Senator Joe Biden wasn’t the first to peg Barak Obama as counter to a stereotype. Indeed, before Obama became a U.S. Senator, before he became a presidential candidate for that matter, he was generally known as an “articulate,” “well-spoken” black man. “Doesn’t he look clean-cut?” Obama’s co-community organizers would say when introducing him to volunteers at political rallies in Chicago. After all, it’s not every day that a black man besides Bill Cosby has a book on The New York Times bestseller list.
But what’s surprising about Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From my Father, is not the clarity of his writing, but its over-articulate style. It’s too flowery. There are too many perfect rhetorical turns of phrase coupled with metaphorical images seemingly conjured out of the ether. “There was poetry as well – a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world that people might offer up as a gift to me, if I only remembered to ask,” Obama muses. It turns out that he is describing a feeling of belonging after one particular hard day of work; however, most readers probably stop after the second word. When realizing that his father had left him with a legacy, he writes, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”
Indeed, read as a political text, Obama’s memoir seems to be a self-aggrandizing political stunt in places. Obama appears to be a conniving man. He is a man of many epiphanies. Does his life really change in the matter of moments when, for example, he sees a black woman wear blue-colored contacts?
But Dreams from my Father should not be read as a political text. Written before Obama’s political career even took off, it is actually a unique perspective on growing up in the border between two different racial views of America.
On the one hand, Obama’s white mother and grandparents were part of the traditional American narrative. His grandparents both grew up in the Midwest—“a place where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with conformity and suspicion and the potential for unlinkng cruelty.” The grandparents go West, and the progression of their life seems standard for that generation: man joins army, man settles down to start a family. Except in this case, the idyllic couple has a daughter who decides to marry a black man.
On the other hand, Obama identifies himself as a black American. In this way, he is part of the narrative of the Other in American history. Through talking with generations of Chicago natives and working as a community builder – “I didn’t even know how to describe what the job was” – Obama tells the story of African-Americans as he experiences it. It’s a tale of lost opportunities and self-loathing. It’s the narrative found in the space “between psychology and politics, the state of our pocketbooks and the state of our souls.”
Yet, Obama does not spew the traditional liberal propaganda of a marginalized race that continues to suffer the consequences of a history of inequality. Obama also recognizes the realities of rallying a group of self-loathing people. “Since my first frightening discovery of bleaching creams in Life magazine,” Obama writes, “I’d become familiar with the lexicon of color consciousness within the black community…if you’re light, you’re all right, if you’re black, get back.”
Obama isn’t trying to set an agenda. What prevents the sociological commentary from becoming a professorial lecture is Obama’s candor and introspection. Barack Obama isn’t simply a man who overcame hard times like a phoenix out of the ash to save his people; his path was filled with confusion, mistakes, and outright failures – far from constituting the ingredients of a political stunt.
First of all, there’s Obama’s atypical family situation. Ann, Obama’s mother, married his father at a young age after meeting him in college. Barack Sr. had come to Hawaii on a scholarship from Kenya. Surprise comes when we discover that Obama’s father was still married to a woman back home. Ann doesn’t take young Barack back to Kenya with his father when he decides that he has duties in Africa to fulfill.
To continue the family saga a few years later, Ann marries Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student. This time, Ann does take Obama to Djakarta to live. There, in a situation almost too horrible to imagine, Obama learns about cruelty in the world when nearly all the adults around him tell him stories of watching men killed. His initial introduction to Indonesia included seeing his dinner – a fresh chicken – slaughtered in front of him before eating it. Obama’s sister, Maya, was also born there.
Back in America, where Ann moves her family for her children’s education, Obama becomes disillusioned by the stigma of difference. At his mostly white Catholic high school, his teacher tries to make him feel comfortable by asking him what tribe his father is from in Africa. A boy asks if his father’s tribe ate other people.
To adapt, Obama develops certain, acceptable ways of behavior for a black boy, until he was “living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood.”
In an oft-cited passage, Obama reveals his weaknesses by telling us about his constant companions – booze and drugs. “I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it,” he confesses. This is brutal honesty. This is a no holds barred confessional. The drug culture and subservience to temptation seem far from the “clean-cut” Barack we know now.
But the turn-around came slowly, first through a few years at Columbia University, followed by a few years in the corporate world, and then a stint as a community organizer in Chicago. After eagerly organizing many meetings with a total attendance of three, Obama learns that mobilization isn’t simply about showing up with idealistic notions, but about making sure that the water comes out when you turn the faucet.
Trying to motivate people by using academic methods like taking surveys before taking action, Obama meets some hostility. One worker tells him, “I’m not a poet, I’m an organizer.” When talking to women from the Altgeld Gardens public housing project, Obama discovers that taking care of the small things was more important than big ideas. People were already tired of trying to affect large-scale change to no avail. Obama saw a divide between talk and action which “corrupted both language and thought it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication.” Obama was going to focus on closing the gap and making promises he could keep.
Obama makes it clear that his desire to go into public service and law school was not part of some master scheme to save the world, but almost a series of accidents fueled by the encouraging words of people who recognized his brilliance when he himself did not.
The quest for self-identity remains one of the major motivating factors presented in Dreams from my Father. In college Obama was the black student who couldn’t be caught as a supporter of white ideals; in the corporate world, he was the minority darling of the firm; in Chicago, he was the great white hope, special because he was destined to leave the community. But none of these imposed identities really fit his conception of himself.
As we begin to understand Obama more completely during our journey through the book, we become not merely spectators of Obama’s life, but almost companions. So finally when he returns to Kenya to meet his half-siblings and other relatives, we feel that it is the logical place to conclude both the book and the journey of self-discovery.
Unfortunately, Obama supporters and detractors alike will take away what they want from the book. As a political tool, it is probably a liability. Indeed, Obama detractors have already used it to charge him with a history of drug use. Perhaps Obama followed up with the book The Audacity of Hope to sell himself as a more adult figure—one matured and strengthened by the emotional baggage of his youth.
By the end of Dreams From my Father, I had developed an image of Barack Obama as an earnest young man who – despite experiencing failure in his life – still remains optimistic. It is the image of someone who is a professional politician, not because he enjoys a sense of power, but because it was the inevitable path. Because he tried to cause change in other ways before becoming a politician, we can clearly see that his motives are genuine. Therefore, after reading the first line that came as a bonus excerpt in my paperback copy, I didn’t want to go further. I didn’t want my image of Barack Obama, a young man eager to shape the world we all live in, to fade.