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Column: ‘Dreams from my Father’ opens a window into source of Obama’s compassion

President Obama greets the crowd of 14,000 people as he walks on stage during a rally on North State Street on November 4, 2012, two days before the general election. 

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

President Obama greets the crowd of 14,000 people as he walks on stage during a rally on North State Street on November 4, 2012, two days before the general election. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

A 9-year-old boy sits in the American Embassy in Jakarta, glad to be in an air-conditioned refuge from the heat and noise outside, but bored, waiting for his mom. Making a game of leafing through copies of Life magazine, trying to guess what captions will appear with the photographs he sees, he is struck by a photo of a man looking very sick – bleached out, pale skin, dry, frizzled, white hair. Radiation sickness? No. This man had paid money to have his skin bleached, a black guy trying to pass for white. Young Barack Obama is horrified by the idea that someone would almost “peel off” their skin to look different, “to look different from me!”

I can’t shake this painful account. It comes from Dreams from My Father, Obama’s youthful reflection on “race and inheritance.” I reread it because January includes Martin Luther King’s birthday, Obama’s second inaugural as president of the United States, and (as Mike Pride reminded us in the Jan. 1 Monitor ) the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. But this book takes us beyond any commemoration or celebration.

Dreams is candid and honest, and leaves you with more questions than answers. It is not a puff piece or campaign literature, since Obama wrote it more than 20 years ago, when he was just out of Harvard Law School, before running for any elected office. It’s the view of young Obama at about 30 years of age, reflecting on how race had affected his childhood and early adult years.

That bizarre photo of bleached skin foreshadows the book’s central conflict, as young Obama searches for his own place in a divided racial heritage. That search drives him to learn and share in the African-American experience, where he begins as an outsider. It takes him to Harlem, where he lives as he finishes college at Columbia, and then to Chicago’s South Side, where he struggles as a community organizer, trying to understand the hopelessness of the young people he meets.

Having grown up largely in Hawaii and Indonesia, raised by his white mother and grandparents, and with little knowledge of his African father, he has learned that his color somehow marks him as different, but he has not suffered the psychic damage left by slavery and segregation borne by many if not all mainland blacks. Trying to motivate people often frustrates him, and finally he meets with a number of black pastors to enlist their help.

But too often they ask him that nagging question, “where does your faith come from?” – a question that leaves him for the moment stumped.

Needing more answers, he journeys to Kenya to learn about his dead father from his many Kenyan half-brothers, sisters, aunts and cousins, who he hopes will give him answers.

Their stories describe a brilliant man who won a scholarship to study in the United States and earned a doctorate from Harvard. He returned to his country hoping to play an important role in the government. But he failed, and his surviving family disagrees on why.

One tells Obama that the “Old Man” (as the family calls him) was spending too much time buying drinks for his friends in the tavern rather than working on an economic plan for Kenya. Others suggest he was too stubborn or too rebellious. Tribalism plays a part – the Obama family is Luo, while Kenya’s ruling cronies are Kikuyu.

One thing is clear: The dreams of the “Old Man” were false dreams. To escape a childhood of hunger and rejection, he sought an elite education that would liberate him and bring him power and material trappings. By the end of the African visit, young Barack realizes the emptiness of his father’s dream: “after seeming to travel so far, to discover that he had not escaped at all.” The senior Obama’s life had ended in disillusionment and alcohol abuse, leading to an early death in an automobile accident. And Barack discovers that while he cannot get any answers from the stories of his dead father, he can learn to understand his suffering: “There was no shame in your confusion. . . . There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. . . . The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.”

A blurb on the cover of my paperback edition told me I would learn much about myself by reading this. Comparing my youthful self to Obama, I of course found many differences but one similarity, sort of. We both learned about race through reading. Obama read about a man trying to bleach his skin. I was provoked to think about race by reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the true story of a white man who dyed his skin black to better understand the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow southern states.

