Friday, June 22, 2012

WFJ Book Club #9: Dreams from My Father

Some time in the future, probably not very long from now, Barack Obama will be remembered in much the same way as all of his predecessors, one more link in a chronology of American Presidents.  It will be assumed without much critical thought that he was destined for that list, that every stage in his life was a step in that direction.  Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, Lyndon Johnson was a public school teacher, and Ronald Reagan was an actor, but none of these things seem to define their identities except as stops along the way, as if they were just biding their time and waiting their turn.

So reading his first book, the memoir Dreams from My Father, seems a little surreal.  The book was first published in 1995, before he'd been elected to a single public office.  The edition I own, republished in 2004, identifies its author on the back as "the U.S. senator-elect from Illinois."  A title like that is so immediate and time-bound I can't help but laugh at the prospect of a future political scholar pulling it from a library shelf, and wondering briefly if they've got the right author.  I don't know when Obama began planning in earnest to run for President, but there was a time when "senator-elect" was the highest office he could claim.  And years before that, he was just a regular guy; if he was a future President all along, there was no way of knowing.

Obama certainly has one of the most unconventional life stories of any U.S. President.  He was born in Hawaii and lived for four years in Indonesia, moving to the American mainland only when it was time to go to college.  From there he adopted the lifestyle of a socially conscious African-American in the early 80's, though he pursued it in a variety of ways: business, community organizing, and eventually the study of law.  There was no special destiny about any of this, and Obama's primary theme throughout the book is doubt: uncertainty of who he was, what he was doing, and what he was going to become.

History will remember Obama as America's first African-American President.  Examining that claim, however, brings us to the great contradiction of his identity, nestled in the contradictions of our racial politics.  As an American of African ancestry, he certainly meets the definition of an African-American.  In common parlance, however, "African-American" is a synonym for "black," and black is implicitly regarded as the opposite of "white."  But Obama is biracial, with a white mother and a black father.  If you were to try explaining our racial system to a Martian, it would be difficult to explain in purely rational or mathematical terms why someone who is precisely half black and half white should be regarded primarily as black.  Obama accepted the label, but not every biracial person he meets with on his journey accepts it in quite the same way.

The path toward coming to terms with his blackness, the part of himself that makes him "African," leads Obama to reevaluate over and over his social status, his mission in life, and most of all his family.  His extended family is large, particularly on his father's side.  But Obama never really knew his father, apart from a brief reunion in his early adolescence.  He did not come to know most of his half-siblings, cousins, and other African relatives until years after Obama Senior had suddenly died.  Dreams from My Father reaches a climax with his first visit to Kenya, where the reunion with his long-lost family introduces new stories and facts into the mythology Obama constructed for himself.  He recounts these discoveries with high emotion and no small amount of pain, but by the book's end it is implied that he has drawn some measure of peace from them.

Race is everywhere in Dreams, and it is discussed primarily from a black perspective.  This means occasionally stepping on the toes of whites, describing them in terms of oppression and colonialism that the less enlightened may find threatening or offensive.  But Obama is always in a state of doubt: partly as a result of his white heritage, and partly from experience working in impoverished, inner-city Chicago, he tries to look beyond the orthodoxies of the black community.  Where the line between idealism and reality should be drawn is never resolved, but it helps in some way to explain Obama's pragmatic political style.

As someone who, like most people, came to know Obama first as a rising political star and then a sudden contender for the Presidency, it is impossible not to analyze this book for clues to understanding his political choices.  But apart from the oft-observed truisms that he is both a liberal and a pragmatist, there's not much to learn about Obama the politician.  Politicians are cautious with their words, careful to offend as few people as possible.  I chuckled somewhat at the younger Obama's fond recollections of Jeremiah Wright, knowing that he'd probably prefer to publicly discuss the Reverend as little as possible after what happened four years ago.  Dreams is not a collection of boring freedom-flavored platitudes, the like of which major candidates like to foist upon the public to boost their electoral potential.  It is measured and not at all sensational, but it is also frank, honest, and emotionally powerful.  Even knowing the job that Barack Obama would one day hold, it still comes across as a book about a man's past, not a strategic support-piece of a career politician's ambition.

The man who wrote Dreams from My Father is the man I voted for in 2008, or at least the version of that man who I most identify with and support.  After meeting him anew in this way, I wonder what a time traveling, mid-90's Obama would make of his future self's administration.  Would he be disappointed by what pragmatism and political reality had made of his ideals?  How willing would he be to accept those compromises?  Could the Obama of the past properly appreciate the burdens of the office which the present Obama has carried for almost four years?

I'm not sure that any of us could, any more than one book can ever take us directly into the heart and mind of another human being.  But Dreams will be as important to Obama's legacy as just about anything else he has or will produce: a first-hand record of a man who would be President, long before he could have thought it possible.

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