Monday, October 06, 2008

Dreams from My Father.

as you probably already know, i recently decided to read the books of BOTH presidential candidates - most recently having completed Obama's FIRST book, Dreams from My Father. i initially read the "big two" - Obama's the Audacity of Hope and McCain's Faith of My Fathers (click links to read my reviews) Audacity of Hope was a book of principled policy views explained, and Faith of My Fathers more of a series of memoirs. the comparison was apples and oranges. so i dug deeper.

my conclusion so far (other than being a further entrenched support of Obama)? books, while still biased by the author, are the purest way to understand someone's point of view. all the speeches, interviews and newsclips can be edited to paint a picture, good or bad. a book provides the author an almost limitless pulpet from which to purport their views (how's that for alliteration)?

so let's talk about the book at hand.
Obama's book of memoirs, like McCain's, starts with a similar theme (it's in the title, stupid), and organization. McCain's book is divided in three acts:(1) a detailed recount of his grandfather's military career, (2) his father's, and finally (3) his as a rising Naval officer and POW. along the way lessons are learned, and observations are made. Similarly, in Dreams from My Father, Obama splits his story into three acts: (1) growing up (as a child in Hawaii/Indonesia, and a teen/young adult facing racial identity issues), (2) working as a community organizer in Chicago, and finally (3) "heading back" to Kenya to retrace his roots.

but the similarities end there. you can choose to agree or disagree with Obama's political policies (which you can learn more of by reading Audacity of Hope), but if you want to better know THE MAN (is he a Muslim? ...a radical?), i'd advise you read this book first before you listen to anything Sean Hannity has to say. after reading both their stories, think both Obama and McCain are both men of unrivaled character (which is rare thing to find in an election), but for me, Obama wins. his views are more well thought out, versus McCain, who's principles more simply (blindly?) accepted and arrived at by circumstance. sounds harsh, but have YOU read both books? do that, and then we can talk.

anyhow, usually when i read a book, i find myself "dog-earring" pages to later go back and review. sometimes i pull one or two interesting quotes out to add to my own personal lexicon. for you, the faithful bloog reader, i'm going to save you the trouble of reading the book (but you should), and share some of my favorite passages from the book (please forgive any typos, i re-typed all of these).

rather than just give you a quick/interesting quote, i'm presenting most of these passages in their entirety, so you get a better feel for the context (as most of the time the media simply pulls particular pieces out to suit their needs, but i did highlight the most relevant parts). for me, the reader, there were broader themes at work, but rather than overtly calling them out, they should become apparant from the stories Barry tells (from which you can draw parallels to how he might take these learnings into modern political policy/decision making) - these are the tales that made him the man he is. here's a quick summary of the topics/themes i gathered (i'm sure most of you won't read everything, but who knows, maybe you'll surprise me):
  • Barack Had a Pet Monkey!
  • Barack Faces Racial a Kid
  • Barack on Racism & Quick Retorts
  • Barack Finds his Faith, & Catch-word #1
  • Barack Learns about "Being Lost"
  • Barack on the Strains of Family/Commitment
  • Barack's Heirarchy of Relationships
  • Barack on Immigration/Racism
  • Barack on Poverty/Work Ethic



As we passed through the gate, Lolo [Obama's Indonesian stepfather] inannounced that he had a surprise for me; but before he could explain we heard a deafening howl from high up in the tree. My mother and I jumped back with a start and saw a big, hairy creature with a small, flat head and long, menacing arms drop onto a low branch.

“A monkey!” I shouted.

“An ape,” my mother corrected.

Lolo drew a peanut from his pocket and handed to the animal’s grasping fingers. “His name is Tata,” he said. “I bought him all the way from New Guinea for you.”


