Some comments on Barack Obama’s autobiography
In my opinion, the important book to read is Obama’s autobiography Dreams from my Father, first published already in 1995 (Edinburgh etc.: Canongate, 2008). The book has received a new lease of life thanks to the author now being the president of the USA.
It is a remarkable book also as it stands alone. It is about this young man’s efforts to find himself, his roots, his identity. It is not that straightforward as he soon would find his immediate family being represented in three continents and most of his boyhood was spent with his maternal grandparents.
He grew up in Hawaii where his mother, a white American had met his father who was Kenyan student. His father would very soon move on to another scholarship in Harvard and he was quite gifted. Barrack Obama only met his father (also named Barrack Obama) once when he was ten years old when his father came over for a short visit to Hawaii from Nairobi.
His father made his career in the newly independent Kenya but soon ran into problems with the new regime. His family life was rather complicated. Being of the Luo group he already had a wife when he came over to study in Hawaii the first time, and once back in Kenya he would take more wives, one of them another white American. Obama’s mother broke away from his Kenyan father when he was an infant and married an Indonesian. She took her son with her to Indonesia and Barrack only came back for his primary and secondary education in Hawaii where his maternal grandparents took care of him.
He did well in school, matriculated in Hawaii and was then awarded a place at a school in Los Angeles.
As I have said it is a rather remarkable and messy story and one wonders how the young boy would cope. The book has three parts, the first called origins, the second Chicago and the third Kenya. In my reading this autobiography I find that a key is the proactivity that Barack Obama develops. He could certainly be tempted just to enjoy life and try to forget where he came from and what that might mean; however he confusing background in the end made just absolutely determined to find out both about himself but also about the world (America, USA that is in particular). No doubt, and he recognises this openly, his mother and his grandparents instilled in him values that would become part of him, secular but of ‘high standard’ (for example every human beings high worth regardless of background).
It is possible to give two crucial examples of his proactive ways, where he was determined to take initiatives based on certain principles and convictions. First when he was about to graduate from college in Los Angeles, being just over 20 years of age I think, he decided that he wanted to take a break from his studies, not just to do anything for an income. He wanted to do community work in some poorer area. In the end he wrote to all such organisations that he could find and had no answer, but he did not give up. Eventually he got one response from New York and he worked there for a short while and then moved to Chicago. He was appointed as a community officer in a project run by a Jew and the focus was on south Chicago where black and poor people lived.
It is a great book and well written. Many parts could be highlighted but I choose to single out his time in Chicago. This rather dull existence that came up against him with people who were living a hopeless life, where most of them tried to get out into another suburban area as soon as they could; this life that he describes comes out as perhaps as the most exiting and profound in the whole book.
In a remarkable way he struggles with his own identity and with the question why his father disappeared and what he in the end stood for (he would be sorely disappointed more than once when he found out later and yet there were great things also to be proud of). At the same time he becomes part of the struggle in south Chicago regarding the fate of the blacks there and in the US as a whole. He comes close to black nationalists and others who had had enough of white superiority and cynicism, he strongly sympathises with them and yet he comes out on top. There are even whites in this area who also suffer.
So in this dual struggle he proves himself a second time as the proactive one, one who takes initiative on basis of sound principles. During these couple of years he grows up, he becomes an independent adult. He also seems to find at least a spiritual home in Chicago. With his secular background from Hawaii, the first thing he hears from his Jewish boss and mentor is that the only way to make progress among the blacks in south Chicago was via the churches. In the end this circumstance touches also his own heart and eventually he also joins a Christian congregation.
I just have two more comments to make. First, isn’t his autobiography tillrättalagd? Is it not planned in such a way that the reader must get just the impression he or she gets? Certain things emphasized others left out; one should also bear in mind that he wrote the book before he was just over 30 years old. For example he acknowledges the massive contribution his mother and her parents made towards his upbringing and education and these actually were the ones to provide a home for him (more so the grandparents than the mother though); at the same time what intrigues him is Kenya and his father’s side of the family. One can understand it, this is the unknown territory and still his and Africa always has its attraction, its enigma, its myths. In terms of roots this is where he searches and this is where he finds things, circumstances, histories, peoples.
Secondly, as there are many questions around this new president of the United States, who he is, one might just throw in this question: Is Barack Obama an African American? This is how he is labelled, for example in the news. But Jessie Jackson is also an African American and their outlook on life is very different. While Jackson is born and bred in black America and its culture Obama is more than that. Just wait and see. The wisest thing would be not to label Barack Obama at all. He forebodes a new paradigm I think; he is post-racial and beyond even what rightly should be called black (people, culture, religion) and yet he is rooted there as well, but ultimately he will not fit properly into any particular grouping. It has cost him dearly but he is more than anything a human being, a man.