myth of the self-made man, for instance in a speech he held in the course of his re-election campaign on July 13, 2012 in Roanoke, Virginia:

[L]ook, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. You [wealthy people] moved your goods on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces the rest of us paid for. (“Remarks”)

Even if phrases such as “this unbelievable American system” reinforce longstanding assumptions about America’s exceptionality, they at the same time also emphasize the public sector and communal efforts as prerequisites for individual success, and thus counter the hegemonic version of the myth of the self-made man. Obama’s speech has been denounced as a call for “massive redistribution” (Goodman, “Obama”) and as “contradict[ing] the belief in American exception- alism, that is: Laissez faire economics, equality of opportunity, individualism, and popular but limited self-government” (Stepman, “Obama’s Philosophy”); these responses reveal that remarks that challenge the ideology of individual success, whose function it is after all to provide a justification for the social order, will be immediately perceived as a threat to the economic status quo by conservatives like the above-quoted critics, who thus attempt to bolster the myth of self-making by evading and intentionally blurring the question as to whether wealth is actually distributed fairly in a capitalist system.

In sum, we can thus identify different aims for which the myth of the selfmade man has been used in African American intellectual history, culture, and individual (self)-representations, for example, to construct a positive image of black masculinity and to claim recognition for African American individual and collective achievement, but also to point to the limits of the model of expressive individualism in US society.

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