It seemed important, as both men set about making their marks on the world, for them to establish before anything else that their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father’s shadow or a father’s permission. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, published in 1951, begins: “On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died.” Baldwin was almost nineteen at the time. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, begins also with the death of his father: “A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.”
Both men quickly then established their own actual distance from their fathers, which made their grief sharper and more lonely, but also made clear to the reader that they had a right to speak with authority, to offer this version of themselves partly because they themselves, through force of will and a steely sense of character, had invented the voice they were now using, had not been trained by any other man to be the figure they had become.1 “I had not known my father very well,” Baldwin wrote.
We got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had.
Of his father, Barack Obama wrote:
At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told.
Both men then, using photographs and memories, commented on their fathers’ blackness. In both cases it seemed important to state or suggest that the father was more black than the son. Baldwin wrote that there was something buried in his father which had lent him
his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty.
When Obama was a child, he wrote, “my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk.”
In both cases too, the writers sought to make clear that their fathers’ pasts were not their own pasts, but the past as a different country, a country they did not share. “He was of the first generation of free men,” Baldwin wrote.
He, along with thousands of other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had never seen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes call the Old Country.
Obama’s father was from a place even more distant: “He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a…
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