It was in this context that I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin. I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation [of the fact that perhaps there is something wrong with being black]. Perhaps it comes sooner for most – the parent’s warning not to cross the boundaries of a particular neighborhood, or the frustration of not having hair like Barbie no matter how long you tease and comb, or the tale of a father or grandfather’s humiliation at the hands of an employer or a cop, overheard while you’re supposed to be asleep. Maybe it’s easier for a child to receive the bad news in small doses, allowing for a system of defenses to build up – although I suspect I was one of the luckier ones, having been given a stretch of childhood free from self-doubt.


Our assistant basketball coach, a young, wiry man from New York with a nice jumper, who, after a pick-up game with some talkative black men, had muttered within earshot of me and three of my teammates that we shouldn’t have lost to a bunch of n***ers; and who, when I told him – with a fury that surprised even me – to shut up, had calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that “there are black people, and there are n***ers. Those guys were n***ers.”

That’s just how white folk will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn.

White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Something I would find myself talking to Ray [Barack’s high school basketball teammate & buddy] about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot [Barack’s grandmother] would come in to say she was going to sleep, and those same words – white folks – would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.

Later, when I was alone, I would try to untangle these difficult thoughts. It was obvious that certain whites could be exempted from the general category of distrust: Ray was always telling me how cool my grandparents were. The term white was simply a shorthand for him, I decided, a tag for what my mother would call a bigot. And to fall into the same sloppy thinking that my basketball coach had displayed (“There are white folks, and then there are ignorant motherf***ers like you,” I had finally told the coach before walking off the court that day) – Ray assured me that we would never talk about whites as whites in front whites without knowing exactly what were doing. Without knowing that there might be a price to pay.


The title of Reverend Wright’s sermon that morning was “The Audacity of Hope.” He began with a passage from the Book Of Samuel – the story of Hannah, who, barren and taunted by her rivals had wept and shaken in prayer before her God. The story reminded him, he said, of a sermon a fellow pastor had preached at a conference some years before, in which the pastor described going to a museum and being confronted by a painting titled Hope.

“The painting depicts a harpist,” Reverend Wright explained, “a woman who at fist glance appears to be sitting atop a great mountain. Until you take a closer look and see that the woman is bruised and bloodied, dressed in tattered rags, the harp reduced to a single frayed string. Your eye is then drawn down to the scene below, down to the valley below, where everywhere are the ravages of famine, the drumbeat of war, a world groaning under strife and deprivation.

“It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day that most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere…That’s the world! On which hope sits!”

And so it went, a meditation on a fallen world. While the boys next to me doodled on their church bulletin, Reverent Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, a callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House. As the sermon unfolded, though, the stories of strife became more prosaic, the pain more immediate. The reverend spoke of the hardship that the congregation would face tomorrow, the pain of those far from the mountaintop, worrying about paying the light bill. But also the pain of those closer to the metaphorical summit: the middle-class woman who seems to have all her worldly needs taken care of but whose husband is treating her like “the maid, the household service, the jitney service, and the escort service all rolled into one”; the child whose wealthy parents worry more about “the texture of the hair on the outside of the head than the quality of education on the inside the head."

“Isn’t that…the world that each of us stands on?”

“Like Hannah, we have known bitter times! Daily we face rejection and despair!”

“And yet consider once again the painting before us. Hope! Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens. She dares to hope…She as the audacity…to make music…and praise God…on the one string…she has left”

People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years [community organizing on the south side of Chicago] swirl about me. the courage and fear of Ruby and Will [fellow community organizers]. The race pride and anger of men like Rafiq [former gang member, now Islamic community organizer Barack worked with on a limited basis]. The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.

And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the 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 my 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; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaimed memories that we didn’t need to feel ashamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild. And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.

“The audacity of hope! I still remember my grandmother, singing in the house, ‘There’s a bright side somewhere …don’t rest till you find it…’ “

“The audacity of hope! Times when we couldn’t pay the bills. Times when it looked like I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything…at the age of fifteen, busted for grand larceny auto theft…and yet still my momma and daddy would break into song…

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.

