Wednesday Book Club: Dreams from My Father

Wednesday, 5 November 2008 — 11:29pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) by Barack Obama.

In brief: Reading this memoir, I learned a lot more about Barack Obama than I did about race. It is impossible now to speculate on what the book must have been like before its author rose to global significance; clearly, it is all the more interesting now because of the ending that had yet to be written. Obama’s ruminations on cultural identity are nothing novel, but rest assured that of the available positions, he adopted the one that is the most confused—which is also the most mature.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Dreams from My Father, keep reading below.)

At a moment in history like this one, the temptation is to strain oneself to the breaking point of grandiloquence out of a self-imposed obligation to say something profound. An article in Slate warned of this syndrome last week. You will find none of that here; this is a book review, not a newspaper of record, and while I am overflowing with thoughts about the election of Barack Obama, I will do my level best to reserve them for another entry.

Without further ado—ladies and gentlemen, the President-elect of the United States of America:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer.

There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.

Barack Obama wrote that in 1995, likely unaware of how much ink would be spilled a decade later on a deep blue ocean of placards reading “Change” to clarify what, exactly, a community organizer does. It would be easy to take a passage like this one and cite it as evidence that Obama’s rhetoric amounts to a lot of empty idealism, but one would find it difficult to stretch that thesis far beyond the young Obama’s initial aspirations. My impression of him from this early memoir is that he is fundamentally a man of pragmatic character. He was one then, and he is one now. Past the opening lines of the book’s Chicago segment, his mind is set not on abstract fantasies of anti-capitalist upheaval, but on concrete objectives that stand apart from ideology, like ensuring that asbestos inspections of school buildings actually happen.

Yes, Nicholas—but what’s the book about?

Dreams from My Father is Obama’s life in Chicago sandwiched between two strands of family history—the one he grew up knowing in Indonesia and Hawaii, and the one he discovers when he visits his paternal relations in Kenya. The neurosis driving the story is Obama’s deceased father, Barack Obama, Sr., whom he only ever met once at the age of ten, and naturally remained enveloped in a fog of myth. Beyond that, there isn’t a unifying thesis or schema of organization; the subtitle calls it “A Story of Race and Inheritance”, and there is a lot of that to be found, but the identifying mark of the chapters in the Chicago projects is one of unfortunate socio-economic circumstances more than race—though it is a sad fact of history that the two are closely correlated.

It is for the best that Obama never descends into who-am-I narcissism, limiting his reflections on himself to critical uncertainties, sporadic recognitions that playing within the traditional boundaries of race relations leaves him feeling dishonest. Most of the book is not about the author directly: we get to know him indirectly through his observations of the lives that shaped his own.

We encounter the friends and relations who knew him as Barry. We meet Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose dedication to total class inclusivity among his flock seems a far cry from the divisive “God damn America!” fire and brimstone for which he would become infamous. And the night before the election, the passing of Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother Obama knew as “Toot”, had an especial resonance: I had just read about her and what she meant to her country’s future leader, the boy she raised.

The downside of Obama’s refusal to wrap his anecdotes in a cohesive package of big ideas is that the memoir is rather scattershot in its approach. The task of extrapolating public lessons from a very personal story is left as an exercise to the reader. I can’t say how compelling the book would be if the author did not later emerge as a significant public figure. It’s a good story, or many good stories, well told—but it meanders to and fro, and there’s no denying that most of what it tells us piques an exogenous curiosity that we already have for reasons that did not exist at the time. There are, frankly, better treatments of the mass confusion that is American race relations, if that is what you are looking for—and Obama’s “a more perfect union” speech following the Reverend Wright furore is one of them.

2.

Concerning Obama’s rhetoric, what reading Dreams from My Father brought into sharp focus was how—for all the communal uplift he inspires, the broad solutions he advocates, and the We (the People) he invokes with the refrain of “Yes We Can”—he never loses sight of the individual. He appeals to the people because he tells stories about persons, and we saw that right to the very end when he told the world about Ann Nixon Cooper in his victory speech. You could call it a product of his speechwriting team, but remember that we can safely think of Dreams from My Father as Obama unplugged—a portrait of the President as a young man, far more personal than visionary, written long before it could have been of any use as a blunt political instrument—and you quickly realize that this is who he is.

You can see all of that, and more, in what may be the Obama memoir’s most prescient paragraph:

That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.

America’s most cherished ideal is its dedication to meritocracy, though the philosophy behind its implementation is by nature beset with differences. There is a shared dream, across party lines, that anyone can be anybody, and that hard work will always trump entitlement. The central disagreement is over whether the preconditions for the American Dream already exist. In the small-state interpretation, the state is a source of entitlement that demeans the achievements of those who have earned their luxury and clambered from rags to riches on their own hands and feet. In the big-state interpretation, the state is a source of opportunity that is responsible for creating the circumstances for a meritocracy’s very existence.

The danger of adopting the latter position, as Obama does, is its frightening proximity to the subsumption of the individual spirit to the whims of a tyrannical collective. So I find it encouraging that, even before he approaches the convoluted matter of cultural identity in this book, Obama remains ever aware of the fact that communities are composed of persons with their own stories, their own interests, and their own valuable pursuits. That is why he has the power to mobilize millions: he understands that the secret to civic participation is to tap into the credo that individuals need not lose a part of themselves when they work together as something bigger.

3.

That doesn’t solely apply to grassroots involvement in civil society, which dominates the book’s Chicago chapters. Obama’s interest in the role of people in communities has an analogue in his search for a way to belong, be it to a nation or a family tree. Even as a privileged Kenyan-American raised in the Hawaiian potpourri who never had to sit at the back of the bus, he still had no escape from the coding of skin colour that resulted from a legacy of historical abuses. Never in the story is Obama a direct victim of racism, but he is a witness to it, and is therefore a victim of history nevertheless.

On the subject of race, Obama comes off as profoundly confused—which is the most reasonable position to take, because the stratification of race along properties and characteristic behaviours is irrational in the extreme. Belonging is not an exclusionary choice, but one link in an improvised chain of personal decisions:

Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled—the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns still held sway; that no one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if we—Auma, Roy, Bernard, and I—were all making it up as we went along.

Unlike others before him, Obama is not disappointed in Africa after visiting it, perhaps because he expects no solace from becoming “more African”—whatever that involves. He arrives there with no expectation of a glorious cultural past, and quickly discovers that the essential homogeneity of such a past could only ever be a product of the imagination.

We can see that in the most fluid segment of the book: when Obama tells the story of his Muslim grandfather, Hussein Onyango, as recounted to him by his grandmother—translated, of course, into the mode of speech we can recognize as the voice of an ancestral storyteller. Here, it is such a successful trick of written ventriloquism that I wish there was more of it—though what makes it interesting is the tale it tells: of a man whose response to the white man’s arrival on African soil was to collaborate with them, not as an act of surrender, but as an assertion of his belief in his own equality.

The pattern that Obama sees in both his father and grandfather is the attainment of influence via education, or power through knowledge, coupled with an inability to apply that book-learning back to the community. It isn’t difficult to discern how Obama’s own story falls into place: he, too, had to figure out how to use his Harvard education as a boon to the community, when it could so easily have become a source of exclusion.

I think we know how that turned out.

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