On Barack Obama, Part 1

One of the reasons why Barack Obama has so quickly cohered into a figure of legend – a   reason that’s irrelevant and secondary and yet oddly compulsive – is that he has sprung, fully formed, out of an incredible story. As the poor son of a mixed race marriage, a man who found his own way along a path of family values and intelligence, and who embodies a political vision that is liberal, compassionate and essentially non-aggressive, he manages to combine contradictions in a way that few people, and certainly never modern politicians, have ever done. So naturally, as a story person, I was interested in him before I knew that he had published a memoir, Dreams From My Father. Another unconventional move, to have a memoir out before stepping into office, of course, but this one was written on the back of his election to president of the Harvard Law Review. At that time, over a decade ago, he was invited to write about the journey he had taken to reach such giddy heights of achievement; a small, niche-interest book, one might have thought, until he became President of the United States. Publishers suffering from recession anxiety, take note. I began reading his memoir on the 5th November and whilst I’ve only finished the first section there is so much to say about it that I thought I had better start noting down my reactions. It’s not just the book I want to talk about, either, but the extraordinary reviews that it has already provoked.

So, to recap the events that created him, Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, the product of a Kansas-born mother and an African man who met whilst at university. In the racial melting pot of Hawaii, the young Barack represented a dream of multi-racial tolerance, a dream that, by its nature, had yet to become a reality. His father left when he was two and for several years, Barack was protected by the love of his mother and grandparents from a harsher reality. It’s a delicate irony that his mother’s determination that he should have the best possible education provided the context for his encounter with a disturbing magazine article, concerning a black man who had damaged his skin irreparably by his attempts to lighten it. It’s not just the article, however, that must have informed him of the struggle that lay ahead: his mother’s insistence on waking him at four in the morning   so he could study with her must already have been laying down tracks of implications concerning how much work he would have to do in order to reach a place where he would be valuable.

What strikes me most, reading about these early years, is how well Obama managed to sift through his experiences and extract solid gold from them. Where many others would have rebelled, or lost faith in themselves, Obama looks back on the young Barack and watches him being endowed by developmental gifts. From his stepfather, Lolo, he retains the memory of scars on the man’s body accompanied by his gentle, firm wisdom that ‘Sometimes you can’t worry about hurt. Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go.’ From his mother he is taught core values of honesty, fairness, straight talk and independent judgement (and these are his terms). From his grandparents he learns that much had been sacrificed for him, and so much is required in recompense, but that this transaction can occur in the purity of mutual love. Sport in adolescence brings greater ambivalence; a real sense of integrity in competition, but also an awareness of its darker underside, the undercurrents of prejudiced aggression, the need to watch your back, the terrible threat of vulnerability. And his adolescent crisis of belonging to two races and to neither at the same time, his crisis of acknowledging that the black part of him falls outside the dominant value system, the tremendous difficulty of being something that other people don’t expect him to be, ends with his discovering ‘his voice’, what he calls ‘that constant, honest portion of myself, a bridge between my future and my past.’ How many people, I wonder, would have made it through such an obstacle course without seeing hopelessness ahead, or without feeling the burden of those sacrifices to be intolerable? Interestingly, (to me at least) the crisis of negritude Obama outlines is identical to the one the French author Jean Genet made famous with his highly political plays. Historically, they lived in the same era, but whereas Genet’s solution was to have his characters embrace parody, anarchy, repulsion, Barack Obama must instead have been quietly laying down his own dreams about acceptance, achievement and growth, for himself and for the society around him.

So you’ll be able to tell that thus far through the memoir, I’ve been impressed by Obama’s quiet dignity, his sympathetic and honest vision, and the sheer quality of his writing. What I like most about his chapters is their beautiful internal structure. This is clearly a man who has gloriously organized thought, with a focus on information and analysis rather than sensationalism and sound bites. So, imagine my surprise when, out of curiosity, I checked the internet for reviews of the book and found that the main interest of so many (and these often dating from a time when he was in competition with Clinton for the candidature) was on the brief meltdown he experienced in late adolescence, when he didn’t work so hard and when he smoked a little pot. Such revelations, as the reviewers liked to term them, would surely present an impossible obstacle to his political ambitions, when previous presidents had been obliged to assure the nation that they were incapable of breathing in. But these reviews weren’t as startling to me as some of those from general readers who had produced lengthy diatribes on Obama’s relationship to the issue of race. Some detected a threatening anti-white stance, others felt he showed insufficient passion for his black roots. I suppose I was naïve enough to consider that racial tension had calmed down a bit in the past couple of decades, and that the struggles of integration that most every Western nation has gone through might have left behind a legacy of tolerance in at least the educated contingent. But no: what I was disappointed to find was the perpetuation of a kind of Puritanism that is not healthy, not kind, not reasonable, and not useful. I suppose you might well call it a perpetuation of black-and-white thinking, which deems people, events, ideas wrong or right, good or bad.

