Everybody’s gaga over Barack Obama. Or so it sometimes seems. People whose judgment I deeply respect are in ecstasy over the prospect of the junior senator from Illinois being elected President. Some of them have heard him speak live and have come away enchanted. For my part, I’ve seen him talk and debate and have read as much as I can find about his positions. The result? I’ve appreciated some stands he’s taken – and been extremely offended by others. I’ve noted some signs of what may actually be real principle and courage – as well as classic examples of political waffling, cynicism, and expediency. I can see that he’s smart, charming, and articulate – but, unlike some people, I don’t see him as some knight in shining armor who’s going to deliver us from government as usual.
In short, I can’t exactly say I’ve caught Obama fever.
I’m eager, however, to understand as best I can what all the excitement is about – really I am. So when a friend lent me his copy of Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, I gave up my dream of spending my week’s vacation on the Costa Blanca blissfully unplugged from current events and took the damn thing with me. To my surprise, it turned out not to be a bad beach book at all – it was well written, richly human (i.e., not the usual politician’s pap), and genuinely moving.
But it disturbed me, too.
As the title intimates, the figure in Obama’s carpet is his father, a Kenyan exchange student who met Barack’s white, Kansas-born mother at the University of Hawaii. After marrying her and fathering Barack, Dr. Obama – as he was universally known – returned to Kenya to take up a high-ranking government position. Thereafter, he showed little or no interest in Barack, whom he met only once, when the boy was ten. Though Barack’s mother had a brief second marriage that took her and the boy to Indonesia, she raised him mostly in the Aloha State – and, by his account, was unfailingly selfless and loving, as were her parents, “Gramps” and “Toot,” who helped bring him up.
Yet on whom does Barack’s memoir focus? On his father – whom Barack, against all evidence (which suggests that Dr. Obama was colossally selfish and narcissistic), seeks to portray as heroic, sympathetic, indeed near-mythic. Obama p√®re was a polygamist (and a lousy husband to all his wives), but Barack gives no indication that he finds this morally problematic; on the contrary, he seems determined to excuse his father’s many failings as consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and/or racism. One can, of course, well understand why a small boy – or even a young man – might idealize out of all proportion the father he never met. But Obama shows few signs in this book of recognizing that he’s doing this. Meanwhile, perversely, he treats his mother and grandparents, who by his own account raised him with extraordinary devotion, all but dismissively. At one point he even suggests that Gramps and Toot were really racists – and that all white people, in fact, are racists, and that black people have been so deformed by this racism that black individuals can hardly be held responsible for their own moral lapses.
Forget the content of our character; this is a work preoccupied with skin color. It’s drenched with the legacy of Malcolm X (whom Obama, at least in this book, openly idolizes). At times it’s as if there were no historical injustices in the world other than those visited upon blacks by whites. Obama routinely refers to other black men (but never white men) as “brothers”; he exhibits considerably more concern for the dignity of black men than for that of women or non-black men; and he’s acutely sensitive to perceived racial slights (yet even as he deplores the subordination of blacks in America, curiously enough, he appears to accept as his due his family’s lofty position in Kenya). While occasionally gesturing toward an ideal of colorblindness √† la Dr. King, in his heart of hearts he’s anything but colorblind, fervently endorsing black solidarity while repeatedly expressing distrust of, and even contempt for, whites. When, lamenting Kenya’s intertribal rivalries, he tells a relative that “We’re part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe,” the last three words feel like an afterthought – as does his attempt, in the book’s closing pages, to move beyond strict racial line-drawing and to articulate broader sympathies. As if all this weren’t enough, it seems clear by book’s end that his heart’s home is not America but Kenya.
What does it say about the young Obama that he was well-nigh obsessed with his vain braggart of an absentee father but trivialized his mother’s accomplishments? What does it mean that he himself plainly can’t see that his father comes off in these pages as a world-class jerk and his mother as a woman of admirable self-discipline and quiet achievement? What does it mean that throughout his account of his work as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama himself is in sharp focus while the underprivileged folks he’s supposedly trying to help are hazy figures in the distant background? What does it mean that some of the characters in this book – whom one would otherwise assume to be important people in his life – are, as he admits in the introduction, composites? What does it mean that despite his fixation on his father and his Kenyan kin, their religion (Islam) is barely mentioned, and that in the most substantial reference to it, he gives a genial thumbs-up to his brother’s newfound religious fervor?
Though often sympathetic (what fatherless Bildungsroman protagonist isn’t?), the Obama of these pages can also be unbearably self-absorbed – yet, at the same time, astonishingly short on self-knowledge. What’s more, he’s a young man of fierce – if powerfully muted – emotions. Raised on glorious Hawaiian beaches by three wonderful people who were utterly devoted to him, he attended top schools and walked straight from graduation into a cool job in New York – all in all, a pretty lucky guy. Yet between this memoir’s lines, one senses a barely suppressed rage; his good fortune notwithstanding, one has the distinct feeling that Obama feels he – Dr. Obama’s son! – still hasn’t received his due. As for his social, racial, and political attitudes – well, yes, since 1995 he’s definitely changed his tune about a few things. But how much has he changed deep down inside?
Racism is the #1 blot on America’s escutcheon. As a kid in the South – and the North – during the 1960s I saw and heard things that impressed upon me for all time the utter ugliness and evil of it all. I know beyond a doubt that the spectacle of a black person for whom I had some modicum of respect (i.e., not Jesse or Rev. Al) taking the oath of office would move me to helpless tears. I can see, moreover, that Obama is in many ways a terrifically attractive candidate; I can understand why so many people whom I respect for their intelligence and sense of moral responsibility want him to be president. I’d love to be able to agree with them. In other words, I want to want him to be president. But largely because of what I read in Dreams from My Father, it’s hard for me – at least given what I’ve heard thus far – to climb on the bandwagon.