Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

What does America look like? The answer depends on whom you ask. Each of us has a personal vision of our country shaped by our families, communities, schools, churches, jobs, and cultural experiences. If, however, you ask this question of enough people from different socio-economic, demographic, and cultural groups, what emerges is a kaleidoscope of views. America is a single nation, yes, but it has people with many, and often opposing, opinions about who we are collectively. To some, that is troubling but to others our variety is what makes us a beacon of hope for the world, a place where everyone’s views may be expressed and, with hard work, anyone can succeed. Given this multi-faceted society, one might think that a young man with a Kenyan father and white, middle-class American mother would easily find a comfortable social niche. For Barack Obama, however, the opposite was true: figuring out where he belonged in the country of his birth was a long and often painful process.

The fact that he is President of the United States does not increase the importance of Mr. Obama’s memoir. Dreams from My Father explains young Barack Obama’s quest for identity and at the same time, provides insight into why black Americans, more than three decades after the end of segregation, still struggle to feel fully American. As a youth, Mr. Obama considered himself a black American and, while not embarrassed by having a white mother and grandparents at home, tried to fit in with “the brothers.” In one painful episode, Mr. Obama made fun of a fellow college student for “acting white” by studying hard and wearing argyle sweaters, only to be put in his place by his idol, Marcus, who said, “Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff’s together instead of passing judgment on how other folks are supposed to act.” A year later, writes Mr. Obama, that episode still upset him because he felt exposed as a fraud, but it did give him the insight that being black in America was about more than skin color. The fact that his father, Barack Obama Sr., was Kenyan didn’t mean that he shared the experience of people who had been abducted, abused, and despised for generations. Mr. Obama may have looked the part, but he was not and could not be a brother.

Rather than turn away or turn inward, Barack Obama decided to do something to right the wrongs left over from slavery and segregation, so he became a community organizer in Chicago, a racially divided city which had recently elected its first black mayor, Harold Washington. Mr. Obama’s description of the thought process that went into becoming a community organizer is sometimes humorous and often painful. Like so many idealistic young people, he wanted to change the world: change presidents, change the congress, change the hearts and minds of the people. That was about as detailed as it got. He saw himself as a leader, an agent of change, able to mobilize the grassroots. As badly as Mr. Obama wanted to be a hero to black Americans and lead them out of poverty and oppression, it was those same black Americans who taught him the hard way that his ideas, no matter how brilliant, were just that: his and not theirs. That humbling lesson could have discouraged or embittered a lesser man, but Mr. Obama’s temperament would not allow him to stay down for long. He learned from his mistakes, of which there were many, and tried again.

A big mistake was clinging to an idealized version of the Civil Rights movement. Barack Obama wanted, more than anything, to join the March on Washington, stage sit-ins, raise consciousness, and lift black Americans up. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, he was about twenty years too late. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the traditions which made up the fabric of the black American community were shredded, leaving a disillusioned, angry, dejected, and even self-hating population in its wake. In the name of “urban renewal” cities razed whole neighborhoods to build housing projects. Commercial development encroaching on residential areas also took a toll. Public schools in predominantly black areas, where community ties had been broken, deteriorated while at the same time, increasing numbers of teenagers became parents themselves. Meanwhile, drug use increased, providing a means for young black men and boys to earn money and led to bloodbaths in the streets. Black families fleeing the dangers of the city migrated to suburbs but were often greeted with hostility and waves of “white flight”. The community that Mr. Obama wanted to organize, it turned out, was in much worse shape than he had imagined.

After repeated failures to motivate citizens to challenge Chicago’s politicians, Mr. Obama learned that organizing with unions or creating job banks would not solve the more fundamental problem of teaching a high school dropout how to read or use a computer. Nor would these approaches provide safe child care for a sixteen-year-old mother so she could return to school, or after school supervision for children whose parents worked long hours. “In other words, it was different for black folks.” Pretending that the past is no longer relevant and that we have truly achieved racial equality denies reality. Having grown up outside of the black American experience, it took Mr. Obama a while to understand this.

Working within black churches, all that remained of black America’s cultural world, was problematic because the clergy were mostly interested in getting funding to keep their doors open and the heat on. Many congregants, having reached a degree of comfort in life, were not interested in fighting city hall. After several frustrating attempts to motivate parishioners at one church to demand needed repairs in their neighborhood, Will, one of Mr. Obama’s handful of loyal committee members suggested “taking it to the streets!” The problem, he explained, is that the people who most needed help didn’t necessarily go to that church and wouldn’t feel comfortable attending a meeting there. In spite of his skepticism, Mr. Obama helped Will print and distribute fliers announcing a meeting at a strategically located street corner. The appointed hour arrived and the “streets remained empty at first, the shades drawn down the rows of brick bungalows. Then, slowly, people began to emerge…” More than twenty people showed up, to the great surprise of Mr. Obama, ready to talk about long neglected potholes, missing stop signs, abandoned cars, and other problems the city should have fixed long before. At the end, Will said to Barack Obama, community organizer, “told you.”

Unless you tuned out the presidential election of 2008, you probably know the basic facts of Barack Obama’s adult life: that he was a star at Harvard Law School, that his community activism led to a career in local politics, that he ran for the Senate and won without the backing of the Democratic Party machine, that he wowed the Democratic National Convention in 2004, that he won the presidential primary against a field of formidable opponents, that he has an accomplished wife and two cute young daughters. Dreams from My Father provides the back story: who his parents were, what their young lives were like, how they met, why they divorced, and how each interacted with their son, Barack Obama Jr. In this book, Mr. Obama shares the experiences that shaped him: living in Indonesia with his mother’s second husband, being sent to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, his one and only meeting with his father, and connecting with his Kenyan half-sister following their father’s death. Even more interesting and poignant is Mr. Obama’s journey to Africa in search of hidden pieces of himself. During the presidential campaign, brief mentions were made of family in Kenya, but to understand who this man, the 44th President of the United States, is requires taking the time to read his memoirs. Even if he had never been elected to public office and remained an obscure figure, Barack Obama’s book would still be important.

Until reading Dreams from My Father I never understood why it was so hard for many black Americans to go along and get along with white Americans. Affirmative Action programs, while well-intended, only open doors. They do not cure the social ills which hold so many down and trap their children in the brutal cycle of poverty. Mr. Obama, with his multi-cultural upbringing didn’t learn to see the ideal human as having light skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect teeth. The people in his world were multi-hued and of all shapes and sizes. Sort of like America. That he embraces our patchwork society, may be why Barack Obama won the presidency. That he loves this country in spite of the shameful episodes in our history is something we should all take to heart.