The US is a nation of immigrants and migrants who re-invent themselves in their adopted home; and the children of immigrants who seek authenticity in forgotten ethnic traditions. Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama’s autobiography written after graduation from Havard Law School, is part of a genre of American writing in search of roots. In Dreams from my Father, Obama goes searching for community and family, finds both, and find them to be different than he expected.
Barack Obama grew up in a mixed and peripatetic family. His mother’s family had migrated to Hawaii from Kansas. His father was an African exchange student at the University of Hawaii. When Obama was two, his father left for Harvard, and returned only once for a brief visit eight years later. Growing up, Obama spent several years in Indonesia with his mother and Indonesian stepfather, then was raised by his grandparents while his mother did graduate research overseas.
Search for community
As a young adult, Obama set off in search of community and purpose, with the great role models of the civil rights movement. To his great credit, he succeeds and finds these things.
The glory days of the civil rights movement were long gone when Obama gets an organizing job in a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side plagued by crumbling public housing, disappearing manufacturing jobs, and rising crime. Obama deciphers the limits of their starting position. The group’s founder is a Jewish man who is not fully trusted by the community. Its initial allies are the the Catholic Churches, which have an uneasy relationship with their new African-American parishioners. Chicago has just elected Harold Washington, its first Black major who is worshipped as a cult figure, but whose patronage is delivering limited benefits to the communities that elected him.
At the same time that Obama deciphers the political landscape, he makes personal connections. He becomes close with the three middle-aged African-American women who are core to the organization, and develops a friendship with an eccentric, pot-smoking Catholic organizer who wears a clerical collar and a “deacon” t-shirt. He looks out for Kyle, the teenage son of a volunteer who is in danger of getting into trouble. One of the most moving bits in the book where Obama tells the group he is headed off to Harvard Law school, and promises his friends in the neighborhood that he’ll be back.
The mix of idealism, political perceptiveness and personal connection are the origins of Obama’s political career.
The Limits of “Organizing”
After a series of ignominious defeats, the persistence, skill and empathy of Obama’s group begins to pay off. They organize cleanup for the housing project, job training for the neighborhood, mentoring for school kids.
To this reader, though, the section reveals the strength and the limits of the “organizer” model, in which a stranger rides into town, lives in a community, and encourages the locals to demand their rights. The “organizer” helps the powerless to organize and demand their rights from the powerful. This model may be idea for those in abject need, but it underestimates the power that local people have.
Obama visits the scraggly remains of the neighborhood’s main retail district trying to get a job training center into a local storefront. I couldn’t help but think that the neighborhood needs a traditional chamber of commerce approach to tally up the areas assets, and bring businesses. Walgreens is probably in the neighborhod now. (Later in the book, Obama’s African stepbrother Roy starts an import business with the intention of bringing in unemployed relatives; that entrepreneurial attitude sees unused resources as opportunity).
Following a public forum where the neighborhood people demand basic maintenance for public housing project, the bureacrats explain that the Housing Authority budget — set from Washington — allows for asbestos removal, or basic repairs, but not both. Washington DC is much too far away to smell overflowing toilets.
Those of you who have done more organizing that I have can tell me if I’m full of nonsense, or whether there’s a need for a model that is more empowered and entrepreneurial than the traditional democratic model of “demanding your rights”, yet more community-spirited than the traditional republican model of every man for himself and rewards to the deserving wealthy.
Search for family and identity
Obama’s search for community in Chicago is linked to a personal search for family and identity, which culminates in the last third of the book.
Feeling out of place in high school, Obama gravitates toward the black kids and works to embrace an African-American culture that matches others’ expectations of his appearance, but is different from his upringing and background.
Obama admits and honestly scrutinizes his own ambivalence about ethnic authenticity. At prep school, he teases a friend from LA about taking on a “bad-assed nigger pose” and the friend retorts “a pose? speak for yourself”. In college Obama deliberately hangs out with the campus radical crowd to assert his racial credentials (his words); the present narrator acknowledges the shallowness of the college identity politics. In Chicago, the narrator confesses a fear that if he told his friends about his mixed-race, Hawaiian background they wouldn’t like him — but he tells him and they adopt him anyway.
While Obama relentlessly catalogs the ambiguities and subtleties of African-American identity, there are a few places where he doesn’t acknowledge quite enough. When Obama started the organizing job, one of the initial challenges was the resentment of the three middle-aged women who’d been running the show, who were annoyed that the boss had brought in a young, good-looking, tall guy to take charge (in the grand tradition of non-profits, where diligent women do the work, and men take the title and the credit.) Obama has his own intelligence, discipline, charm and empathy to credit his success, but he doesn’t fully acknowledge the benefits of the middle class outlook and male privilege that code him as “in charge” and “going places.”
A trip to Kenya before law school is an opportunity for discovery and healing. Obama grew up with an idealized vision of his father, which both intimidated and inspired him. As he gets to know his African family, he finds out that his father’s life was more complex and less perfect than the idealized image.
It turns out that Obama’s father had a wife and children in Africa before coming to Hawaii. Barack Senior met yet a third woman at Harvard, who moved to Africa and raised several more children in the extended Obama family. Barack senior is smart and ambitious, and initially successful. But he runs afoul of the Kenyan dictatorship in his arrogance and naivete, loses his job and is blacklisted. Uneployed and broke, he turns to alcohol and delusions of grandeur, while his children raise themselves. He is rehabilitated later by a new regime, but the damage he has done to his family leaves ongoing bitterness after his death.
In Kenya, Barack Junior finds a family that is loving, close, and welcoming but beset with problems — feuds, alcoholism, poverty. The affectionate welcome also seems like a down payment against future financial success. The climax of the trip to Kenya is a tale by his grandmother about his grandfather. Also an ambiguous figure, Hossein Onyango is a capable servant to white rulers and a prosperous farmer; he is also imperious and cruel to his wives and children.
The stories that Obama hears on his trip make things more complicated, not simpler. The stories provide context for the personality flaws, passions, that which are more meaningful, more admirable, and more forgivable, than a shallow but false idealized image.
From Many, One
Which is the theme of the book. Obama’s ideals — community organizing, close family — turn out to be less simple and more ambiguous than expected. As an adult, Obama learns to turn those complexities into compassionate synthesis rather than scornful disillusion.
The synthesis what drove Obama’s moving speech at the DNC last summer.
If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief — that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper– that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
E Pluribus Unum. From many one.
Apparently, Obama has signed a new book deal to cover his time as a state senator. I look forward to reading about the lessons he learned at in the legislative sausage factory. Hopefully his career will continue to combine astute success and genuine empathy; and in the unavoidable ambiguities of power, will stay on the right side of forgivable.