I spent last week on vacation in Quebec--really a combination of perhaps the most spectacular urban setting in North America, a tourist trap, and a French provincial town, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially for the chance to see the sites of the 1759 campaign first hand--but meanwhile, I finally kept a promise to myself and read Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father. It was a remarkable experience.
We live, as I have been forced to realize in many ways, in an increasingly semi-literate culture. We are still inundated with words, but remain in the midst of a general decline in sustained argument, original thinking, and books of any length. Barack Obama does represent an exception to all this--or at least, he did when he wrote his first book, long before he had become rich or famous to command the services of a ghost. Dreams For My Father is 450 rather dense and well-written pages long. No Presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson (both of whom were far more prolific) has demonstrated remotely comparable literary ability. The book is, however, far more intensely personal than anything that they wrote. In some respects, indeed, its relentlessly personal focus frustrated me. Obama repeatedly makes clear that he has been a voracious reader all his life but almost never refers to anything specific that he has read. I don't believe that he mentioned a single course that he took during his college years at Occidental and Columbia--I didn't even learn what his major was. Yet he shows a highly developed sense of both American and world history, because the real story of the book is about how he fits in--an issue with which I can certainly identify. Yet I get the impression that very few journalists and pundits have actually read it. It is, perhaps, too literate, too long, to much of an effort for today's America.
Thus, I have the impression that most people are still only vaguely aware of the details of Obama's complex life--perhaps because they simply cannot be fit into a standard television news feature. His mother's parents were midwesterners who wended their way across the US and eventually to Honolulu in the late 1950s, where their only child, his mother, attended the University of Hawaii. There she met his father, Barack Obama Sr., a young Kenyan from a rural family who had come to America to learn managerial skills that could help his nation, then on the verge of independence. Obama is provocatively vague about the dates and circumstances of their marriage, but his grandparents clearly accepted it. According to his mother, however, when his father graduated from Hawaii she could not accompany him to Harvard, where he went for some graduate studies, and decided to get a divorce when he returned to Kenya. All of this happened before Barack was old enough to remember his father, whom he met for the first and only time when the elder Barack came to Hawaii for an extended visit when Barack was ten, in 1971 or so. By then, many other events had supervened.
Specifically, his mother had now met, married, and then divorced an Indonesian named Lolo, who had also been studying in Hawaii, and the family had moved to Indonesia when Obama was about six. (Exact dates are often missing from the book.) Both his father and his step-father, in short, belonged to the age of newly emerging nations--nations originally expected to follow roughly in the western path. But both of them, it eventually turned out, had their careers ruined because they found themselves on the wrong side of the politics of their native land. The Sukarno government sent Lolo abroad to study but was overthrown in 1965 while he was away, and he returned to find himself a suspect person who was quickly herded into the army for two years of difficult duty in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, back in Kenya, Barack Obama Sr. was also falling victim to a mixture of tribal politics and his own contentious personality, and his bright future as a civil servant or politician eventually evaporated as well.
For all these reasons, Barack's years in Indonesia--where a younger half-sister was born--were anything but luxurious, but they were quite exciting. He did briefly attend a Muslim school, where he explains he was criticized for inattention to religious subjects. Both his father and step-father were clearly only the most nominal of Muslims--facts which of course do not have the slightest interest for the right-wing blogosphere. When he was ten, his mother--had blossomed as an English teacher to supplement the family income--decided to send him back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend school there. He was accepted to Punaho, Honolulu's leading private school (from which, as it happens, a close friend of mine at Harvard had just graduated.) About a year later his mother left Lolo and returned to Hawaii as well
By this point in the book Barack Obama, born in 1961, defined (and rightly, I am convinced) by Strauss and Howe as the first year of Generation X, has emerged clearly as an interesting kind of generational hybrid. On the one hand, his own life has many classic Gen X features: divorced parents, frequent moves, and, later, a mildly rebellious youth that included a good deal of pharmaceutical recreation. (Xers, as a group, used far more drugs as teenagers than Boomers.) But on the other hand, he retains through his parents an acute sense of the glorious age of optimistic innocence that was coming to an end at the time of his birth--the age I memorialized in the last pages of American Tragedy. "In the end," he writes, "I suppose that's what all the stories of my father [that he heard from his mother and grandparents] were about. They said less about the man himself than about the changes that had taken place in the people around him, the halting process by which my grandparents' racial attitudes had changed. The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy's election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction, one that haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere childhood." Indeed.
