Obama and us

2009-02-26 00:00

I have just read Barack Obama’s remarkable book, Dreams from My Father. It was an interesting time at which to read it. As one tackles a book of any length one’s mind switches back and forth between the world of the book and the world in which one is living. So for me the backdrop to Obama’s book was the contemporary South African political situation, with the election campaigns getting going, and the governing party — which is likely to remain the governing party after April 22 — displaying a distinctly easy-going attitude towards corruption, a misplaced indulgence towards its foul-mouthed youth leader, and a surprising indifference to world opinion.

What is worrying about these attitudes is what seems to be a general lack of thoughtfulness and imagination. The contrast between the mind and spirit of Obama, and what appears to be the current mind and spirit of some African National Congress leaders, is very striking.

Dreams from my Father, which is Obama’s account of roughly the first 30 years of his life and his attempt patiently to stitch together a sense of his own identity and of his purpose in life, first appeared in 1995, when Obama was hardly known. The book received some favourable reviews, but didn’t sell particularly well. It has now been reissued, and is an international bestseller.

No doubt many people are buying the book because Obama is a charismatic and powerful politician. But in fact it deserves to be warmly praised for its own intrinsic merits. It is extraordinarily well written. Much of the book consists of narrative, the author telling sensitively the story of his own richly varied life, and Obama writes like a good novelist.

He describes people and places with liveliness and vividness. There is a great deal of dialogue, no doubt based pretty closely on Obama’s memory of what people said but obviously largely recreated and indeed created by the writer himself.

One had known that Obama’s family background was multicultural and complex, and that it covered a wide geographical span — Hawaii, Indonesia, Hawaii again, New York, Chicago, Kenya and Harvard. In the book Obama not only talks about these places, offering a perceptive social, cultural and political commentary, but he takes us to most of them. He also tells us a great deal about his closest relatives: his white American mother, his Kenyan father (whom he only spent a few weeks with but about whom he discovered a great deal), his white grandparents, his Kenyan grandparents (although he never met his grandfather), his Indonesian stepfather, and all his half-brothers and half-sisters. By the end of the book we seem to have shared fairly fully in the author’s early life experiences.

With so many possible identities swirling around him and within him (and he evokes differing cultural practices and points of view with remarkable empathy), it is hardly surprising that Obama felt the need to both discover and create his own identity. His need to do this was further complicated by his associating himself passionately with the concerns and feelings of his fellow African Americans. All this might sound awkwardly egocentric; but it isn’t. Obama handles these issues with a direct and self-critical honesty. The situations that he describes and the problems that he raises are intensely interesting in themselves, partly because they are in the end the problems of all of us. Without any vanity Obama is able to see himself as typical of current humankind, trying to locate himself humbly, usefully and generously within human society.

“Generously”: the word is very important. For Obama’s quest is not just for an identity but for something positive, creative and outgoing.

His father came from Kenya to study in the United States so that he could return to his mother country and be of service to it. For various reasons his father’s aim was largely unfulfilled, but his son hopes, in terms of his own expanded world and vision, to carry out the promise his father made. All this was written before the idea of running for the U.S. presidency seems to have occurred to Obama. What a fulfilment his Kenyan father’s dream has had!

Generosity, serious self-searching, service, worldwide vision: let us hope that the spirit of Obama may flourish in South Africa, as it did in the days of Nelson Mandela, who has been an icon and an inspiration to Obama

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