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Vol. LXII, No. 46
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
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Book Review

It’s in the Prose: To Know Obama, Read His Story

Stuart Mitchner

I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.

—Barack Obama in Dreams from My Father

“The guy is still a mystery, so our oversight will be intense,” warns Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, quoted as one of the “notable exceptions” in a front page article in Sunday’s New York Times (“Harsh Words About Obama? Never Mind Now, It’s History”). The sinister mystery of Barack Hussein Obama was one of the more frequently employed fear and smear tactics in the Republican campaign’s arsenal, the most benign version being, “What do we know about this guy?”

Throughout the long election season, the strategists of the opposition were busy trying to dig up every shred of negative evidence they could find about Obama. Whether they were working for Hillary Clinton in the primaries or for McCain or simply as part of the Far Right’s swift-boat machine, you can be sure that they ransacked Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995/2004, available in paperback from Three Rivers Press). Aware that he’d written the book all by himself without shaping or tempering his story toward a run for office (and with no ghostwriters or political advisors to cover his tracks), these imps of the perverse zeroed in on potentially exploitable material like drug use and Islam rather than actually reading the book. After finding nothing sufficient to fuel terrorist paranoia in his brief account of two years at a Muslim school in Indonesia (where he failed to take “Koranic studies” seriously and had to be told by his mother to “be respectful”), they skimmed ahead to the period before and after college, sniffing for the odor of cannabis and hoping to find something truly incriminating. The book’s references to booze and drugs were brief and unembellished, however, and, anyway, the candidate addressed those issues in August at Pastor Rick Warren’s Civil Forum on the Presidency.

The irony is that if the people trying to defeat Obama had really read his book, they’d have had a more realistic appreciation of the calm strength and stamina of their opponent. When you read the chapter about his four years in Indonesia, you see where he began to develop the inner resources that enabled him to keep his famous cool during the debates and to steer his way through the slings and arrows of a relentlessly negative election year. It’s all there in the opening chapters of Dreams from My Father. Obama’s prose is as centered and poised as his public persona. Besides having the instinct for mood and nuance of an intelligent and clearly gifted writer determined to come to terms with complex issues of “race and inheritance,” he knows how to turn a phrase, never overwrites, and understands when and how to seal an effect.

An Indonesian Education

Anyone who was exhilarated by the election should read this book, as should anyone who cares what happens to the country during the next four years. The quality of the writing and the complexity of the experience Obama is describing become immediately evident in the first section, “Origins,” particularly in the account of his arrival in Indonesia as a child of six. What’s even more striking than the rush of impressions he’s recreated in prose — the sense of a whole new, wildly exotic world spinning into view — is the “education” the boy receives at the hands of his stepfather Lolo Soetero, who, as Obama puts it, “followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths.” When they drive past an object that has the boy gaping — ”standing astride the road was a towering giant at least ten stories tall, with the body of a man and the face of an ape” — Soetero explains that it’s Hanuman, “the monkey god … a great warrior ….Strong as a hundred men.”

Not only is Barack taught how to box, how to open at chess, how to change a flat tire, how to eat chili peppers raw, he learns how to deal with beggars, who “seemed to be everywhere … men, women, and children, in tattered clothing, matted with dirt, some without arms, others without feet, victims of scurvy or polio or leprosy walking on their hands or rolling down the crowded sidewalks in jerry-built carts, their legs twisted behind them like contortionists’.” Obama’s ability to retain and evoke these images decades later is impressive enough, but his description of the “lesson” that follows suggests that he was also, whether he knew it or not, learning how to write:

“At first I watched my mother give over her money to anyone who stopped at our door or stretched out an arm as we passed in the streets. Later, when it became clear that the tide of pain was endless, she gave more selectively, learning to calibrate the levels of misery.”

It’s hard to imagine any president or politician anywhere (or most journalists, for that matter) writing a sentence as strong and wise as that last one. Here was Obama back in the 1990s already able to see and express the human condition in terms at once personal and universal. Almost as admirable is the exchange that follows, in which he writes that Lolo thought his mother’s “moral calculations endearing but silly”: ‘Your mother has a soft heart …. That’s a good thing in a woman. But you will be a man someday, and a man needs to have more sense.’ It had nothing to do with good or bad, he explained, like or dislike. It was a matter of taking life on its own terms.”

Hemingway himself might have admired the scene where Lolo teaches his stepson to box (For Whom The Bell Tolls was one of the “favorite” books Obama cited, along with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Shakespeare’s tragedies, in a July Rolling Stone interview). When the lesson is over (“My arms burned” Obama writes, “my head flashed with a dull, steady throb”), Lolo and Barack are sitting down “near the crocodile pond” (the Soetero property includes an ape named Tata and two baby crocodiles) when the boy notices a series of indentations on his stepfather’s calf and asks what they are. “Leech marks,” he’s told. After being advised what to do when leeches crawl inside your shoes (“you sprinkle salt on them and they die, but you still have to dig them out with a hot knife”), Barack runs his finger over “one of the oval grooves,” which “was smooth and hairless where the skin had been singed,” and asks if it had hurt. “Of course it hurt,” he’s told. “Sometimes you can’t worry about hurt. Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go.”

Like from the statehouse steps in February 2007 to the White House in January 2009. If you want to know where the mystery guy is coming from and where he’s going, Mr. O’Reilly, read his book.

Kansas to Kenya

Obama spent more time with his white grandparents than he did with either of his natural parents. Both his Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham, and his Kenyan father, Barack Obama, Sr., haunt the book more than they inhabit it. Again, Obama’s literary skill is evident in the way he places small, moving revelations about each parent and about himself at exactly the most effective places in the narrative. During the one brief period when father and son actually shared the same space, the father is seen through a haze. The son can’t relate to him, at least not until he puts some music he’d brought back from Kenya on the stereo. In the passage that concludes Chapter Three, the difficult, seemingly alien character literally comes to life:

“‘Come, Barry,’ my father said. ‘You will learn from the master.’ And suddenly his slender body was swaying back and forth, the lush sound was rising, his arms were swinging as they cast an invisible net, his feet wove over the floor in off-beats, his bad leg stiff but his rump high, his head held back, his hips moving in a tight circle. The rhythm quickened, the horns sounded, and his eyes closed to follow his pleasure, and then one eye opened to peek down at me and his solemn face spread in a silly grin, and my mother smiled, and my grandparents walked in to see what all the commotion was about. I took my first tentative steps with my eyes closed, down, up, my arms swinging, the voices [on the record] lifting. And I hear him still; As I follow my father into the sound, he lets out a quick shout, bright and high, a shout that leaves much behind and reaches for more, a shout that cries for laughter.”

Princeton Reads?

Dreams from My Father would make an excellent choice for the library’s community reading project, except for the fact that the subject so closely resembles that of the 2005 choice, another black-author, white-mother memoir, James McBride’s The Color of Water. It would take another column to begin to do justice to Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, whose story is told online at Time U.S.A.

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