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.