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Dreams from Obama

He learned to slip back and forth between his black and white worlds, “understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.” Yet racial self-consciousness left him on edge. “There was a trick there somewhere, although what the trick was, who was doing the tricking, and who was being tricked, eluded my conscious grasp.”

He read Du Bois, Hughes, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, and concluded—as only a young man can—that each had ended his life exhausted and bitter. “Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me.” But in 1979 at Occidental College in Los Angeles he “stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us weren’t interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time.” Yet when he remembers that a girl on campus from a multi-racial background nearly cried when she said that black people were trying to make her choose sides, that it was black people who always made everything about race, he reflects that integration was a one-way street, that the minority always assimilated into the dominant culture, as though only “white culture” could be nonracial, neutral, and objective. “Only white culture had individuals.”

Because he didn’t want to be thought “a sellout,” he chose his friends from among politically active blacks and foreign students—Chicanos, Marxist professors, structural feminists, and punk rock performance poets discussing Fanon and patriarchy into the night. He had been involved in anti-apartheid and divestment campaigns, but feared that he would always be an outsider. After two years in California, Obama transferred to Columbia University. While in New York, he received a call from Africa, telling him that his father had died. Polygamous, his father had six other children by three different women (Obama’s mother had a daughter from her second marriage).

Dreams from My Father ends with Obama’s first journey to Kenya in 1987, as he is about to enter Harvard Law School. He tries to close the circle, and writes movingly of his efforts to understand his father and how Kenya’s postcolonial politics nearly destroyed him. He was, as Obama’s half-sister put it, punished by Jomo Kenyatta for telling people “that tribalism was going to ruin the country and that unqualified men were taking the best jobs.” However, the heart of Obama’s book is about finding himself after his graduation from Columbia, as a community organizer in Chicago.

Obama heard Jesse Jackson speak at a rally on 125th Street, but he says he couldn’t figure out how to join Harlem life. He spent three months working for a Ralph Nader offshoot, trying to convince City College students of the importance of recycling. Unemployed, he heard Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Touré, speak at Columbia about a vague plan to build economic ties between Africa and Harlem, and it seemed to him that the movement was dead. Obama doesn’t say much about his New York experiences, but he gives the impression that he took a close look at the coke-addled, hedonist bazaar that Manhattan was for the young at the beginning of the Reagan era and knew it was not for him.

Obama confesses that in high school he found that pot, booze, or “a little blow” could sometimes push away nagging questions. Some critics have called Dreams from My Father almost naive in its candor, but few care about his drug use as an undergraduate. If anything, having brought up the subject, he would be scorned now had he not inhaled then. So many voters by now have similar casual histories; it is an acceptable rite of passage.

Obama corrected his course very quickly. What comes across in his touching memoir is not how lost he was, but how determined on the path to elected office he already was when writing his first book. It is the work of someone positioning himself, someone who understood instinctively Malcolm X’s autobiography as a conversion narrative in the American grain. In 1983, what Obama needed was community. On his third day in Chicago, he passed Smitty’s Barbershop on the edge of Hyde Park and the laughter drew him in. They were talking familiarly, affectionately, about Chicago’s black mayor, Harold Washington, and how the white man tries to change the rules whenever a black man gets in power:

Clumps of hair fell into my lap as I listened to the men recall Harold’s rise. He had run for mayor once before, shortly after the elder Daley died, but the candidacy had faltered—a source of shame, the men told me, the lack of unity within the black community, the doubts that had to be overcome.

But Harold had tried again, and this time the people were ready. They had stuck with him when the press played up the income taxes he’d failed to pay…. They had rallied behind him when white Democratic committeemen…announced their support for the Republican candidate, saying that the city would go to hell if it had a black mayor. They had turned out in record numbers on election night, ministers and gang-bangers, young and old.

