Since Barack Obama’s rise to political prominence, great praise has been heaped on his first book, Dreams from My Father. Originally published in 1995, and re-released after Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, its finely crafted scenes and character sketches have been said to reveal a patient intellect and a great capacity for empathy. Certainly, the approbation boosted the more general feeling that Obama’s presidential run, and then his election, represented a real transformation.
With such high expectations, the realities of governance were bound to produce a bit of a letdown. But it’s become more serious than that. Obama’s presidency seems adrift, despite all that promise, and despite the huge opportunity for progressive change presented by a financial system in crisis and an economy deep in the hole.
It seems a good time, then, to take another look at Dreams from My Father. After all, it’s more than a beautifully written story about a young man’s coming of age while straddling the color line. There’s a fair amount of sociology in it as well, an aspect of the book that should now command our attention. For one, it says a lot about the overly cautious, seemingly moderate-by-nature politician we now see in action. But Obama’s memoir also contains real insight into the way power works in the modern world. Indeed, this is a perspective we need right now, not least because it calls for a much bolder kind of leadership than we are presently getting from the very man who originally provided it.
Since Time’s Joe Klein declared back in October 2006 that Dreams from My Father was perhaps the “best written memoir ever produced by an American politician,” others outside political journalism have similarly praised the book. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani began her review of Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, by reflecting on the qualities revealed by his first. Obama, she said, “is that rare politician who can actually write—and write movingly and genuinely about himself.” In her letter to Obama endorsing his run for president, Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison told the candidate that he had “creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.” Morrison would later say in an interview on a Nation magazine blog that it was after reading Dreams, with its “really nice, big, strong, artful sentences,” that she got “interested in him.”
Right after Obama took office, the novelist Zadie Smith went further in an essay in the New York Review of Books. Noting Obama’s ability to inhabit characters other than himself, she says that the “new president displays an enviable facility for dialogue, . . . animating [in Dreams] a cast of characters every bit as various as the one James Baldwin—an obvious influence—conjured for his own many-voiced novel Another Country.” The limber prose not only demonstrated Obama’s ability to negotiate the different realities of white and black; it revealed, in the end, that there was no secure place in either world. Throughout the book, writes Smith, Obama resists resorting to the “unified” voice, the strident voice that announces that you know who you are and where you stand. He embraces uncertainty, even equivocates in the face of it. It’s a novelist’s view of the world, and that’s a good thing in a politician. “Flexibility of voice,” Smith says, “leads to flexibility in all things.”
This was one way to read the book, and it certainly accorded well with the general mood around election time. Obama’s oratory was making quite a stir, enough of one to rouse the suspicion, to his left and right, that his campaign might consist only of vague exhortations about hope and change. Perhaps if word got out that Obama was also a good writer, an insightful interpreter of the human condition, people would be able to better grasp the intellectual substance behind the talk. In any event, Dreams From My Father certainly lifted the spirits of readers that were desperate, after eight years of Bush, for signs of intelligent life in American political culture.
But to understand who the politician Obama actually is requires a different reading of Dreams, especially of his account of his time working as an organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP) on Chicago’s South Side.
Obama had come to Chicago to help rebuild inner city black neighborhoods; but as he sorts through the experience in his memoir, we see that his real mission was to find, and then help to save, the black “community.” While working on the South Side, he came across different ways to claim that community. Black nationalist calls for pride and self-esteem, while understandable given the history of race relations in the U.S., were too simplistic. He was unsure whether his approach to organizing, which centered on Saul Alinsky’s maxim that all one needed to do was appeal to people’s self-interest, could build anything sustainable. One thing was certain: however noble a creature a community was, the untidiness of lived experience, the struggle to just get by and keep yourself or your family together in the inner city, seemed to always conspire against it.
And so his search went on. Obama first came across Trinity Church and the now infamous Reverend Jeremiah Wright while trying to drum up support for the DCP. What struck Obama about Trinity was its inclusiveness. Inside its walls, ideas, and values—culture, in other words—didn’t only flow from the top down, from the educated and better-off to the disaffected poor, they traveled in the other direction too, providing “the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets.” By being so open, Obama said, “Trinity assured its members that their fates remained inseparably bound, that an intelligible ‘us’ still remained.”
Obama was at first skeptical about this “cultural community.” Could it really keep young black men out of jail? Could it provide decent jobs, improve the schools? When he returned to Trinity and listened to one of Wright’s sermons, those more secular doubts—born out of his organizing experience—faded away. Wright drove home the fact that this was a thoroughly corrupt and unjust world, and that in such a place to hope was nothing if not audacious. As Wright went on, Obama says, people began “to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters.”
And in that single note—hope!—I heard something else; at the foot of the cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black. ... I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.
Obama now had an image of what tied a varied Black American experience together as a whole. However “nascent” or “incomplete,” the “cultural community” that was Trinity made both the gang-banger and the banker feel at home. It was a space in which individual stories of struggle, injustice, insecurity, and psychic pain were welded together to make a collective will. He now knew that community was possible; he now knew what it felt like.
In Obama’s description of how he came to see the light, we find the hallmarks of his campaign. Did he not sense, one Sunday morning at Trinity, that the message of hope was both “black and more than black,” rooted in particular black stories but capable of transcendence because it was fundamentally human? Like Wright’s sermon that day, Obama’s soaring rhetoric of hope and change seemed to create a national community by merely proclaiming its existence—a real feat, given the roiling discontent over wars, foreclosures, and $700 odd billion to save Wall Street from itself. The profound symbolism of his candidacy, along with breathless media accounts of how black and white, rich and poor, young and old, turned out to hear him speak, certainly helped solidify the intelligibility of this new “us.”