How realistic would it be to imagine a President who had led a blameless, mistake-free life, and what kind of a person would such an impossible existence produce? Certainly not a person with proper humility, which comes from facing our limitations, or with compassion, which comes from the experience of suffering. What such a demand for purity produces is the political climate we have in this country -  a whole lot of secrets and a whole lot of mud-throwing, public disillusion and political face saving. The desire for a paragon seems to arise independent of any kind of understanding of what life is, or acknowledgement of what constitutes a valuable learning process. The question of race is more important, however, and more depressing. Obama writes of his white grandparents and his distressing revelation that their racial tolerance extends only to him: ‘Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.’ Reading the reviews, it seemed to me that these fears are still alive, and worse, operative in the young, whose experience of racial prejudice is very different to that of previous generations. Their complaint is that Obama’s response to racial inequality, a response that he describes as belonging to the seventies, does not correspond to what they understand as the ‘correct’ view in the contemporary climate. Frequent visitors to my site will know that I get irritated when readers complain that the writers of previous generations don’t spout the right cultural attitudes. It seems so essential to me that we should never forget where we as a human race have come from, all the false views and the daft ideas we’ve cheerfully espoused, if for no other reason than that it might make us less complacent about our current thinking. And so I found myself very annoyed, in a teacherly sort of way, that the issue of race, and the journey through a rapidly changing, fraught landscape should not be read for what it was, but should be misread as a failure to imaginatively foresee the ideology of the twenty-first century.

It’s something that I see everywhere still, this insistence that things are black or white, right or wrong, with personal opinion being elevated to a truth, with a refusal to entertain the complexity of reality. The more education you are lucky enough to have, the more those ideas of purity are challenged until, when you reach that lofty plateau of academia, every notion assumes a multi-faceted sophistication. And it may be that’s the greatest challenge that Obama faces: the way he has had to live the contradiction, and the conjunction, of black and white within his own body have made him alive to the very dangers inherent in polarized thinking. His experience and his education have left him with an intellectual mind, which makes him a man of integrity and sensitivity, but the intellectual is notoriously bad at acting.

But I’ve got two-thirds of the memoir still to go, so the problem of engagement may yet find an intriguing response. I’ll let you know.

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12 thoughts on “On Barack Obama, Part 1

  1. ahh… your response versus american responses highlights a cultural difference i noticed living in the u.k. americans love to trash their politicians’ imperfections.

  2. Ah, so Emily, you can tell me, is it not serious then? Is this just a kind of media game that ultimately doesn’t mean anything? I suppose I feel quite influenced by French politics, where it isn’t an issue if a politician keeps a mistress, for instance, as everyone must transgress in one way or another, and better that than arms dealing or war mongering. I will readily admit that I don’t understand the emotional climate in which American politics takes place, except from a distance it seems quite heated about impossible questions (and I daresay any political scene looks like this from afar).

  3. Wonderful post. I think Emily is right, Americans love to trash their politicians who are often more like celebrities than lawmakers. Race is also very different in the US. Racism is still rampant and acceptible in some areas of the country. In places where it is not acceptible people find other reasons. For instance my mom refused to vote for Obama because she ‘didn’t know anything about him’ and she didn’t think he was experienced enough (but Sarah Palin was just fine). These were her surface reasons but beneath that she didn’t want to vote for a black man. Before and after Obama got elected I also heard average people in interviews on the radio worrying about ‘the black agenda.’ It’s really screwy. It’s a huge mantel to take upon his shoulders, but I think his presidency will go a long way towards helping race relations.

  4. Oh, my. This is a question for a far greater brain than mine. But, I will say that I felt the British people I met seemed much more concerned with things that actually mattered in their politicians. I sort of feel like the American public is frightened of the big issues and so instead focuses on things that really just don’t matter.

  5. Stefanie – how interesting! I wonder whether anyone has ever undertaken any studies to see how people respond to politicians – to what extent we truly pay attention to what they say, and to what extent gut instinct takes over? I imagine that the US is just so huge that whatever problems exist get magnified excessively. I cannot say that the UK is without racism, it’s identifiable in inner city areas of poverty and probably, to some extent, in less integrated parts of the country where there’s a preponderance of an older generation who were brought up to belive that being racist was being patriotic. I often wonder what ideas I’ll have to change over the course of a lifetime, and whether I’ll be able to do it – I’m sure time will tell! But it will be extremely interesting to see how things change, on so many levels, with Obama in the White House. Emily – you are extremely kind to the British people there, who are as hungry for gossip and scandal as the next nation! But I guess it’s not as important as the state of our taxes. I quite understand what you mean about being distracted by trivia from the big questions – it’s a side of human nature that’s good for maintaining equilibrium but not for bringing about change. I know I feel so suspicious of politicians now that I can’t be doing with their puff and promotion – I just want to know what their proposed solutions are. It would be nice, and yet somehow fantastic, to think of us having a properly charismatic and intelligent Prime Minister. Dream on!

