Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part TWO: Chicago, Chapter Seven: Finding Work For His Anger.
Barack Channels His Anger For Change As A Community Organizer
Obama graduated from Columbia in 1983. He told his fellow seniors he intended to go into community organizing although he had only the vaguest of ideas what this entailed. However he applied to all the civil rights groups, black elected officials with progressive agendas, tenants rights groups, neighborhood councils he could locate. His idea was to organize black and poor communities into voting groups that actually voted. In this way he could influence change so the impoverished, particularly among the blacks and Hispanics would have a fair share of the American Dream through government action. (Obama must have had some inkling of what community service work entailed since his mother worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia trying to improve the lives of rural woman and also trying to make rural craftsmen more competitive in the modern world. She wrote her PhD. thesis on the thousand year old rural blacksmith craft of Indonesia.)
Obama found that the civil rights groups that had marched, sat in and broken the back of segregation along with winning voters rights legislation had splintered. Now these splinter groups had become comfortable in their niches with grants and supporters and not really pushing for any new advances and not trying to organize the poor into significant voting groups.
Failing to find employment in the community service field he found work as an assistant researcher at a consulting house that did business research for multinational companies. As far as he could tell he was the only black on the upward executive path. The black ladies that worked in the secretarial pool were proud of him but their eyes would become glassy when he divulged his plans of becoming a community organizer. The black door man was more direct telling him that community organizing was a waste of time. Some people can’t be helped and those that can will make it on their own anyway. His responsibility was to himself to make enough money to lead a comfortable life.
He advanced to financial writer interviewing Japanese businessmen and German bond traders. He would see his reflection in mirrors and elevator doors in a suit and tie with his briefcase and for a split second imagine himself as a captain of industry before having feelings of guilt about having gone off course from his original goal. (It seems that community organizer was really a code word for a political career. Although he may not have realized its full implications at first.)
Then as he was writing and article on interest rate swaps his half sister Auma from Kenya called. She was studying German and she was also coming to the U.S. with several friends and asked to visit with him. Plans were made, flight times established and he spruced up his apartment only to learn from Auma that their half brother David had been killed in a motorcycle accident. She cried, “ Barack why do these things happen to us?” The expected trip was cancelled because the money for the trip now had to be used to return home for David’s funeral. Barack comforted her by telling her they would see each other at another time. He reflects on this occurrence, on not meeting the half sister he never saw or the finality of the death of a half brother he also never saw. Had Auma came would she have revealed things about their father and his life in Kenya that would have kept him on a narrower personal track in business and off the broader track as a community organizer (and its more subtle implications?)
He interviewed with the director of a prominent civil rights organization in the city. His office was opulent, he was well dressed and he talked of forging links between business, government and the inner city. He was impressed with his work as a business researcher and writer. Barack turned down the job offer as this was not a job with a organization for change but one growing fat and sleek on subsidies for maintaining the status quo.
He left his secure position as a financial writer and found temporary organizing jobs closer to the people of Harlem and Brooklyn trying to convince city college students to recycle or helping a man run for city council who lost in the end without paying Barack. In six months he was eating soup out of cans.
He went to hear Kwame Toure’ who once was known as Stokely Carmichael and once a leader of SNCC and Black Power. Woman were passing out Marxist literature at the door and arguing about Trotsky’s place in history. Toure’ spoke of forging links between Harlem and Africa and by passing white capitalist imperialism. A woman asked if this was practical given the state of the African economy. She was greeted with epithets of Stalinist pig and reformist bitch as she left the building. Leaving he realized the Civil Rights movement had shattered into a thousand splinters diverted from its original purpose or taken over by mad men.
Then he got a call from Marty Kaufman and they met in a coffee shop. Marty was wearing a rumpled suit and needed shave. After looking at his resume he said you must be angry about something. Don’t get me wrong anger is a necessity for this work. Well adjusted people find more relaxing work. Marty was a veteran of the student protests in the Sixties and had moved on from there working for farmers in Nebraska, Blacks in Philadelphia and Hispanics in Chicago. Currently he was trying to forge an alliance between Blacks and Whites in Chicago to save manufacturing jobs. He was working through churches the only focus of power in a polarized city.
Barack replied Chicago was America’s most segregated city with a black man as mayor, Harold Washington, and the whites don’t like it. Marty replied that’s the thing to do isn’t it? Ally yourself with a powerful politician who can help you with your own career. Barack responded, I already tried. His office never responded. .
Marty offered him ten thousand for the first year with a two thousand car allowance.
On his way home a boy asks why does the river sometimes run one-way and at other times in the opposite direction. Barack said it must be the tides. Barack reflects that he had never noticed this before.
A week later he moves to Chicago and his future
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part One: Origins, Chapter Six: Columbia University. Catching Fire.
Barack Obama Graduation Columbia University
Occidental and Columbia had a transfer program and Barrack availed himself of it to go to Columbia University. He says wanted to move to New York to live in a black community.
While at Columbia he lived in Harlem at Occidental he lived in basically a white community. Left unsaid was the fact that Columbia was a far more prestigious school than Occidental. So it may be Barrack was catching fire in his desire to move up the social, political and economic ladder although it may have been a vague idea in his mind at this time. He was becoming a more competitive person. He says he ran three miles a day and made a serious effort at his studies.
Living in New York was a far more raw and gritty reality than the leafy suburban scene of Occidental college and its environs. Life between the races was much less cordial at Colombia as witnessed in the exchanges on the bathroom stalls of Columbia. This is where students wrote derogatory messages addressing each other as “niggers and kikes.” Relations between the races at Occidental had been more scholarly and philosophical. (However one cannot draw a lot of significance from the element that stoops to writing expletives on bathroom stalls)
He had written for the first time in a long time to his father about his change of schools. At this time his father was working as an economist for the Kenyan government. While his father’s return letter was short it was a positive one and although Barrack doesn’t state verbatim his own letter he does state his father’s letter. His father apologizes for not writing more often but excuses himself by saying that his work requires him to travel often. He invites Barack to Kenya to meet his brothers and sisters and to consider making a life there. He also inquires after the welfare of his mother and grandparents. It is signed, Love, Dad.
