Dreams From My Father

Paperback Edition
Three Rivers Press, 2004
(Originally published: 1995)

I wrote the beginning to this review a dozen times. There are so many good ways to start:

"I get to use the word "jejune" in a book review!"

"The central question is, why choose sides with the father who abandons you rather than the grandparents who stay by your side?"

"At worst, he's a closet demagogue, a clandestine racist. At best, he's a poet, a hopeless romantic."

"'I helped Will and Mary put back the chairs, rinse out the coffee pot, lock up, and turn off the lights,' writes Barack Obama in Dreams From My Father. The sequence is, of course, out of order - just like a lot of his reasoning. First you turn out the lights, then you lock the door."

"Why is Barack Obama so fond of the word 'wobbly?'"

All true, none of them quite right.

Here's the thing: I already had my discomforts with the candidate when I started the book, which is why I chose to read it. As with any other topic of heated debate, I prefer to go to the source and make up my own mind, rather than be told what to believe, what was said, what was meant.

I ended the book liking him a bit better, but even less convinced that he is the right man for the job - unless you consider Jung. Huh?

Some pundit said that Obama's greatest qualification for the Presidency is his face: his pleasant looking "brown" face. Jung referred to the Shadow, and projections, and wrote about the female (the anima) reflecting back to us our ideals of ourself (it's far more complicated than that, and I'm sure Jungian scholars will be hearing nails on a blackboard as I write that, so bear with me!). In many ways, our "dreams" of Obama are that he is no more than, and no less than, what we want him to be.

Let me back up. Barack Obama's book is the more-than-slightly presumptuous autobiography of a then 33-year-old Senator-elect from the state of Illinois.

It traces his life to date, and its biggest achievement is to share with us the thoughts of a man of mixed race who chooses to self-identify as black. It never really explains to us why he chose the black side of his heritage over the white (and it was clearly a this-or-that decision), but merely chronicles his struggles to become what he considers to be a truly black man.

Very early in the book - in the Introduction, in fact - he writes the sentences that sum up his reasons for writing the book: "When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose - the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."

Thus, the book seems to tell us about: a) Obama's struggle to define himself as black; b) his conviction that all most people can see when they look at a black man is the color of his skin; and therefore c) how the last thing he can therefore represent for us is the hoped-for "post-racial" candidate.

Most of the first third of the book is a typical adolescent coming-of-age tale: I don't know why I feel so unhappy, so disconnected, nobody understands me, I guess I'll drink and take drugs and be disaffected. Which is pretty much what he does. In his particular case, he has maybe as much as, if not more than, his share of reasons for feeling that the ideal of American family life has escaped him. A dreamer of a grandfather and a practical if somewhat door-matish grandmother raise up a quintessential young woman of the 60s. She, attending the University of Hawaii, weds (we think) a scholarship student from Kenya (who, it turns out, is already married to a woman in Kenya with whom he has two children). They produce young Barack, named for his father.

Soon thereafter, Barack, Sr., is given a scholarship to Harvard, but "not the money to bring his wife and child." So he leaves them. He is not seen, or heard from, again for quite some time.

Meanwhile, Gramma (Toot) and Gramps take over the care and nurturing of the little family until Mom meets yet another exchange student, this time from Indonesia. She weds him, moving her new family to Djakarta, and producing another child, Maya.

It is at some point around this time - when our hero is about 5 or so - that, at least in retrospect, he begins to think in colors. He describes his step-father, Lolo, thus: "(He) possessed the good manners and easy grace of his people. He was short and brown, handsome, with thick black hair and features that could have as easily been Mexican or Samoan as Indonesian..." (my emphasis).
This theme will repeat again and again and again throughout the book: everyone in Obama's book is seen through the prism of color, whether it would seem to matter or not. The first thing we learn about anyone is he's black, she's white, that one is Hispanic. First they are shuffled into neat little piles according to color, then we can learn more about them. Worse, though, is his tendency to tell us what these people (especially the white pile) are assuming about him on the basis of color. "For a span of weeks or months, you could (when in Africa) experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched..." "I had stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us...were tired of spending all (our) time mad or trying to guess whatever it was that white folks were thinking about you."

I underlined that last, and wrote in the margin: what makes him think "white folks" are thinking anything about you at all?

Obama spends a few years outside the racial soup, living in Indonesia, a barefoot brown boy among other brown children, being introduced to a world of small adventures, odd foods, and childhood conquests. "That's how things were, one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy's life."

It is here, too, that he acquires that strain of existentialism that also marks his candidacy: this is this. Blink your eyes, look serious, and move on. Don't get distracted by distractions. "'Sometimes (says his stepfather), 'you can't worry about hurt. Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go.'"