  6. I also find it amazing that a president who admits to using a little cocaine when he was in college got away with that. Personally I think it’s irrelevant but a lot of voters would be scared away (but then maybe his being black scared them off anyway). I’ve just started this book as well so I’ll be interested to see how my thoughts compare with yours. My hunch about the UK is that class and race are more closely bound up together than in the US.

  7. Pete – how interesting to have you reading it too! I wish I could comment sensibly on your remark about the UK, but I feel hampered by having lived my entire adult life in Cambridge which is a very unorthodox city. Around here it wouldn’t matter if you were purple with green spots, if you had a top class brain. I mean, literally, physical characteristics are almost invisible, not least because everyone is a little eccentric one way or another. Race couldn’t be less relevant. And then Cambridge does have very poor areas, all of which are predominantly white. But I hardly think this is normal. I always hesitate to write about race, as I have so little personal knowledge of the issues involved. I think when I return to this book, I’ll try to look closer at it in terms of narrative and authorial voice!

  8. I’ve not read the book (I should, however), so I’ve not read any comments or reviews on it, but I am very disappointed (though I suppose not surprised sadly) to hear such reactions. I truly wish we could get beyond the whole race issue. This will probably sound naive or a little stupid on my part, but I was just so happy to see a good, strong Democrat who I felt represented my values and thinking (and the man is intelligent and articulate–thank you, I think we finally need someone like that in the White House)that I hadn’t really thought about the implications of Obama being the first black president (well it was on the periphery of my thoughts but his skin color or sex was not the determining factor for me voting for him). He just seems so representative of how the world is these days–from a mixed race marriage–and isn’t the world a global village and all that. I hope things go well and I do think this may be a big step for us in changing how people think. I guess for older generations such thinking that Stefanie mentioned is so ingrained that you almost (almost I say) can’t blame people. Hopefully for younger generations this will just be the normal way of things?!

  9. Despite the overwhelming electoral college votes in favour of Obama, the popular vote was remarkably close. His presidency has the chance to be an inspiring time. I have not yet been able to get hold of the book but his speeches are stirring and emotive. He has the ability to sway a crowd. Now we need to see him perform within the new sense of hope he has given to his country. I have no doubt that he will. The race thing will always be there, here, anywhere where-ever there is inequality. Prejudice is a part of human nature. The recent study which showed that adults consider children and teenagers to be animals is a prime example.

  10. Danielle – I thought there was something wrong with this post and now I see it – it sounds like I’m criticising the American voting public in it which I certainly didn’t intend to do. I’m really curious about the responses to the book, but I wouldn’t think for a second that the British public would necessarily respond any differently!
    Still, that’s not what you’re saying in your comment. I think your remarks are spot on, and they remind me of my son who said the next morning ‘no one should be voted in because they are black or because they aren’t, but because they were the right person for the job’. I think Obama is a good thing for the world for exactly the reasons you put, and you express them beautifully.

    Archie – yes, it surprises me to think of that too, and I’m very interested and still optimistic that he will bring charisma and hope to America and beyond in this very difficult time. As for the race issue, well, I was always the child in the playground wondering why everyone had to be so mean, and alas, I never grew up in that respect. What study was that? No one asked me my opinion! :)

  11. I’ve been tempted to read Obama’s books because I’m just so pleased to have a smart, literate, thinking President — what a relief! I’m so glad to hear that his writing is so thoughtful and smart. He is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders though, and I do think there that many Americans have some ugly ideas about race; I’m not surprised that the reviews picked up on the racial themes and took them crazy places. Perhaps Obama’s presidency will help us get a little further past that kind of ugliness.

  12. So much to comment on and so little space. :) Beautiful post, first of all. I’m working my way through this memoir after reading The Audacity of Hope (a combination of political manifesto and memoir) and The American Journey of Barack Obama, a biography by the editors of Life Magazine. What I so admire about Obama is his ability to beautifully navigate the contradictions in his life and in politics at large. The race issue continues to annoy me–one side blasting him for this, another side for that. For being too white, for being too black. It’s all quite ridiculous and I get that teacherly feeling of annoyance as well. The way I like to put it: this is truly everyone’s president whether they be white, black, from the islands or the mainland, from Kansas or New York, a community college or the Ivy League. Those commonalities should be the focus rather than the differences.

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