A couple other contemporary autobiographies help illustrate the remarkable character of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory takes young Ricardo through the steps by which he became the Americanized intellectual Richard, while young Barry became Barack, signifying sentimental ties to Africa and Islam. Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son describes a man who grew to appreciate his American roots and his grandfather’s discipline; it is truly an American story. Obama’s memoir describes his halting attempts to find a home in place after place, within America and in Asia and Africa.
Thomas saved his soul by rejecting the flotsam of American higher education, in favor of his grandfather’s character lessons, which eventually brought him to appreciate one of the finest achievements of western civilization, natural law. Obama lost whatever bearings he had by absorbing the post-modernism and faddish sophistry of the contemporary university, rising to high status in the legal community even before graduating from Harvard Law School. “I was a heretic,” he declares, as he denounces the certainty that plagues politics and religion—“one man’s certainty always threatened another’s.” And a heretic will believe in “the truth of his own doubt.”
He bears the stamp moreover of his Kansas-born mother, who died of cancer in her early fifties She was a leftist intellectual, so devoted to her anthropological field work in Indonesia that she sent her son to live with her parents, in Hawaii. He did not grow up poor (as he portrays himself, on the stump); he had a zealous graduate student for a mother. Those are two very different things, as anyone who has been in graduate school knows. His Kenyan father abandoned his wife and Obama when he was two.
The Obama we find at the end of his quest to discover himself is not anti-American, but he is a-American. He is not a Muslim, because he lacks the certainty that faith requires. Just as he rose above certain otherwise confining situations, Obama rises above his American birth. That is what the Declaration of Independence comes to mean for him: becoming independent, tearing up one’s roots, even flinging the dead dendra in the faces of other, less sophisticated types. That explains his foreign policy of moral equivalence, his deflating of American privilege, his recent insistence on “sharing the wealth.” One telling example of his approach: He tops off a list of Hawaiian injustices with “the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.” But ethnic Japanese in Hawaii were not relocated en masse as they were on the mainland. Obama does not know his State history and is only too quick to issue condemnations.
He knew his Kenyan graduate student father only from one brief visit and some letters, and then later, upon his death, from the tales of his African relatives. Obama is fascinated and appalled at the father and grandfather he discovers. He loves his African relatives, but he sees his distance. He declares himself “too busy” to learn the native Luo of his relatives, while a relative chides him for being “too busy to know his own people.” An aunt explains how Kenyan ways have been multicultural for centuries. What then is the meaning of being rooted in Africa? Isn’t there a better way to view relationships across the globe?
He found one link in Chicago. As a community organizer, he needs acceptance by the local ministers. He feels a distance from the Christian church, but he becomes a Christian through the preaching of Reverend Wright, in particular a sermon entitled “The Audacity of Hope.” Despite the emotion with which he describes his conversion, this has all the appearance of a political choice. (For a magnificent interpretation of Obama’s Audacity of Hope, see Charles Kesler’s
essay in the Fall Claremont Review of Books [subscriber only, so do subscribe!].)
It is fascinating to think that in 2009 the two leading public voices of the left and the right in this country will likely be two black men who needed roots and fathers—Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas. This is an invitation for all Americans to rediscover their roots, as descendants of immigrants and as native-born. It is a struggle between Christian faith and nihilism, between a rooted American and a cosmopolitan.
The first part of these reflections on Dreams from My Father was here.