(written before the 2008 elections)
highwayscribery wanted to spend this day on a book report of Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama’s autobiography, 'Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance"
The book was a Christmas gift from the scribe’s sister Rosemary and was received with the usual mild surprise that accompanies the reception of a book you don’t really want to read.
highwayscribery enjoyed Obama’s colorful and deftly delivered speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (included in the book put out by Three Rivers Press). But in ensuing months it seemed the newly elected senator’s name popped up too often in association with positions a little beyond his experience, like vice president or president.
There’s a Democratic Party discussion in there somewhere: Is the glass half full because Obama’s rise among what former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) used to call “the great mentioners” reflects his amazing talent? Or is it half empty because a guy starts jumping ranks thanks to his world beat name and a decent speech two years ago?
The highwayscribery creed encourages the acceptance of given books as a kind of natural instruction from the world itself, from forces beyond our own (book) consuming impulses.
And the book is quite good as it goes about detailing Obama’s unique, yet quintessentially American pedigree and journey. A kind of Tiger Woods to the progressive political world, Obama is African-American, without the tragedy of slavery separating him from old country forebears.
He knows his lineage, his father, his grandfather. He returns to his native Kenya where a grandmother explains how, “First there was Miwiri. It’s not known who came before. Miwiru sired Sigoma, Sigoma sired Owiny, Owiny sired Kisodhi, Kisodhi sired Ogelo, Ogelo sired Otondi, Otonidi sired Obongo, Obongo sired Okoth, and Okoth sired Opiyo. The women who bore them, their names are forgotten, for that was the way of our people.”
His father, a scholarship student from Kenya to the University of Hawaii, met his mother in that distant American outpost. She came from Kansas stock, her father a soldier of fortune and westward drifter on the trail of the big break.
His place in time as a man educated in the west at the height of the African liberation from its European colonizers forces the senior Barack Obama home, abandoning the young boy in Hawaii for good.
That is the DNA, much explained and dissected for it is the point of the book, and somewhat the point of the politician – race and its subtleties.
The greatest surprise was the book’s prose. Obama was, at one time, editor of the “Harvard Law Review.” highwayscribery has never had occasion to read that particular publication, but must admit to a sense that brand name conjures up ponderous articles short on good and engaging narrative content.
But it may be a place where good writing is encouraged because he possesses a comfortable mastery of the written word. We’re not talking the heights of prosodic beauty, but a facile ability to render crucial insights his unique path and intelligence have provided, into the written word. One thing is to have led an interesting life, it is another to successfully convey why.
The highpoint of the book may be the following passage. The set up is that Obama Sr. has come to meet his son, who is ten years old, and it really doesn’t go too well. As the father is leaving, he decides to play a recording of music from the families tribe, the Luo:
“‘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 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 into 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 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 out for more, a shout that cries for laughter.”
So you get an idea that it’s not some kind of policy book or rhetorical disquisition. It’s a young man’s story and takes the reader through Obama’s developing sense of the black reality in America, his clumsy first steps as an organizer on Chicago’s South Side, a rare portrait of the legendary Mayor Harold Robinson, and over to Africa in discovery of family lore and luggage.
Obama’s rise to prominence represents something of a bellwether in less than obvious ways. Sure, he’s one of only a handful of blacks ever to serve in the U.S. Senate, but in this story he weaves the consumption of marijuana, alcohol and even cocaine into the fabric without using overly bright colors and without trying to sugar-coat it either.
He plays basketball, he “adopts” in his own parlance an identity from those being offered-up by the pop culture of the 1980s - the years of his flaming youth. And now he’s a senator and all of that without having had to live like a Mormon.
And that’s good, as there is much else good about Obama, a writer to rank with those who make a permanent vocation of writing, an intelligent fellow with the honesty to talk about black-on-black gripes, to wrestle with the loss of blackness success in the white world represents, to convey the suffocating sense that the white world is the only game in town.