Yet by the time Obama had reached high school he had left universalism, for the moment, behind, and was becoming obsessed with the issue of being black. In a moving passage, he describes reading some of the black political classics, including Richard Wright and W. E. B. Dubois, and noting how many of these thinkers had ended their lives in bitter exile. He was also very influenced by Malcolm X's autobiography and by the dramatic turn Malcolm was taking in the last year of his life (also the year of the Voting Rights Act.) But as the Library of America's second volume on Reporting Civil Rights, which I recently read, shows so clearly, in that very same year the balance among younger blacks had started swinging towards the view of American society as hopelessly imperialist and corrupt--the view still taken by Jeremiah Wright, a minor character in this book, and who happens to be a very near contemporary of both of Obama's parents. Obama struggled particularly with the popular idea that success and selling out were, for black Americans, synonymous, but he had an epiphany at Occidental College after making a brief public speech against divestiture. When a black female student named Regina complimented him on his charismatic presentation, he replied cynically and resentfully that the speech would be his last. "I don't believe we made any difference by what we did today," he said. "I don't believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don't make it so. So why do I pretend otherwise? I'll tell you why. Because it makes ImeI feel important. . . .That's all."
She reacted angrily. "You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything's about you. You're just like Reggie and Marcus and Steve and all the other brothers out here. The really is about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It's not about you. It's never just about you. It's about people you need your help." That conversation, he implies, led him to his career as a community organizer in Chicago after his graduation from Columbia, where he transferred for his last two years. "I had stopped listening [to homilies like these] at a certain point," he writes, "so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that while people spoke about black."
Obama never entirely followed up that tantalizing hint in Dreams for My Father. He did not make much of an attempt to push universalist values during his years as a Chicago organizer, and most of the black authorities he worked with--including the Reverend Wright--rejected them. And yet I come away from the book, perhaps optimistically, feeling that he has eventually come to believe that in a world of many races and of modern economic structures, universalism is the only answer.
This, it seemed to me, was also the implication of the long last section of the book, which describes Obama's first, long visit to his ancestral home in Kenya just before his entrance into Harvard Law School, in which he came to know many members of his extended family after his father's death. On the one hand, he experienced truly traditional family life, in which continual rituals of hospitality combined with an intense sense of the obligations of the richer family members towards the poorer. On the other hand, most of the younger family members--led by his half-sister Auma, who had studied in Germany and who had come to accept many western values--had to try to make their way in an increasingly modern world, even though it might offer the first generations only modest rewards. Obama does not pass judgment, but it seemed to me that he left with an understanding that traditional society offered few answers for the future. At the same time, it is hard to believe that some one so keenly aware of the impact of colonialism could ever favor an adventure like that in Iraq.
Obama's life does embody much of the tragedy of the modern world--including the incredibly disruptive impact of European civilization upon other continents, no matter what its ultimate outcome turns out to be. The encounter of American slave traders with Africa was particularly fateful for the United States because it brought millions of Africans to this country against their will--the thing which, I am inclined to believe, most differentiates black Americans even now from most of their fellow citizens, since they have no heritage of choice to fall back on. (Obama mentions the slave trade several times, but I was disappointed that he never acknowledges another important fact--that white people did not create the African slave market, which was already in existence when they came upon the scene. Evil, as well as good, is a human universal, it seems.) That, however, was only the beginning of a long and sad story. It seemed in the mid-20th century that black Americans might be following the path trod by more recent European immigrants when they migrated to the North to take industrial jobs--but de-industrialization struck, as Obama discovered in Chicago, before that process was complete and their children had begun entering the middle class and the professions in large numbers. Then came the Reagan and Bush II Administrations, and the dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor. The question we must now confront as a nation now is whether we truly can offer a decent and rewarding life to all Americans and a better one to their children. Any true universalism depends on an affirmative answer. Although we knew in the early 1960s that this promise was not yet fulfilled, we assumed that it could be. Now that hope needs to be renewed.
I do not know if Obama, if elected, can begin to do that. His autobiography left me with a even heightened sense of his uniqueness. He is not only the first candidate of partly African descent, but the first even to have a non-American parent since the days of the early Republic. On the other hand, it proves that education remains the great channel of mobility in our society--his resume is far more similar to Bill or Hillary Clinton's or even George W. Bush's than it is to the average American's. He evidently got a good practical education in urban problems during his days as an organizer and in his law practice in Chicago. He is obviously a natural as a politician and an orator. And like every great President, he has a profound sense of history and his place within it. All that, certainly, is far more than we had a right to expect after the events of the last eight years. We shall now find whether Bismarck's dictum holds--that a special Providence looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America.