Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dreams from my father – Obama autobiography

This book is a narrative of Obama´s quest to unravel the puzzle of being a black man. The personal pursuit took a public dimension when he forced himself to embrace the cause of the black community, starting from the time when he was a college student. He looked at himself, looked at the whites and analysed what passed in the looks between the whites and blacks. He dug deeper into the issue by introspection and reading. He heard the stories of discrimination and frustration from fellow blacks. Finally, he decided to contribute to the black cause in his own way by volunteering to become a community organiser. Many black leaders and intellectuals had gone through that, before Obama. But what makes the case of Obama different is that his story is not a typical, plain and simple black and white one. He did not inherit the rancour and resentment of the others with slave ancestry. Nor did he have to struggle to get out of a ghetto of poverty and crime. He was born to a middle class white American woman from Kansas and a black Kenyan who came to US for studies. But his father left for good the wife and the two year-old child in Hawai to pursue higher studies in Harvard and for further marriages and life in Kenya. He saw his father only one more time, in 1971, when Obama Sr. came to Hawaii for a month's visit. His mother remarried to an Indonesian and went to live there for a few years. Obama started his school in Jakarta and played with brown kids in mud and dirt. On his return to Hawai , he was brought up by his white grand parents. His enlightened mother and liberal grand parents gave him affection and education. Except for the occasional and unavoidable black treatment given by white police and folks, his life was made for success as a rich lawyer. But Obama did not follow the road travelled by others in his situation. He chose a cause and mission to work for the black community. He worked as a community organiser in the poor black neighbourhoods in Chicago.

Obama is caught between two worlds as a black man in colour with white man´s upbringing and thinking. He says he learned to slip back and forth between the black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language, customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on his part, the two worlds would eventually cohere. This is how he sets out the destiny of his journey. But in the beginning it was not easy. While he has the constant guidance and care of his white mother and grand parents, he preferred to take the side of the blacks. His stay in Indonesia and exposure to Indians in Kenya added brown colour to the black and white world of Obama.

From his college days, Obama was troubled and obsessed by his colour. He was trying to find his identity in the society where the blacks had to play according to the rules of the white man and that too in on the courts of the white man. He starts identifying himself with the rest of the black community. Realising that his insulated and protected life lacked the real life experience of the majority of the blacks in misery and poverty, he chooses to become a community organiser to fight for the causes of the black community in Chicago. There he sees the deprivation, discrimination and degradation. He finds the black withdrawal into coils of rage with the realisation that black meant only the knowledge of powerlessness and defeat. He is filled with the anguish and doubts which do not go away with any amount of intellect, humour or faith. He plunges earnestly into the job of community organiser trying to give hope, confidence and optimism to the blacks. He tries to get the black churches and community leaders together to fight for the rights of the black community to get their dues. He tries to achieve whatever is possible in a positive and pragmatic way. It is during this work that Audacity of Hope, begins to shape his personal and public life. From then on Obama becomes a man with a mission.

After understanding the reality of Afro Americans, Obama goes on to find the root of his troubles, to Kenya, his father´s country. It is a kind of pilgrimage. He meets his numerous half brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and relatives. His grandfather was a farmer and had earlier worked as a cook for the white colonial officials. Obama´s father was one of the many children born to one of the wives of his grand father. He gets to meet one of the grandmothers who narrates the story of the ancestry of the Obama family. The father of Obama, gets a break to study in Hawai where he meets a fellow white American student, marries her and Barak Obama is born to them. But the father, who was already married to a village girl, goes on to marry another white woman during his Harvard studies, who follows him to Kenya. Obama finds in Kenya that everyone was family.

In Kenya, he is finally in a country and community where colour is not an issue. He visits the village where his grand father lived. There, Barak Obama finds his identity and says ¨ Here the world was black and you were just you. You could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or commiting betrayal. I felt a sense that a circle was beginning to close, so that I might finally recognise myself as I was, here, now, in one place¨. Standing between the graves of his grand father and father in a Kenyan village, he says¨I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words..All of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the colour of my skin.¨

Did the land of his father become his destiny? Did his journey stop, on reaching the Promised Land? No, the reality of Africa torments him even more and gives rise to more questions than answers. The hopelessness of the black life in Kenya compounds the confusion and doubts within him. Africa turned out to be only another way point on his still unchartered journey. The discovery, satisfaction and fulfillment was only intellectual and romantic. He had to get back to the Land of Dreams where he would ultimately realise something undreamt by him and the black community.

The Kenyan historian in Nairobi tells Obama that Africa is not what the Afro Americans romanticise about. It is not pure, innocenet and noble as is dreamed by the American blacks for whom it had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land full of ancient wisdom and talking drums.

The unique personal situation of Obama makes him search for a definition of what is a family. This is understandable with his white American mother, black Kenyan father, Indonesian stepfater and step sister, and half-brothers and sisters from the different wives of his father. He asks ¨Is it ( family) just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me. Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labour? Or is it something else entirely; a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?¨

Obama's search for identity does not even spare the law he studied at Harvard. He says, ¨the law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience¨.

I was motivated to read this book after having read his other one, ¨Audacity of Hope¨. But this one is more powerful and compelling. It is full of the raw emotion of the angry young Obama. At the time of writing this book in 1995, he did not worry about the media or the political opponents. He was just a graduate from Harvard trying to decide his direction in the crossroads of personal choices. So Obama let himself go in articulating his anger, feelings, confusion and insecurities. He did not hold anything back. He is authentic, blunt and undiplomatic in expressing himself in the street language of the blacks. This is the period when we find the Iron personality of Obama going though the furnace to become Steel.

Even if Obama did not become famous as President, this book would have found its place on its own as an interesting and inspiring one for the Americans, black and white. It brings out the perennial racial issue in a new light with fresh insight. It is positive with the message¨yes, We can¨. While clinically and candidly analysing the issue, Obama chooses to focus on the possible. His approach is to find solutions in a positive and pragmatic way. He does not succumb to the temptation of blaming everything on the whites and setting the blacks against the whites in a confrontationist or polarising way. His message is non- threatening to the mainstream audience.
He has straddled both the sides of the divide with intellectual honesty and firm conviction. This approach enedeared him to the voters who have entrusted him with the task of managing the larger community of US as President.

Obama´s style of writing is appealing, like the way speaks. He has combined his cerebral and profound thoughts with easy and conversational expressions. The memoir reads like a novel with a powerfully moving story and suspense and thrill. Obama has spiced up his story with humour and wit.

I hope he writes more books after going through the third firewalk of his life as the President of the most powerful country in one of its worst moments in history.

The book is a useful read for the brown Indians , who are aspiring to add their colour to the new landscape of globalisation.

And there is a Latinamerican twist to the tale of Obama! His white mother was inspired by the Brazilian film ¨Black Orpheus¨, the first-ever film she saw alone as an adult at the impressionable age of sixteen. It was also the first foreign film she saw. She thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The white girl from middle class Kansas should have been fascinated by the Brazilian black hero of the film which had possibly influenced her to fall in love with a black in real life. This romantic movie with Bossa Nova music set in the beautiful beaches of Copacabana and with the the colourful Carnival festival should have made a striking impact on the dreamy damsel.

So here is one more lifestory inspired by Latin America