My apologies for being absent for so long, loyal readers (or whatever loyal readers I have left!). Once the holidays were over we went back into full-on house-clearing mode, which has taken up a lot of my free time. But meanwhile, the rest of the town has been preparing for another little event, so it seemed like a good time to review our incoming president’s memoir. I don’t normally read political autobiographies, but back before the primaries started I read a description of Dreams and thought, huh, that sounds really interesting.
I read this book almost exactly a year ago, and since it’s been a while and it’s been exhaustively discussed elsewhere, I’m not even going to try to give a full description. Instead, I’ve been thinking about what, out of the book’s 500 eventful pages, has stuck with me after this eventful year.
One thing I liked about it was its portrait of a divorced family. That hardly makes it unique, of course, but having divorced parents can be very different for different people. Obama will be, to my knowledge, the third president to have divorced parents, after Ford and Clinton. And each of them seemed to have a completely different experience from it. Ford’s parents split up when he was very young and he was adopted by his stepfather, who changed both his first and last names to match his own. (That last bit seems a little creepy, but maybe that’s just me.) For Clinton, the divorce and remarriage of his parents was a symptom of a violent and tumultuous home life.
Obama’s experience was probably more characteristic of us post-boomers: the divorce isn’t hidden or violent, but creates a low-grade, half-submerged tension through his whole childhood. Even in amicable divorces you can feel like your parents live on different planets, a sense made almost literal when they live on different continents. Obama’s mother and grandparents try mightily to smooth things out, but kids usually know when something’s up, and Obama is very good at describing this. One particular image that stays with me comes from the first time Obama’s father visits him, when he’s about eleven, and stays with the extended family in their Hawaii apartment. At one point Obama goes to his mother’s room and his father answers the door without a shirt, while his mother stands behind him ironing, with tears in her eyes. It’s a disturbing scene precisely because not until about 10 years and 200 pages later do we find out what was going on.
Another terrific part of the book, which takes up a fair chunk of the third section, is the story of Obama’s paternal grandfather Onyango. He deserves his own book really, though at this point it may be impossible to gather enough hard facts for one. Dreams’ narrative is Obama’s recollection of his great-aunt’s recollection of Onyango’s life, so I assume it is not perfectly accurate. But one suspects that, to the extent that it has been changed, it has become a sort of mythological narrative of Africa’s encounter with modernity.
Onyango came from way out in the sticks of western Kenya, which even the coastal Arab-Swahili trade rarely penetrated, so he was the first person in his town to even see white people. As a young adult Onyango goes off to work for, and learn from, the British, and he returns with a greatly demystified and disillusioned view of life back in the village. In some ways this is a benefit, since he does not share many of their fears. One great dramatic bit in the story comes when Onyango chases down a “night runner” — a sort of were-leopard that steals livestock — because he doesn’t really believe it has supernatural powers. (I must admit, the night runners gave me the chills. There’s a fine B movie waiting to be made out of that.) At another point, he confronts a shaman who’s been sent to lay a curse on somebody in the village. Onyango doesn’t believe in his powers, but demands to be taught all his herbal recipes.
What becomes of the spiritual world when the old spirits go away? Obama’s aunt tells him that he first became a Christian, and changed his name to Johnson. But, she says, he was an old-fashioned guy who believed in discipline, and he didn’t believe in loving his enemies and turning the other cheek. He also didn’t believe that one man could atone for another man’s sins. Such ideas were sentimental inventions for women, he thought. (Mark Driscoll, your line is ringing.) So he eventually converted to Islam, and took the now-infamous name Hussein. But his son, who sounded like he inherited the personality in a lot of ways, took the demystification further and came not to believe in much of anything unseen.
I found myself wondering how this story related to Obama’s decision to become a Christian, but if it did, he doesn’t tell us about it here. In fact, the third thing I remember about this book is how frustrating that part of it was. Obama is a beguiling narrator, so I felt I could look through his eyes for most of the story. But when we get to Trinity United Church of Christ, I felt like we lost touch.
In my own church wanderings, Trinity is one of the types I’m least attracted to: a megachurch that revolves around the personality of its pastor. Obama writes that Jeremiah Wright would deny that it’s all about him, but confides that it really is. Many people there, Obama remarks offhandedly, probably believe as much in Wright’s “African values” as they believe in the resurrection.
The one chapter devoted to the church includes a lengthy excerpt from Wright’s sermon, which gave Obama one of his catch phrases, “The Audacity of Hope.” It’s strong stuff, and its effect on Obama is to make him sound — for the first time in this book — like a Barack Obama speech. I know that for a lot of people that’s a good thing, but my own reaction to Obama’s oratory is that it’s good enough if you like that sort of thing, but I don’t really like that sort of thing. After following Obama through more than 200 pages of intimate, detailed, grounded narrative, the flight into hifalutin abstraction was actually a bit of a letdown.
After that the story abruptly cuts off, and we skip ahead to Africa. You’d never know, from this book alone, that he walked the aisle and got baptized. His attraction to Wright remains something of a mystery; Wright gives a good sermon, but his rhetorical style, especially about race, is totally different from Obama’s. I, for one, was not outraged that Obama was forced to talk about it some more during the campaign, precisely for that reason. Even now, though, I don’t feel like I really get it.
Anyway, overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who isn’t completely sick of the guy by this point. I don’t know what it says about what kind of president he’ll make, but whatever happens, he’s sure to write a good memoir about it.