Ironically, it is his mother who teaches him to identify with the black half of his heritage. It is his mother, the abandoned woman, who teaches him to idealize his abandoning father. Disenchanted by her new life and husband in the political quagmire of late 60s Indonesia, Obama's mother teaches her son about "his (Barack, senior's) story; how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard, as hard as anything that Lolo (his stepfather) had known. He hadn't cut corners, though, or played all the angles. He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to the principles that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power."

Principles that included leaving your wife and child, apparently; power that included taking the main chance (Harvard), no matter what it cost those who depended upon you.

"In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship... she (his mother) was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism... Her message came to embrace black people generally. She would come home with books on the Civil Rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King... To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.

"Burdens that we were to carry with style. More than once, my mother would point out: 'Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.'"

Take a lonely boy with an absent father, add race-idealizing mythology taught by a well-meaning mother, and mix in the self-dramatization of budding adolescence, and what you end up with is about what you would expect: a young man who makes it his life's ambition to identify with, to become fused with, that portion of his ethnic identity that has suffered the most, and has caused him the most pain.

Things becoming more and more dangerous in Indonesia, and more and more strained between his mother and stepfather, Barack is sent home to live with his grandparents, and his mother follows not long thereafter.

From that point on, "I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know what that meant."

There are few other black children at Punahou, the elite Hawaii prep school his grandparents sacrifice so that he can attend. So he gets his racial education where he can find it: he has fitful correspondence from his father; he watches the black stars of TV and movies; he plays basketball. Here "a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn't just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up. That you didn't let anyone sneak up behind you and see emotions - the hurt or fear - that you didn't want them to see."

He spends his high school and college years learning to - for lack of a better way to phrase it - "be oppressed." He spends time with Ray (a good friend) "and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own." (My emphasis.)

"'That's just how white folks will do you,' one of them might say when we were alone. Everybody would chuckle and shake their heads, and my mind would run down the ledger of slights; the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon; the tennis pro who told me during a tournament that I shouldn't touch the schedule of matches ... because my color might rub off; the older woman ... who became agitated when I got on the elevator behind her... It wasn't merely the cruelty involved ... It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn't know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn."

These chapters of the book deal with the maddening conundrum of racial identity in America: if you move too far in the direction of "black," you risk falling into the traps of drugs, gangs, and jail that have plagued urban black youth. If you move too far in the direction of white, you "leave your race at the door." You "leave your people behind."

"'Understand something, boy,' (says Frank, an older black man who befriends Barack). 'You're not going to college to get educated. You're going there to be trained. They'll train you to want what you don't need. They'll train you to manipulate words so they don't mean anything anymore. They'll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They'll train you so good, you'll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They'll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners and tell you you're a credit to your race. Until you actually want to start running things, and then they'll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger but you're a nigger just the same."

In the midst of all this racial angst, Barack briefly dates a woman whose reasonable-sounding attitude (though granted from the standpoint of this white female reviewer!) only serves to demonstrate the greatness of the divide between the races that for this reader, anyway, Obama's book seems to re-enforce, more than bridge.

"'I'm not black,' Joyce said. 'I'm multiracial.' Then she started telling me about her father, who happened to be Italian and was the sweetest man in the world; and her mother, who happened to be part African and part French and part Native American and part something else. 'Why should I have to choose between them?' she asked me. 'It's not white people who are making me choose. Maybe it used to be that way, but now they're willing to treat me like a person. No - it's black people who always have to make everything racial. They're the ones making me choose.'"

He is not impressed with her "individuality." What offends him, Obama explains, is "the way integration worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around." It was this, possibly more than any other part of the book, which made me understand that I could only read this book from the standpoint of a white person.

I know that sounds self-evident, but it was at this point in the book that I knew my "defenses" were up. I realized the white-black separation is somewhat (and forgive me for straining the metaphor, or trivializing the significance) like the aftermath of one partner in a marriage having an affair. When it's over, the erring partner wants nothing more than to be forgiven, and then to forget it. Never talk about it. Go back to "pre-affair" times. The sinned-against partner can't do that. He is always on guard, always watching for signs - whether they exist or not. It is an uneasy peace. So, I'm part of the erring class (whether I was a slave-holder personally or not). I'd like to forget the past, and make a new peace and future. My "partner" finds this hard to do, and now sees me through the prism of my egregious past. Both sides have a point.

In 1983, having graduated from college, and gone to work in corporate America, Obama decides to "become a community organizer." And he discovers the word that will propel him to the Democrat presidential nomination: change. "I'd pronounce the need for change. Change in the White House where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in 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. That's what I'll do, I'll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change."

He hooks up with a professional Chicago "organizer, " a white man named Marty Kaufman, who, ironically, is the facilitator for Barack's final and complete identification with the black "community." And it is, indirectly, through Marty that Barack eventually associates with his controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

"'With the unions in the shape they're in, the churches are the only game in town,'" Marty tells Barack. "'That's where the people are, and that's where the values are, even if they've been buried under a lot of bullshit. Churches won't work with you, though just out of the goodness of their hearts. They'll talk a good game - a sermon on Sunday, maybe, or a special offering for the homeless. But if push comes to shove, they won't really move unless you can shown them how it'll help them pay their heating bill.'"

