Monday, March 29, 2010

dreams from my father

I feel like I’ve failed in my civic duty in not having read this book before. Audacity of Hope is next, if I can get a copy of it. I do feel a sincere regret that I am not a more political person. Living in a comfort zone/dream world composed of the past and future rather than present-day moral issues does grate on my conscience, and at times I’ve combated this by reading newspapers and trying to make informed decisions before I vote. I suppose it hasn’t helped that I’m stuck somewhere between two countries currently, letting my handle on US politics stall out while I half-heartedly start scoping out British current affairs. I realize that if I’m ever thinking of becoming a British citizen I will have to work at understanding the politics of a constitutional monarchy in more detail, though equally if I return to the US I will be so behind on current affairs as to almost have become a foreigner. I like to think good intentions count for something, but I wish I had the time to mend my lazy and complacent ways.

I digress, but in any case, Dreams from My Father not only made me feel good, reading into the realm of politics and race relations that, these days (not always so) I delve so little into, but it was a genuinely entertaining read. The book was published long before Obama’s presidency, and his writing is eloquent like his speech-making. I found it slightly irritating, the first thirty pages or so, with a few tortured turns of phrase that seemed to be self-conscious and perhaps self-congratulatory; fortunately, as the book went on, I got this feeling less and less and settled into his prose account which, he himself notes, is memoir, political and social document. The book has lots of ground to cover, not least because Obama’s parents, grandparents, and close associates have complicated geographical backgrounds. It’s telling how ignorant I am that I didn’t realize until I read the book that Mr Obama was born in Hawaii and that his peripatetic upbringing gave him a global perspective from an early age. Particularly this resonated with me: He [my grandfather] will infect my grandmother with the great peripatetic itch that had brought both their forebears across the Atlantic and half of a continent so many years before.

It’s a wise decision to include the biographies of Obama’s mother’s parents; I personally am fascinated with their story on its own and their relevance to the “American dream” is important in the context of the overall purpose of the book. The book does want to go full circle, keeping the readers as starved of facts on Obama’s father in the opening as the writer was when he was a boy. Its settings are almost as diverse as a novel’s might be: Hawaii, Indonesia (Obama’s mother’s second husband was Indonesian), New York, Chicago, Kenya. We can identify strongly with Obama in all his guises: a child yearning for his father’s presence, then disappointed when his strong-willed father comes to visit; one of a handful of black students in high school, working out how to respond to that racial?ethnic?constructed? identity; at University in Occidental, reacting like a pinball to the stimuli of politics, disillusionment, drugs, alcohol, relationships; threadbare on exchange in New York City; the idealistic odd man out in a community without hope in Chicago in the 1980s; and finally experiencing the context of family, and Africa itself, when he returns to his father’s birthplace and meets all his relatives. He’s a good guide through this menagerie; like The Times says on the front cover, “Thoughtful, moving, and brilliantly written.”

Obama mentions The Autobiography of Malcolm X among other texts; I have to say I was reminded of this book while reading Dreams from My Father, as well as (rather too predictably, I imagine) books like Nella Larsen’s Passing, Chester Himes’ If He Hollers, Let Him Go, even The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One of the main points of the book is the trickiness of being biracial in America; of being a black American in Africa; of finding nowhere to fit in and no clue about how to act. On one hand, it makes it easily indentifiable: very few people are totally comfortable in their own skin, and by admitting to his youthful attempts to fit in with different groups, Obama seems to be indicating to us that it’s okay to be confused about identity, in a wider sense. But thinking back to Malcolm X, thinking of the part of that book that most resonated with me: a young, white, college-going girl went to one of Malcolm X’s talks. Afterwards, in tears, she approached him and asked, “What can I do?” What could she do to help? And he replied, with some sadness, “Nothing.” Because I have never experienced (and am unlikely to ever experience) the trials of discrimination and racism that Malcolm X, or Obama, or even, for example, Sherman Alexie in his books from the American Indian perspective, went through, I sometimes feel a bit wrong-footed. Would people laugh at me or scorn me for trying to identify with something that I am unlikely to know, at least in that context?

Yet, I don’t think that’s what Mr Obama would like me to take away from his book (never mind the other books mentioned). I admire the author’s ability to look at family members objectively, particularly the actions, personalities and his imagined motives and feelings for his mother, one-time stepfather, siblings, grandparents, and father. It shows a generosity and empathy of spirit as well as keen observation and detachment; these qualities combined, I think, make him a good writer of memoir as well as a good politician. He could have easily presented his mother’s actions—taking her children far away from the US and living in Indonesia—as selfish rather than presenting them as part of his learning experience (as well as hers). In Chicago, doing thankless work as a community organizer, the aware and incisive Obama still feels like he’s got a lot to learn: He’d meant here in Chicago; but he could also meant here in my shoes, an older black man who still burns from a lifetime of insults, of foiled ambitions, of ambitions abandoned before they’ve been tried. I asked myself if I could truly understand that. I assumed, took for granted, that I could. Seeing me, these men had made the same assumption. Would they feel the same way if they knew more about me? I wondered. I tried to imagine what would happen if Gramps [a white man] walked into the barbershop at that moment, how the talk would stop, how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work.

I’ve always felt lucky that I grew up in as diverse a place as I did. Though I might joke that Albuquerque High School was a ghetto, I did go to my good friend’s quinciñera, and in University I had friends who were San Juan Pueblo, Navajo, and Vietnamese (how’s that for a mix?). New Mexico is supposed to be the Tri-Cultural State, and it is a genuine mix of people with different ethnic backgrounds; you wouldn’t be able to escape the Hispanic or Native American references or influences even if you wanted to. Since then I have gone on to live and work with with Indian (from India this time), Chinese, Lithuanian, Polish, Turkish, Irish, Welsh, and English students. I’ve found out that southeast London is one of the most culturally diverse areas I’ve ever experienced. My point, I think (!), is that growing up in a diverse community and continuing exposure to enclaves of diverse people has benefited me in, not so much a color-blindness, but rather appreciation of difference. If that makes any sense. In a way, I think that’s what Obama himself experienced growing up in Hawaii.

I’m getting off-track. I’m making this review more about me than the book itself. I guess that does give you a sense, however, of how personally the book affected me. If I have any particular criticism of Dreams from My Father, it’s only that the first few pages seem to set up an expectation of an easy solution, or a “moral,” which the book doesn’t—cannot—deliver on. Obama’s relationship with Africa is still ambivalent after his trip to Kenya, and his experience in Chicago didn’t produce any so-called revelations: he did, after all, opt to go to Harvard for his law degree rather than continuing in his organizing work there. He is surprisingly un-empathatic on the subject of religion, which is refreshing I must say. I personally enjoyed the stories of his mother’s parents, and his years growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, the most, but the book as a whole was well worth reading.

I don’t think it’s often you get to feel you know the President the way I felt after reading his book.

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