Obama: Literature and Philosophy
Writing Assignment #1
Due April 2, 2009
For this first writing assignment please choose one of the following topics and write an essay of 4-5 pages (1500-2000 words; normal sized fonts and margins). If you wish to write on another topic please clear it with one of us first. In general you should strive for elegant brevity: while these should be short essays try to avoid being cryptic or superficial.
1) Obama’s “pragmatism” has been widely mentioned in the popular press. For example, a September 2008 New York Times Magazine article refers to his “ruthless pragmatism” and that month the New Republic published a brief piece by Cass Sunstein entitled “Obama’s Pragmatism Explained.” For this essay consider how these pieces conceive of Obama’s pragmatism: how do they define “pragmatism” and how is this concept meant to shed light on Obama’s governing philosophy? (Links to these two pieces can be found on the course blog; please feel free to use other sources instead so long as you focus on at least two from reputable sources.) Finally, how do these references to pragmatism compare either a) with the writings of James, Dewey, or Rorty or b) with Obama’s own calls to do “what works” and his policy statements?
2) As we have pointed out in class, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father can be read within and Obama seems himself to be aware of the tradition of autobiography and memoir in America, and specifically of African American narrative traditions. Obama tells the story of his life as the “self” in “society.” For this essay, write a careful textual/literary analysis of Obama’s autobiography. Focus on one or a small set of manageable themes, such as “innocence,” “power,” “race and identity,” “double consciousness” (see DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 1, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”), “post-colonialism,” and/or any other themes that strike you as important. Trace this theme or these themes throughout the pages we’ve read for class, and beyond if you have read on, offering close textual analysis to support your thematic analysis. Be sure to make a claim about how we can understand Obama’s world-view through a reading of his life writing.
While it may be necessary to refer to a specific passage, we do not expect lengthy quotations and summaries. Use “longer” quotes—that is, more than 4 lines, but not much more—only when you offer a close literary/textual analysis of a passage. That is, while a certain amount of scene setting may be necessary in order to put these writings in context, we are primarily interested in your own interpretation or position. In particular, please be sure to offer reasons in support of your interpretation and consider any plausible objections or alternatives to your position.
These essays will be due in class on April 2. We strongly discourage late papers.
 From DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”