Thank you, Je-sus.

Thank you, Lo-ord.

You brought me fro-om

A might long way, mighty long way.

“And it made no sense to me, this singing! Why were they thanking Him for all of their troubles? I’d ask myself. But see, I was only looking at the horizontal dimension of their lives!”

“I didn’t understand that they were talking about the vertical dimension! About their relationship to God! I didn’t understand that they were thanking Him in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you! Oh yea, Jesus, I thank you….”

As the choir lifted back into song, as the congregation began to applaud those who were walking to the altar to accept Reverend Wright’s call, I felt a light touch on the top of my hand. I looked down to see the older of the two boys sitting beside me, his face slightly apprehensive as he handed me a pocket tissue. Beside him, his mother glanced at me with a faint smile before turning back to the altar. It was only as I thanked the boy that I felt the tears running down my cheeks.

“Oh, Jesus,” I heard the older woman beside me whisper softly. “Thank you for carrying us this far.”


[after picking up Barack from the airport upon his first ever arrival in Kenya] we went to drop off Zeituni [Barack’s aunt] at Kenya Breweries, a large, drab complex where she worked as a computer programmer. Stepping out of the car, she leaned over again to kiss me on the cheek, then wagged her finger at Auma [Obama’s half-sister, who he had met before in the US]. “You take good care of Barry now,” she said. “Make sure he doesn’t get lost again.”

Once we were back on the highway, I asked Auma why Zeituni had meant about my getting lost. Auma shrugged.

“It’s a common expression here,” she said. “Usually it means the person hasn’t seen you in a while. ‘You’ve been lost,’ they’ll say. Or ‘Don’t get lost.’ Sometimes it has a more serious meaning. Let’s say a song or a husband moves to the city, or to the West, like our Uncle Omar, in Boston. They promise to return after completing school. They say they’ll send for the family once they get settled. At first they write once a week. Then it’s just once a month. Then they stop writing completely. No one sees them again. They’ve been lost, you see. Even if people know where they are.”


[Auma, Barack’s half sister, living mostly in Germany, but teaching in Kenya for the time of Barack’s visit to Kenya]: “it’s this business with the Old Man’s [Barack’s father] estate. Sarah [Barack’s father’s elder sister] is one of the people who has disputed the will. She’s been telling people that Roy, Bernard, myself [all Barack’s half-siblings] – that none of us are the Old Man’s children.” Auma sighed. “I don’t know. A part of me sympathizes with her. She’s had a hard life. She never had the chances the Old Man had, you see, to study or go abroad. It made her very bitter. She thinks that somehow my mum, myself, that we are to blame for her situation.”

[Barack]: “But how much could the Old Man’s estate be worth?”

“Not much. Maybe a small government pension. A piece of worthless land. I try to stay out of it. Whatever is there has probably been spent on lawyers by now. But you see, everyone expected so much from the Old Man. He made them think that he had everything, even when he had nothing. So now, instead of getting on with their lives, they just wait and argue amongst themselves, thinking that the Old Man somehow is going to rescue them from his grave. Bernard’s [Barack’s younger half-brother, 18 at the time] learned this same waiting attitude. You know, he’s really smart, Barack, but he just sits around all day doing nothing. He dropped out of school and doesn’t have much prospect for finding work. I’ve told him that i would help him get into some sort of trade school, whatever he wants, just so he’s doing something, you know. He’ll say okay, but when I ask if he’s gotten any applications or talked to the schoolmasters, nothing’s been done. Sometimes I feel like, unless I take every step with him, nothing will happen.”

The rain had started up again as we parked the car. A single light bulb jutting from the side of the building sent webbed, liquid shadows across Auma’s face. “The whole thing gets me so tired, Barack,” she said softly. “you wouldn’t believe how much I missed Kenya when I was in Germany. All I could do was think about getting back home. I thought how I never feel lonely here, and family is everywhere, nobody sends their parents to an old people’s home or leaves their children with strangers. Then I’m here and everyone is asking me for help, and I feel like they are all just grabbing at me and that I’m going to sink. I feel guilty because I was luckier than them. I went to university. I can get a job. But what can I do, Barack? I’m only one person.”

