Monday, April 4, 2011

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

I was tempted to write this post pretending that the author of this book was still a lawyer and relatively small-time politician in Chicago. That would simplify things. I'll try it for a few paragraphs.

After graduating from Harvard Law, young Chicago-based lawyer Barack Obama wrote his memoir Dreams from My Father. The book is divided into three parts. The first third deals with Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, including the only time he meets his own father, Barack Obama Sr.

In the second part, Obama lightly touches on his time living in New York City before delving in detail into the beginnings of his political career in 1980s Chicago. Here we have his community organizer days. Relatively small-scale stuff, but it's more than I've ever done.

In the final third, Obama to Kenya for the first time to connect with his (by now late) father's family. It concludes the memoir's themes of family, identity, and race.

Yes, race is an issue. How can it not be one? American society insists on making it an issue. When it comes to race in America, I can only hope not to sound like an idiot. I grew up in one of the whitest states in the country, and went to college in Washington DC, which is very diverse and also very segregated. I interacted with countless black people and actually knew very, very few. How can I be proud of that? In the years I lived in DC, how often did I venture into the most strongly African-American neighborhoods? Never. (I don't mean neighborhoods like U St. or Shaw, which I often visited. I mean Wards 7 and 8, which weren't even on my radar.)

The middle section of Dreams from My Father, about the local politics and problems of the black community in Chicago, really drove home the realities of urban segregation in the United States. Yes, Obama's experiences date from the 1980s. But Chicago is still highly segregated -- the most racially segregated city in the US.

So there's that. Well-written, thought-provoking. But it's hard to grapple with the book the way I would if Barack Obama had remained a lawyer and constitutional law professor, prominent within his own circles but unknown outside of Illinois. At the same time, I would never have encountered the book if Obama hadn't gone on to much bigger things.

There's a disconnect between my impression of the guy who wrote Dreams from My Father and my impression of the current President of the United States. The author of Dreams from My Father comes across as a real person. I have a hard time perceiving the President that way. The idea of becoming a professional politician, running for President, and then being President is so distasteful to me that I have a hard time relating to or trusting people who would voluntarily debase themselves that way. Here we see a problem with modern democracy.

If you want to be President, you have to be okay with the fact that a huge segment of America will really, truly believe that the most mature and intelligent way to show they care about their country is to compare you to Hitler and tell preposterous lies about you. I couldn't make myself okay with that. I don't know how anyone could.

But Dreams from My Father wasn't written by the President of the United States. It was written by a person with political ambition, but if Obama really expected, back in 1994, to become President one day, he was delusional. I think that makes the book valuable; Obama wasn't censoring himself as much as he would if he wrote the same book 15 years later.

I don't have any desire to read Obama's later book, The Audacity of Hope. I don't know what I would get out of a book written by a successful politician seeking to become a more successful politician. But Dreams from My Father is a different sort of animal.

President Obama didn't write Dreams from My Father. Neither did Senator Obama. Barack Obama did. He's a different person now, shifted into a different sort of existence that I can't sympathize with easily.

Dreams from My Father is a valuable account of one man's view of race in the late 2oth century. It's also a valuable look at a man who would go on to be President. I might need to re-read the book in order to properly integrate those two impressions in my mind.

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