Though he was young and hadn’t been in Chicago when Washington was elected mayor, he felt that the older men in the barbershop assumed he understood their feelings. He wondered if they would still have taken his understanding for granted had they known his history, had his maternal grandfather walked in. Obama says he heard in Smitty’s voice a fervor beyond politics. He and his customers weren’t just proud of Harold Washington, they were also proud of themselves. The election had given them a new idea of themselves, holding out the promise of “collective redemption.”

Harold Washington died suddenly, a few months after his reelection in 1987. His second campaign, Obama notes with interest, was very different from his first in that Washington “reached out” to old-time machine politicians, to the Irish and the Poles, “ready to make peace.” Businessmen sent him their checks, but some of his black supporters disapproved of “his willingness to cut whites and Hispanics into the action.”

Obama was at City Hall the night Harold Washington’s coalition fell apart. Not long afterward, he received his letter of acceptance from Harvard Law School. He was gratified that, far from resenting his success, his co-workers, with whom he had shared early mornings, thankless meetings, and tiresome door-to-door canvassing on behalf of modest neighborhood and employment initiatives, accepted that he had other options. His mobility was a sign of their progress, but at least one of his colleagues was certain that Obama would return to Chicago.

Obama asked himself if this simple desire for acceptance had been the reason for his coming to Chicago. He found an answer in the black church, at Trinity United Church of Christ, in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s sermon “The Audacity of Hope”:

I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.

He would take this newly discovered communal spirit to Africa, where he decided that what Africa most desperately needed was courage. He gives, as if from memory, the oral history of his father’s family on the banks of Lake Victoria, presumably as it was told to him, just as he earlier recreates a fair amount of Reverend Wright’s sermon. Maybe some poetic license went into the recounting of so many conversations in Chicago’s projects and churches, but on the other hand, Obama comes across as someone who stored away for future consideration practically everything that was ever said to him, and who had a talent for watchfulness, part of the extraordinary armor he developed at an early age.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama makes it clear that his father’s absence left a hole and that the communal experience, working with and for others, went some way toward fulfilling him. He says that he wanted nothing less than to give black people that fervor about their lives that he saw them get from Harold Washington. He wanted them to get that feeling from him, the same feeling he got from them. The Reagan years in which he came of age were an era of individual advancement and collective decline for black people, he observes, and he’d learned “not to put too much stock in those who trumpeted black self-esteem as a cure for all our ills.” Politics are his solution.

Dreams from My Father may have been written when Obama was thinking merely of Harold Washington’s office. The Audacity of Hope, however, is the presidential candidate’s manifesto for the campaign season, down to the respectful quotation from Profiles in Courage and Obama’s observation that Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order and offered the country a common purpose that liberals did not. His first book concentrated on his father; The Audacity of Hope is for his mother, who died before his Senate victory. Though he now judges her understanding of the politics of the 1960s to have been limited by her romanticism, he is careful to honor her memory as someone who didn’t just declare her principles but acted on them as well.

The Audacity of Hope tells us a little about his courtship and marriage, the birth of his two daughters, and his deep involvement with their church, Trinity United, which he joined when he returned to Chicago after Harvard. The Audacity of Hope tells us how much Obama minded losing his congressional bid in 2000. It also says how aware he is of what he calls his “spooky good fortune” to have faced Alan Keyes, a black conservative ideologue of no charisma, in the Illinois Senate campaign of 2004. His deference to Senator Robert C. Byrd (while recalling his early membership in the Klan) is a mark of how seriously he takes the Senate. Its history is real to him, and to judge from the savor in his descriptions of its workings, Obama seems to have grasped readily how power works in the corridors and committee rooms. He recalls that as an Illinois state senator he would “partner up” with his most conservative colleagues to work on a piece of legislation.

Throughout he maintains a note of surprise at everything that has happened to him since he stepped up to the rostrum at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004. “I was the beneficiary of unusually—and at times undeservedly—positive press coverage.” However, his readiness to meet destiny fits with what he views as a profound social change: the psychological shackles of Jim Crow have been broken and the new generation of black professionals rejects “any limits to what [it] can achieve.”

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