I took Auma’s hand and we remained in the car for several minutes, listening to the rain as it slackened. “You asked me what my dream was,” she said finally. “sometimes I have this dream that I will build a beautiful house on our grandfather’s land. A big house where we can all stay and bring our families, you see. We could plant fruit trees like our grandfather, and our children would really know the land and speak Luo and learn our ways from the old people. It would belong to hem.”

“We can do all that, Auma.”

She shook her head. “Let me tell you what I start thinking then. I think of who will take care of the house if I’m not here? I think, who can I count on to make sure that a leak gets fixed or that the fence gets mended? It’s terrible, selfish, I know. All I can do when I think this way is to get mad at the Old Man because he didn’t build this house for us. We are the children, Barack. Why do we have to take care of everyone? Everything upside down, crazy. I had to take care of myself, just like Bernard. Now I’m used to living my own life, just like a German. Everything is organized. It something is broken, I fix it. It something goes wrong, it’s my own fault. If I have it, I send money to the family, and they can do with it what they want, and I won’t depend on them, and they won’t depend on me.”

“It sounds lonely.”

“Oh, I know, Barack. That’s why I keep coming home. That’s why I’m still dreaming.”


What is family? Is it 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 labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?

I could list various possibilities. But I’d never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love was constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues. Acquaintances; the cheerful gray-haired lady who rang up my groceries back in Chicago. Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or a race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to a face or a name but were actually commitments I’d made to myself.


I’d come to Kenya thinking that I could somehow force my many worlds into a single, harmonious whole. Instead, the divisions seemed only to have become more multiplied, popping up in the midst of even the simplest chores. I thought back to the previous morning, when Auma and I had gone to book our tickets [for a safari, during Barack’s final weeks in Kenya]. The travel agency was owned by Asians; most small businesses in Nairobi were owned by Asians. Right away, Auma had tensed up.

“You see how arrogant they are?” she had whispered as we watched a young Indian woman order her black clerks to and fro. “They call themselves Kenyans, but they want nothing to do with us. As soon as they make their money, they send it off to London or Bombay.”

Her attitude had touched a nerve. “How can you blame Asians for sending their money out of the country,” I had asked her, “after what happened in Uganda?” [where the government seized the assets of its Indian citizens and made them flee the country under the threat of death]. I had gone on to tell her about the close Indian and Pakistani friends I had back in thee States, friends who had supported black causes, friends who had lent me money when I was tight and taken me into their homes when I’d had no place to stay. Auma had been unmoved.

“Ah, Barack,” she had said. “Sometimes you’re so naïve.”

I looked at Auma now, her face turned toward the window. What had I expected my little lecture to accomplish? My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of a racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody’s fault necessarily. It was just a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life.

Anyway, the divisions in Kenya didn’t stop there; there were always finer lines to draw. Between the country’s forty black tribes, for examples. They, too, were a fact of life. You didn’t notice the tribalism so much among Auma’s friends, younger university-educated Kenyans who’d been schooled in the idea of nation and race; tribe was an issue with them only when they were considering a mate, or when they got older and saw it help or hinder careers. But they were the exceptions. Most Kenyans still worked with older maps of identity, more ancient loyalties. Even Jane or Zeituni [Barack’s aunts] could say things that surprise me. “The Luo are intelligent but lazy,” they would say. Or “The Kikuya are money-grubbing but industrious.” Or the “Kalenjins – well you can see what’s happened to the country since they took over.”

Hearing my aunts traffic in such stereotypes, I would try to explain to them the error of their ways. “it’s thinking like that that holds us back,” I would say. “We’re all part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe. Look what tribalism has done to places like Nigeria or Liberia.”

