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The story of Obama

Print edition : Sep 12, 2008 T+T-

This young black man, a relatively unknown person in his own country, was in search of his identity.

WHETHER Barack Obama will become the President of the United States of America will be known only later this year. But by becoming the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, he is only one step the most crucial one, though away from that powerful position. Hence, it will be worthwhile to get to know something of the background of this hitherto not widely known person especially as he is the first Afro-American to reach this stage in a presidential ele ction.

The book under review, originally published in 1995 when Obama was only 34 years old, is autobiographical, concentrating on his early life and training, his higher education in Columbia University and Harvard University from where he took his degree in Law. It also deals with his work as a community organiser in Chicago among the youth, particularly the blacks. The concluding part is an account of his first visit to Kenya, the land of his father and his meeting with many of his relatives, including the half siblings.

One of the notable things about Obama is that he is a first generation Afro-American, his father a native and citizen of Kenya and mother (white) American and of American parentage. Obamas international credentials are even more impressive. While he was still a young child, his parents ended their marriage. His mother re-married a man from Indonesia and Obama spent some years of his early childhood in that country. He has also an Indonesian-American half sister who is now married to a Chinese-Canadian. Obamas wife Michelle is a native Afro-American.

It is not surprising that with such diverse ethnic and national elements surrounding him, Obama found frequently asking himself: Who am I? The book is a record of that quest a story of race and inheritance indeed. Obamas maternal grandparents were both involved in the Second World War, and soon after the War moved from mainland America to Hawaii, already very much of a racial and nationality melting pot or salad bowl. It is there that Obamas mother grew up and went to the university. Obamas paternal grandfather was a recognised leader of the Luo tribe in Kenya who had established different kinds of contact with the British during the War and had travelled widely in other parts of Africa, West Asia and as far as Burma (Myanmar). Obamas father was in Kenya as a child and school boy, attending also to the familys land and sheep. He had come in contact with a couple of American women in Nairobi, and through them succeeded in getting into the university in Hawaii. It was there that the young man met Ann, the young American student.

Obama confesses that it is not clear how Anns parents reacted to her desire to marry a man from Kenya. They were known to be broadminded people who always wanted to treat people decently. But that probably did not go as far as having a foreigner, a black too, as son-in-law. Obama records: In fact, how and when the marriage occurred remains a bit murky. Theres no record of a real wedding, a cake, a ring, a giving away of the bride. Just a small civil ceremony. And in due course the baby arrived, eight pound two ounces with ten toes and ten fingers and hungry for food. But the father soon left Hawaii and went over to Harvard University (where he finally took a doctorate) and from there back to Kenya. Obamas mother was not willing to go to Kenya and lead a life there. So the marriage broke down. Sometime later she married another student she met at the university, an Indonesian named Lolo.

Obamas mother took him to Indonesia to join Lolo who had left earlier. Obama spent a couple of years there. His half-sister, Maya, arrived during this period. Accepting her failure to adjust herself to life in a foreign country, Ann, along with her two children returned to Hawaii where Obama started his formal schooling.

In school and society in Hawaii the growing lad became conscious of the black-white divide. I had begun to see a new map of the world records Obama, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. And a friend told him: We are always playing in the white mans court by the white mans rules. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motive and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. The awareness, this nightmare vision that he was a black and that the essence of being black was the rage that reflected utter powerlessness dawned on Obama and that became a continuing reflection on his life and role in the world that surrounded him.

In 1979, after completing high school, Obama moved to the mainland, to Occidental College (Oxy), Los Angeles. There he was to learn that the society around him was not simply black and white. Some of his college mates vehemently asserted that they were neither black nor white, but multiracial. If so what about Barack Obama? Obama would soon discover that while those who claimed to be multiracial would not and could not class themselves as whites, most of them definitely did not want to be classified as blacks, a track he was not willing to take. And then there were those who denied race and colour altogether to be just individuals. He did not find that acceptable either. New doubts. New questions.

Still searching for where he belonged, Obama moved to the east coast to join the Columbia University in New York City where he knew he would have more interactions with blacks. There, perceiving the penury of the blacks, he would soon grasp the almost mathematical precision with which Americas race and class problems joined; the depth, the ferocity, of resulting tribal wars. By the time he graduated, Obama had decided that what he wanted to do, immediately at least, was to become a community organiser. What did that mean? I couldnt answer directly. I would pronounce the need for change. Change in the White House, where Ronald Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, maniac and self-absorbed. Change wont come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilised grass roots. Versions of this creed formulated when Obama was in his early twenties would resonate frequently a quarter of a century later during campaign to capture the Democratic Partys nomination for the presidential race.

Chicago was the city Obama chose for his experiments in community organisation. It was to be both a philosophy and a strategy. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men. In the sits-ins, the marches, jailhouses, songs [of the civil rights movements] I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place youd be born or the house where youd be raised. Through organising, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned because the community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger community, black, white and brown, could somehow redefine itself I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life. That was my idea of organising. It was a promise of redemption. That was the philosophy.

The strategy was to be evolved too, but not easy to know how whether to set up a new establishment or work through those that already existed; whether there were to be separate ones for youth or include all age groups; whether to be directly involved in politics or to concentrate on relief and empowerment programmes These would not be fully resolved. But it was a life lived with the neglected, the oppressed, the aimless, the frustrated. There were many failures and a lot of anger too. Anger at the leadership for being short-sighted. Anger at myself for believing that I could have ever bridged the gap between them. But there was a great sharing of life with the people he was working with, which helped me to bind my world together, that gave me the sense of place and purpose Id been looking for.

After a few years and building a team to continue the work, Obama began to feel that he should leave and take up a study of law. The decision was not easy. Nagging self-doubts emerged. In law school he would surely learn about government and legal processes, about corporates and business practices, about markets and money power, and these would certainly help to bring about real change. But was he rationalising, running away? Would further academic studies divide him? Obama decided to send in applications to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and so on. When a positive response came from Harvard, the decision was made, and off he went to the Harvard Law School.

There is little in the book about life in Harvard, but the Introduction mentions that the opportunity to write the book came after his election as the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review and the burst of publicity that followed that election. But more important to Obama, at the time of writing, was his visit to Kenya, his fathers country, and the discovery of its land and people, including the many members of the family. Almost immediately after he landed in Kenya, Obama was struck by the close affinity of the people there, the pleasure of other peoples company, the joy of human warmth, in sharp contrast to the growing isolation of American life. But soon the divisions in the Kenyan society began to appear too, among the countrys 40 black tribes and between the natives and the Asian settlers, for instance. Obama learned a great deal about his own ancestors, his father in particular who had been killed in a car accident which led him to ponder over the mysteries of my own life.

There is also a moving account of the visit to the graves of the grandfather and the father. When my tears were fully spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realised that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment Id felt as a boy, the frustration and hope Id witnessed in Chicago all of it was connected with this plot of earth an ocean away, connected more than the accident of a name or the colour of my skin. The pain I felt was my fathers pain. My questions were my fathers questions. Their struggle, my birthright.

Dreams from My Father is a vivid portrayal of a young mans search for his identity because of the sharply differing backgrounds he had inherited and the contrasting clusters he had come to belong.

It is an intensely personal groping for meaning through involvement and action, and the striving to evolve a personal and social philosophy of liberation and reconciliation. It is also the remarkable story of a young black man who, at the time of writing, was a relatively unknown person in his own country, but whom the whole world has taken note of within a span of a little over a decade.