Tuesday, November 6, 2012
November 6, 2012: Obama and America, Part Two
[I’m writing these posts ahead of time, as is my wont, so I can’t say whether this week’s series will be an epilogue on a four-year journey or a middle chapter in an evolving story. I sure hope the latter. But in any case, here are five posts through which I’ve tried to bring AmericanStudies to bear on our current president and some of the many national questions to which he connects. Your thoughts, on the election or the distant past or anything in between, will be very welcome for a special weekend post with my own new thoughts as well as yours.]
On the book of Obama’s that every American, regardless of political party, should read.
I’ve tried in many posts in this space to highlight some of the best works of AmericanStudies scholarship I know, but I begin today with a quick mention of one of the very worst: Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010). D’Souza’s book, which seeks to explain much of Obama’s perspective and emphases (as D’Souza falsifies, I mean defines, them) through an “analysis” of his father Barack Obama’s “Kenyan anti-colonialism” (one of those times I’m using actual quotation marks and the other time they’re scare quotes, I’ll let you figure out which is which), is so chock-full of lies and nonsense that it beggars description, and I’m going to stop writing about in one more sentence and hopefully never mention or even think about it again (although the recent “documentary” that builds upon the book has forced me to do so). But of all the reasons why it’s such a horrifically awful work, perhaps the most frustrating is that it allegedly builds upon one of the most impressive and engaging American personal narratives I’ve ever read: Obama’s own first book, Dreams from My Father (1995).
Autobiographies by political figures tend to fall into one of two categories: quickies published during campaigns, mostly to sell the candidate’s platform and identity to prospective voters; and massive tomes published after the person has left office, both to cement certain hoped-for legacies and to admit to things that would have cost him or her votes at the time. Obama has written at least a couple of books in the former category, but I would argue that Dreams is very much not one of them: it was published while he was an attorney and law professor in Chicago, a year before he first ran for the Illinois State Senate and five years before he first ran for Congress; and while of course he likely had political ambitions at that point, the book is profoundly honest about some of the darkest and most potentially controversial aspects of his life and identity, including drug use in college, his complex perspectives on the young African American men with whom he worked as a community organizer, and his experiences and relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church. While conspiracy theorists like to argue that we know little about who Obama really is, the truth is that for fifteen years now the reading public has had more intimate access to his life and identity and perspective than has been possible for any other president.
But the reason why I’m writing about Obama’s book here—which very much parallels the reasons why it’s the focus of the Conclusion of my second book—is that it includes and analyzes such a wide and interesting range of essentially American lives and identities. That would include of course Obama himself, born to a Kenyan immigrant father and a Scotch-Irish mother in Hawaii, raised there by his mom and by grandparents who had transplanted their family from Kansas, and married to a woman who is the descendent of slaves (among other crucial details); would certainly include both of his parents and all of those other family members and generations; but also includes a number of other pivotal figures in the book, most especially his half-sister Auma (herself a Kenyan American immigrant) and half-brother Roy (likewise). Obama’s ability and willingness to cede significant portions of the book over to these other voices and lives helps create this narrative of a multi-part American community; when Roy reappears at Obama’s wedding in the book’s Epilogue, for example, having embraced his Kenyan heritage more fully and renamed himself Obongo, yet also gaining two “honorary mothers” in Obama’s mother and grandmother at that ceremony, we can truly see just how much his own American story and identity have continued to evolve and deepen, and how much Obama’s sense of who he is likewise evolves and deepens through his conversations and encounters with these other American voices and lives.
As with everything I write about in this space, my ultimate message here is a simple but significant one: I think all Americans should read and engage with this text and history and story. Of course in this context it is perhaps impossible that said message could ever be disentangled from many other and more troublingly divisive narratives—according to many polls upwards of 60% of GOP voters would have to read the section about Obama’s parents and his birth in Hawaii and believe that he’s lying, for example. But I have to believe that a substantial part of the strength of those divisive narratives is that many Americans don’t read into our history and culture and literature at all, relying instead solely on what they hear about them from less nuanced and analytical sources than (I certainly hope) this one. So, in the words of Levar Burton one more time, “Read the book!” Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?