Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dreams from My Father - Book Review

I recently read Dreams from My Father – A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barrack Obama. I was struck by two observations after reading the book:

1) It was a very well written book. For a book written over 12 years ago, by an Illinois state legislator, without any plot – except the autobiography of a 33 year old man who had not accomplished anything of significance requiring its documentation in a book - it was a compelling book. What made it so compelling was the language. The book was written in word-pictures, the same technique that Obama uses when he speaks, so you “see” what Obama is saying – so you understand him better; and

2) So much of Obama’s life seems to have been impacted by race – made even more upsetting for him because he is only half black. He talks continuously about his not feeling comfortable because of his race. The more I read the book the more uncomfortable I became that the next President of the United States might have a perspective of race that is so different from over 80% of the population he might govern.

The following 16 selections from my paperback copy of this book support my concern that Obama seems to see many issues through the filter of real or imagined slights as a black American. If I were a black man in America, and received the same bad news that I’ve experienced as a white man during my life (i.e. rejected from colleges; rejected by employers; rejected by banks for loans; rejected by women, contracts lost, etc.), I might feel (incorrectly) that those negative experiences were because I was black – when the truth is that life is not fair, for a black person or a white person. I’m concerned that Obama’s policies as President may be slanted toward a correction of perceived injustices – to the detriment of those who were/are not responsible:

a) “…I received an advance from a publisher and sent to work with the belief that the story of my family, and my efforts to understand that story, might speak in some way to the fissures of race that have characterized the American experience…that mark our modern life” (page vii);
b) “A burst of publicity followed that election (Obama’s election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review), including several newspaper articles that testified…America’s hunger for any optimistic sign from the racial front – a morsel of proof that, after all, some progress has been made.” (page xiii);
c) “…I ceased to advertise my mother’s race (Caucasian) at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites…” (page xv);
d) “When the weather was good, my roommate and I might sit out on the fire escape…and watch white people from the better neighborhoods walk their dogs down our block to let the animals shit on our curbs…” (page 4);
e) “…I was too young to know that I needed a race.” (page 27);
f) According to Obama’s recollection of his mother’s teachings about race: “Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.” (Page 51);
g) “I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant” (page 76);
h) “And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers who confusion and anger would help shape my own.” (page 80);
i) “Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure.” (page 81);
j) “Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.” (page 85);
k) “Frank opened his eyes: ‘What I’m trying to tell you is, your grandma’s right to be scared. She’s at least as right as Stanley is. She understands that black people have a reason to hate. That’s just how it is. For your sake, I wish it were otherwise. But it’s not. So you might as well get used to it.’ ” (page 90);
l) “Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore.” (page 97);
m) “I had stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us weren’t interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time; that if we preferred to keep to ourselves it was mainly because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about it, easier than spending all your time mad or trying to guess whatever it was that white folks were thinking about you.” (page 98);
n) “To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets.” (page 100);
o) “There was one particular passage in Trinity’s (Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ pastured by Reverend Wright) brochure that stood out…”A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,’ the heading read. ‘While it is permissible to chase “middleclassness” with all our might,’ the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune (no mention of “hard work”) to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the ‘psychological entrapment of Black “middleclassness” that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of “we” and “they” instead of “US”!’” (page 284);
p) “I took the opportunity to study these tourists as Auma and I sat down for lunch in the outdoor café of the New Stanley Hotel. They were everywhere – Germans, Japanese, British, Americans – taking pictures, hailing taxis, fending off street peddlers, many of them dressed in safari suites like extras on a movie set. In Hawaii, when we were still kids, my friends and I had laughed at tourists like these, with their sunburns and their pale, skinny legs, basking in the glow of our obvious superiority.” (page 312)

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