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)
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.)