The inner Obama: Interpreting president-elect’s ‘Dreams’

[10 December 2008]

By Patrick T. Reardon

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Maybe at age 29, Barack Obama was fantasizing about running for president.

But “Dreams From My Father” - the 442-page memoir he began drafting in his final year at Harvard Law School - is proof that he hadn’t given the idea serious thought. It’s just too open, too frank, to have been written by someone planning a conventional political career.

Take his casual reference to smoking pot and sniffing cocaine in high school. “I had learned not to care,” Obama writes. “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” That’s oceans away from the carefully homogenized writing that typically is produced, often by staff members, under the byline of an American politician.

As it turned out, that forthrightness helped Obama. By pointing out such skeletons in his closet, he didn’t leave much for investigative reporters or enemy operatives to dredge up. (Some conspiracy theorists contend that’s exactly why he wrote the book, but, if he had been so calculating, he would have given a tighter focus to the book, particularly in relating his five-week visit to Kenya, which sprawls for nearly 240 pages.)

Now, as Inauguration Day approaches, “Dreams From My Father,” published in 1995, provides help of another sort - an unusually unguarded look into the complex mind and heart of the 47-year-old president-elect. Here are some interpretations that can be made about the inner man:

Obama sees himself as a black American: “Dreams” is a book about Obama’s struggles to find his racial identity in a nation and world where race complicates everything. He honors his white mother and grandparents, but he consistently describes himself as a black man whose life is rooted in the United States.

Obama notes that his appearance is black, but he also recognizes that, with his intelligence and education, he could have turned his back on his African roots and let himself become subsumed into the white mainstream culture.

His head rules his heart: Obama tells of a wealthy white woman he loved while living in New York. One weekend, he was invited to her family’s ancestral country home. “I realized that our two worlds ... were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany,” he writes. “And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. ... Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.” He began picking fights with the woman, and, in tears, she said she wasn’t black and couldn’t be. After a year together, the couple broke up.

Not only is this an instance of Obama’s identifying with his black heritage, but it also shows that he isn’t a captive to his emotions, even romantic love.

He reads - a lot: Obama is a man of books. Throughout “Dreams,” he mentions reading works by black writers, history books about Africa and classics, such as Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” He read Conrad’s book “to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons.”

He’s not afraid of being alone: Obama writes much about his search for community and family, and by the end of the book, he has met and married Michelle Robinson. Yet the man at the center of “Dreams” is someone who is comfortable in his own head and who looks inside himself for validation.

For instance, during his years as a community organizer in Chicago, he writes, “When I wasn’t working, the weekends would usually find me alone in an empty apartment, making do with the company of books.”

He sees all of us as strangers in the world: The epigraph for the book is from the Bible: “For we are strangers before them, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.” Over and over again, Obama describes himself as straddling the white and black worlds, an outsider in both.

And not just him, but all blacks and whites as well. “The emotions between the races,” he writes, “could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves.”

He looks to the past to figure out the future: Throughout “Dreams,” Obama is obsessed with trying to understand his father in order to understand himself. In Kenya, he learns that both his father and grandfather, through curiosity and ambition, left the safety of their black villages to find success by reinventing themselves in the white world. There was a cost, though. They didn’t fit in either place.

The climax of the book comes when, standing at their graves, Obama makes peace with the memory of his father: “Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear. ... There was only shame in the silence that fear had produced.”

He is a believer in community: In “Dreams,” Obama’s religious conversion comes in the midst of a community of believers during a sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - yes, that Jeremiah Wright - on the “audacity of hope,” the phrase that became the title of his second book.

Then, at the book’s end, Obama comes to understand that his father and grandfather were left bitter and estranged from the world because they failed to reach out to others. What they needed, and what everyone needs, he writes, is “a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead - a faith in other people.”

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