Fast forward to the present, and we see the difference between proclamation and achievement. At least part of the problem is that Obama really seems to have built on that moment at Trinity, he really seems to believe that we are all in this mess of war and recession together, and so only together can we move forward. This has caused him to underestimate, or perhaps wish away, just how pissed off people were by the Wall Street bailout. And now that unemployment has broached 10% and Goldman Sachs is back in the saddle, it’s no wonder that many of these same people are beginning to take aim at Obama. Of course they’ve been helped along by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others fanning the fires of discontent; but then again, the belief in the immanent oneness of the political moment may have caused Obama and his team to overlook the unpleasant fact that many Americans get their news from demagogues.
As David Bromwich recently suggested in the London Review of Books, Obama’s goals going in to his first term were essentially ecumenical; he wants to heal, not diagnose, whatever ails the economy or us as a society and then go after root causes. Perhaps the latter is a lot to ask. But a politician that wants to heal rather than lead can’t help but avoid the basic truth that if one is to achieve anything in politics, at the very least one will have to cause some offence, hurt some feelings, and probably leave some people behind while moving forward for the greater good. Worse still, Obama seems most fearful not simply of offending this or that interest group, but the establishment itself: Wall Street, the Pentagon, the Republican Party and conservatives within his own.
Can he simultaneously represent the institutional cores of political-economic power and the ordinary millions who enthusiastically voted him in so that he might stand up to that power? No. However well it works in literary terms, in political terms Obama’s “flexible” voice is simply too flexible. As Bromwich suggested, with each “post-partisan” equivocation—on Guantánamo, on troop levels in Afghanistan, on executive compensation and a new regulatory framework for Wall Street, on the Public option in the health care package—the scope for meaningful reform narrows. The real worry now is that the opening that crisis always brings has been bricked over. All that’s left may be the symbolism.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that there is evidence of a more radical political imagination in Dreams from My Father. The book clearly reads like a novel; and like a lot of good novels, an ethnographic sensibility courses through its pages. In addition to getting to know Obama, we get to know a lot of other people: their way of talking; their foibles; their humor; their frustrations and small triumphs. Obama doesn’t play favorites, and many of the characters that populate his memoir are there because of their flaws more so than their strengths. But they always have a certain dignity about them. That Obama is a skilled and empathetic writer has something to do with this. But it also comes from his attentiveness to the places and circumstances that shape these characters’ lives: the particular ethnic mix that was Hawaii in the late 50s, 60s and 70s; mid-60s Indonesia; the South Side of Chicago in the mid-80s; post-colonial Kenya.
All this context forces us to at least think about the broader political and economic forces that shape the way people live. Oft-times in the book these forces are a kind of backdrop against which characters develop and the drama plays out. Other times, Obama takes a bolder step and presents a particular social or political formation—beyond, yet utterly bound up in individual lives—as the main narrative force.
The great strength in this approach is that it forces us out of the old habit of seeing individuals—heroes or villains or something in between—as being in charge of their own fate. Again, not all characters and scenes in the book get this treatment. But when they do, a corrupt and corrupting system comes into view, the thing that needs to change for the story to end the way we might want it to. Take the example of Lolo, the Indonesian man whom Obama’s mother married after his father returned to Kenya. Obama got along well with Lolo, and seemed to sincerely enjoy him and the time he spent as a youngster in Indonesia. Before long, though, Lolo began to change. He got grumpier and more distant, straining the relationship between him and Obama’s mother.
It was not some quirk in Lolo’s personality, or demons that until then were quiet in his heart, which caused it all. To explain the change Obama tells the reader that Lolo had been abruptly called back from college in the U.S. after an attempted coup back in Indonesia. In the anti-communist purges that followed (directed by soon-to-be President Suharto), Lolo did better than others; students that went to East-bloc nations to study got the worst of it. In any event, this experience, this run-in with raw and brute power, took its toll. And not only on Lolo, but on his mother as well:
Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back in line just when he thought he’d escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting.
Compromises were made; they had to be, for the sake of survival and sanity. But the damage was done. Obama’s mother saw that if power could take Lolo, it could also take her son. She sent young Barack back to Hawaii, to go to school and live with her parents.
In telling the story of his biological father’s struggles in newly independent Kenya, and of his paternal grandfather’s time working as a butler and a cook for the British before that, we see that in each case, the traits that made up the individual could not be understood separately from the particular social and political world in which these men built relationships and molded their ambitions. Less forceful than the tale of Lolo, these descriptions nonetheless say, pretty loudly and clearly: if you don’t like how people are behaving, or how they have turned out, make sure you measure up the circumstances of their lives before you blame them for bad choices or poor judgment.
One wishes there was more of this in the Chicago section of Dreams from My Father. Were the dictates of power really that below the surface at Altgeld Gardens, the public housing project where Obama did much of his organizing? Obama writes lyrically about how difficult it was to get the people of Altgeld fighting and keep them fighting. Why not take it further, and argue forthrightly that a big reason for this was that power—in this case the power of corporations to take their jobs wherever they please and the power of the federal government to pretty much abandon the inner city and its people—had made everyday life so challenging? The community Obama wanted to “organize” could not help but be fractured, riddled with tension and infighting.
We can see where this kind of analysis would take us politically. Community is nice to think about, but if we want one that is real and just, momentary experiences of unity (whether in Church or on the campaign trail) won’t get us there on their own. In his memoir Obama says that he chose to leave organizing for Harvard Law because he had decided that he needed to learn the language of power to better serve the people he had come to know on the South Side. Fair enough. One hopes, though, that he re-reads Dreams and is reminded of its most unequivocally progressive message: If we really want national renewal and reform, we need to take on the structure of power, and then we reconfigure it so that it stands by the side of the many instead of being so freely wielded by, and in the interests of, the few.