But Obama learned much better than I did how to enter into and understand the experiences of others. His wonderment about why a black man would ravage his own face, then his search for comprehension of his own father, gave the young Obama the compassionate skill to listen to the stories of others to better understand them.

And he has that still.

(Tim Frazer taught linguistics and literature at Western Illinois University before retiring and moving to New Hampshire with his wife, June.)

Legacy Comments13

Hey Bruce, Never wrote: "And I find it odd that someone who truly thinks our democratically re-elected president is an "elitist...dog-eater...Communist" can have the chutzpah to call anyone "anti-American." You have me confused with someone else.

No, I don't. I said you "think" it. Van said it, and you responded directly to his post with one word: "Bingo!"

Nice piece on Obama's first book, which I have not read, though this essay may spur me to add it to my reading list. Here's hoping Obama's 2nd term goes better than his first, though it's hard to see how we're off to a very auspicious start, given that the far-right Tea Party types are willing to shut down the government and have us default on our obligations--many of them incurred under Republican rule by some of the same folks who suddenly morphed into deficit hawks with the election of a democratic president. As for the 3 amigos commenting below: their remarks are typical of those who sup on a steady diet of disinformation from Faux, Newsmax, and other right-wing outlets that distort and propagandize daily. From taxes and spending, to climate change, birtherism, Abu Ghirab, vote fraud, and any number of other topics, the adage about everyone being entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts, comes to mind. The adage also explains the paucity of accurate information presented in said postings.

"birtherism" morphs into deatherism through trutherism: "'Sandy Hook Truthers' claim Newtown a hoax"....."The Obama administration perpetrated the hoax, the conspiracy theorists claim, in order to ratchet up support for tougher gun control measures." http://news.ca.msn.com/world/sandy-hook-truthers-claim-newtown-a-hoax

Hmmm. What about MSNBC, Think Progress, Media Matters? Seems to me that these are left wing outlets which distort and propagandize daily. From blanket support of all things Obama, to demonization and division of people by income, to faux gun issues, to over hyped environmentalism, to faux health crisis issues, to blaming Republicans for everything, to denying Democrat voter fraud, to excusing in hypocritical fashion, things which they preach but do not practice. You are the poster child to your own anti-American, self loathing opinions backed up by repetition of facts that don't add up. Your facts tend to come progpaganda sites.

Let us know when you're ready to deal substantively with the facts on any given issue, rather than rely on evasions and name-calling.

And I find it odd that someone who truly thinks our democratically re-elected president is an "elitist...dog-eater...Communist" can have the chutzpah to call anyone "anti-American."

Compassionate, no arrogant, elitist, dog eater-Yes. Communist like father like son.

Bingo!

for 100 points and a gold star can anyone name the domestic terrorist that admitted he was the real author of ....‘Dreams from my Father’? That would be Obama's neighbor, friend , fellow board member and devout convicted domestic terrorist by the name of......?

The conspiracy-theorist-author who first made such nonsensical claims is Jack Cashill, a WorldNutDaily regular who believes all manner of amazing things starting with Clinton-era events: "A giant slab of such theorizing was summarized in Cashill's 2004 film, "Mega Fix" (sold, unsurprisingly, by WND), in which he advanced a sort of grand unification Clinton conspiracy theory, claiming that "the Clintons and their operatives -- Richard Clarke, Sandy Berger, Jamie Gorelick among others -- finessed or fixed all terrorist investigations to enhance Clinton's reelection" in 1996, "turned Ron Brown into Martin Luther King while suppressing the investigation into his death" and "transformed the shoot-down of TWA Flight 800 into a mechanical failure." (Cashill has devoted books to conspiracies surrounding TWA 800 and Brown's death.)" When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

Give me the star! Bill Ayers. You know Sail the guy the left never mention.

Having read the book, it is full of ego driven, self congratulatory innuendo, much of which is bluster, little or which may or may not be the absolute truth.

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