In his days as a community organizer in the city of Chicago, Barack Obama encountered the movement of Black Nationalism. He encountered it primarily through his associate Rafiq al-Shabazz, and his dealings with the Nation of Islam. These marked the concrete pillars of the movement, however through his experience as a young black man in the United States, and his interactions with others in the African-American community, he was able to see the motives, thoughts, and desires of the movement that can not be eloquently spoken and simplified. I believe that although Barack did not agree with the movement’s spoken goals, he was able to relate to the sentiment and it helped continue to mature as a person and leader.
Obama’s first conversation with Rafiq was on the subject of a community job center that they were both working on for the city of Chicago. His zeal was demonstrated from the beginning, often getting into shouting matches at the planning meetings. However, Obama was able to learn more about Rafiq as they got to know each other. His harsh views had been crafted in prison, as he was a reformed gang member, and they represented the idea that blacks should just stick together. “Look at the Italians. They didn’t care about the American flag and all that when they got here. First thing they did is put together the Mafia to make sure their interests were met. The Irish—they took over the city hall and found their boys jobs. The Jews, same thing.” This attitude although effective in banding just the African American community together was not the message that Obama need to serve the entire community and get things done. In that sense Barack viewed Black Nationalism as harmful. On the other hand Barack noted that it was important as a source of pride to help repair blacks damaged self-esteem. Obama cited many examples of a lack of self-confidence in the community including his well off Ruby changes the color of her eyes with contact lenses, and a black leader saying he didn’t hire black contractors. This was a departure from his earlier belief that the only problems he had to fix were economic.
Thanks to the radical ideas of Black Nationalism, Barack was able to get another viewpoint on how to solve the problems of Chicago’s poor. He also learned that he could take something away from views that at first seemed extreme.