The middle section of the book is all about Obama's 3 years spent as a community organizer (1985-1988). "Issues, action, power self-interest. I liked these concepts. They bespoke a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment; politics, not religion," he writes of his efforts.

He discovers the grim reality of the street life he idealized as a boy. What's disappointing is the predictable tack he takes on how to deal with these issues: if working class black neighborhoods are deteriorating into slums, and if part of the reason for this is "individual advancement (upwardly mobile black families moving to better neighborhoods) and collective decline," the answer wasn't to encourage more of the former to overcome more of the latter. If public housing was "a dump - a place to house poor blacks... with ink-black stairwells and urine-stained lobbies and random shootings," the answer wasn't to clean up the housing projects so they would provide more stable housing, it was to complain that they were located near the sewage treatment plant. If in the past, black people had been barred from a union, or left out of the American dream, the answer was emphatically not to "treat black people and white people exactly the same ... (because) it was different for black folks." All of which is emotionally understandable. But it begs the question, in a democracy, what else can you do? And if the painful need is to break one cycle (poverty and disenfranchisement), does it make any sense to replace it with another (de facto double standards)? In one telling episode, Obama talks to the principal of an inner city school about its predominantly black students. Obama and Dr. Collier stand watching little children playing.

"'Beautiful, aren't they?' Dr. Collier said.
'They really are.
'The change comes later. In about five years, although it seems like it's coming sooner all the time.
'What change is that?
"When their eyes stop laughing. Their throats can still make the sound, but if you look at their eyes, you can see they've shut off something inside.'"

There is an opportunity here, a chance for Obama to relate to Dr. Collier how his own passage from childhood to young manhood was marked by just such shutting down, and he did not grow up in poverty and neglect. There is a chance for him to suggest an answer other than what the two sides have already proposed, neither side listening: "You can't go anywhere when you grow up in poverty and oppressed." "If you study hard and work hard, you will stop being poor and oppressed." Barack Obama says nothing.

It is perhaps this failure to articulate specific changes in his own mind and heart that disappointed me most in reading this book.

It reminded me most poignantly of reading the diaries of a high school junior who is learning to write: it is poetic (perhaps self-consciously so); it is full of well-remembered vignettes, colorful characters (who all speak with similar cadences, though, those of the writer), and emotive scenes (cloud-scudded skies, smokey factories, rippling golden grasses of the savannah) but little deeper insight.

His trick of summing up a chapter full of push-pull dynamics is to write poetic paragraphs upon which, as with poetry, the reader can project pretty much anything that suits her fancy. Does he think the races can be united? I like that idea, so he probably does, too. Does he think that the blacks have been asked to give too much to this country with no return? That's my opinion, and it sure sounds like his, too.

"How to explain the emotions of that day?" he writes of a final day in Africa (in the final third of the book he travels to Africa to meet his father's family). "It wasn't simply joy that I felt in each of these moments. Rather, it was a sense that everything I was doing, every touch and breath and word, carried the full weight of my life; that a circle was beginning to close, so that I might finally recognize myself as I was, here, now, in one place." But who was he? What had he changed from, and what to? This is never made clear.

In his early days, observing the black world, imitating it sufficiently to gain entry; in his years as an organizer, learning the ropes of the black community; and finally, in his trip to Africa, observing his father's extended, complicated, needy family, it is always Obama the observer, Obama the slate upon which others write their lives, their needs, their goals. He reflects them back with little comment, and when he does comment, it is with vague poetry and loaded words that allow us to imagine that he "just said what I think he said."

I wanted him to get mad at his father for leaving his mother; to get mad at his mom for putting her We Shall Overcome marriages ahead of her son. I wanted him to say how much he loved his grandparents for hanging in there with him - or how much he hated them for not being black and for separating him from his heritage. I wanted him to be annoyed with the users of the welfare system he met on the south side of Chicago - or to cry for the babies born to teen-aged coke addicts. Does it bother him when he discovers that the Masai, the quintessential noble savages of idealized Africa, are living in filthy, insect-infested, smoke-filled huts, flies crawling on the eyes of their babies? Is he disillusioned to learn about the legal and ethical problems of hero Harold Washington?

I read this book to try to better understand the man who is running for president; who has some people fainting in the aisles and others putting up websites called "Obama the AntiChrist." I was curious to know what characteristics can excite that kind of passion, both positive and negative.

I know little more now than when I started the book. And what amuses and amazes me is that for those who have no liking for the man, that will be proof of their fears. And for those who are his fans, he is just as he should be. At the end of the book, we are still projecting our hopes and fears on to a man who has ultimately, revealed little about himself.


TJ said…
that was a thorough review. can't add a thing.

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