And Jane would say, “Ah, those West Africans are all crazy anyway. You know they used to be cannibals, don’t you?”

And Zeituni would say, “You sounds just like your father, Barry. He also had such ideas about people.”

Meaning he, too, was naïve; he too, like to argue with history. Look what happened to him…

[Barack’s father, upon returning to Kenya to work after gaining his degree from Harvard Law, spoke out against the government, and was marginalized and black-listed by the ruling government power, lost all of his money and influence, and turned inward, and to alcohol as a means to cope]


“What’s happened here, Sayid? [Barack’s uncle]” Auma said after were out of earshot

[After being confronted by beggars in their village]. “There never used to be such begging.”

Sayid leaned down and cleared away a few fallen branches from between rows of corn. “You are right,” he said, “I believe they have learned this thing from those in the city. People come back from Nairobi or Kisumu and tell them, ‘You are poor.’ So now we have this idea of poverty. We didn’t have this idea before. You look at my mother. She will never ask for anything. She has always something that she is doing. None of it brings her much money, but it is something, you see. It gives her pride. Anyone could do the same, but many people here, they prefer to give up.”

“What about Yusuf? [Barack’s other uncle]?” Auma asked. “Couldn’t he do more?”

“Sayid shook his head. “My brother, he talks like a book, but I’m afraid he does not like to lead by example.”

Auma turned to me. “You know, Yusuf was doing really well for a time. He did well in school, didn’t he, Sayid? He received several good job offers. Then I don’t know what happened. He just dropped out. Now he just stays here with Granny, doing small chores for her. It’s as if he’s afraid to try to succeed.”

Sayid nodded. “I think perhaps education doesn’t do us much good unless it’s mixed with sweat.”

I thought about what Sayid had said as we continued to walk. Perhaps he was right; perhaps the idea of poverty had been imported to this place, a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles, by me, by Auma, by Yusuf’s archaic radio. To say that poverty was just an idea wasn’t to say that it wasn’t real; the people we’d just met couldn’t ignore the fact that some people had indoor toilets or at meat every day, any more than the children of Altgeld [the projects on the South Side of Chicago where Barack worked] could ignore the fast cares and lavish homes that flashed across their television sets.

But perhaps they could fight off the notion of their own helplessness. Sayid was telling us about his own life now: his disappointment at having never gone to the university, like his older brothers, for lack of funds; his work in the National Youth Corps, assigned to development projects around the country, a three-year stint that was now coming to an end. He had spent his last two holidays knocking on the doors of various businesses in Nairobi, so far without any success. Still, he seemed undaunted by his circumstances, certain that persistence would eventually pay off.

“To get a job these days, even as a clerk, requires that you know somebody,” Sayid said as we approached Granny’s compound. Or you must grease the palm of someone person very heavily. That’s why I would like to start my own business. Something small only. But mine. That was your father’s error, I think. For all his brilliance, he never had something of his own.” He thought for a moment. “Of course, there’s no point wasting time worrying about the mistakes of the past, am I correct? Like this dispute over your father’s inheritance. From the beginning, I have told my sisters to forget this thing. We must get on with our lives. They do not listen to me, though. And in the meantime, the money they fight over goes where? To the lawyers. The lawyers are eating very well off this case, I believe. How does the saying go? When two locusts fight, it is always the crow that feasts.

“Is that a Luo expression?” I asked. Sayid’s face broke into a bashful smile.

“We have similar expressions in Luo,” he said, “but actually I must admit that I read this particular expression in a book by Chinua Achebe. The Nigerian writer. I like his books very much. He speaks the truth about Africa’s predicament. The Nigerian, the Kenyan – it is the same. We share more than divides us.


  1. Anonymous8:43 PM

    McCain's was ghostwritten. Thats another difference

  2. (sigh), yea Marc Salter could try to be a little less obvious.


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