The letter points out that coming home after graduation will allow him to meet his people and to know where he belonged. Barack had been searching for identity and a place to belong and establish roots. However he was sure it was not with his black family in Africa or his white mother, half sister and grandparents in Hawaii. He considered himself a black American and the place he chose would be in the black community but exactly where he was not sure. He stops referring to himself as Barry about this time.
While at Columbia his mother and sister Maya came to visit. They first stayed with him but because of his cramped quarters in Harlem Ann and Maya moved to a condominium on Park Avenue lent to her by a friend.
They went to a favorite movie of his mother that has become a classic. She wanted Barack and Maya to see it with her. It was Black Orpheus based on the Greek Myth of the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio de Janiero. Afterwards speaking alone Maya thought the movie was corny and Barack held the movie in distain because it treated the blacks like innocent children. His mother he thought was naive and idealistic about blacks and their lives and this may have been part of her motivation for marrying Barack Sr. It was at this time that she told them that Barack’s Sr.’s father was against the marriage not wanting the Obama blood to be mixed with white blood. Also it was revealed that Barack’s father had a wife and child in Kenya from whom he was separated. However there were no records of the marriage or the separation. So the marriage went forward.
More devastating to Barack was the information that his father had two scholarships to study for his master’s degree. One to the New School in New York which would have provided means to bring his family along and one to Harvard which did not. Barack Sr. chose Harvard as it was the better school and abandoned his family in Hawaii. (At Harvard he met another white woman who he later married and took back to Kenya with him.)
Barack dismisses his father’s letter as dime store advice and relates a dream of seeing his father in which they seem to reach some sort of rapprochement. This occurs after he is told by his father’s brother, who was in Boston, that his father had died. He called his mother with the news. She cried out in grief. His post graduation trip to Kenya was put on indefinite hold.
He reflects that his father’s memory provided him with a strong image and “had given him some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to or disappoint.”
(Perhaps his father’s drive to get an education was inspiring but the strongest male figure in Barack’s life up to this point has been Stanley Dunham who took him under his wing and saw to it that he attended a college preparatory academy, Punahou, and mentored him on life while he was in grade school and high school; a critical period in Barack’s life. However he does not speak much about Stan Dunham’s influence on his thinking. Then again Barack seemed adrift in his senior high school year until his mother came home and challenged him to do better in school and go to college. So maybe Stan Dunham’s (who never went to college himself) desires for his grandson’s future were not positive enough for a person of Barack’s potential. Barack’s observations in this chapter seem bitter and skewed. However he is finding himself as a person and pushing himself to develop mentally and physically. Perhaps he is vaguely aware of his future potential.)
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part One: Origins, Chapter Five: Occidental College. Searching For Identity And Purpose.
BARACK AS A FRESHMAN SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY AND PURPOSE
He remembers his final years at Punahou. He had become disaffected with life and was slipping in to drug use or at least experimenting with it on a social basis with his fellow class mates who were on the same track. His grades were slipping and he was apathetic about the future direction of his life as he seemed headed for a pedestrian existence. His goal at the time was to attend a junior college in Hawaii and after that who knew what.
His mother had returned from her anthropology field work in Indonesia. She was no longer married to Lolo and Barack had a new half sister Maya. She was alarmed that his grades were slipping and that he was not making the necessary preparations to attend a four year college. When one of his friends was arrested for drug possession she became further alarmed and shamed him into breaking his lethargy and making the preparations to go to Occidental College near Los Angeles.
At Occidental he was thrown into a whole new milieu. There were many more blacks at the school than at Punahou or even in Hawaii. There was also the adjacent black population of Los Angeles County in the millions, many living in poverty, to consider.
His environment was intellectually more challenging on the issues surrounding race in America and he was still trying to reconcile himself to his place in life; angry revolutionary or fitting in a white dominated society as a half white, half black man. He tended to see his choices as one or the other.
Eventually he began to see himself as an individual and the experiences of other blacks or mixed racially people did not have to be his and he did not have to form his beliefs or understanding of the world based on the experiences of others. However their books and opinions were still informative.
One of his greatest fears had been that he would always be an outside neither a member of the blacks or the whites. This was the fear he was speaking about at the close of the last chapter when he said he felt utterly alone in life.
Some students were angry and bitter about race relations in the United States while others usually more racially mixed or even able to pass who were content with the status quo.
Barack was an activist for change even back then. The plight of the black population of Soweto in South Africa under Apartheid was major issue on campus in the years he was there from 1979 to 1981 and he spoke at rallies and other public demonstrations.
It was during this time he began to recognize that when he spoke people listened and that he had his own identity, although black, that was unique in itself.
Listening to Billie Holiday he decides to endure and make his own music in life.
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part One: Origins, Chapter Four: Punahou II. Racial Meditations.
In this Chapter Barack who had led a relatively sheltered life growing up in Hawaii and spending a few years in Indonesia meets a new friend, Ray, with a different perspective on being black in a white dominated society. Ray’s cynicism about the acceptance of blacks in main stream culture causes Barack to reflect as to just what the black man’s place is in white America. Ray’s position picked up from his former life in Los Angeles was that blacks would always be outsiders.
Although as he grew older Barack had to bear occasional racial slurs his family had mainly shielded him from the racial prejudice which was minimal in Hawaii.
However in his teens he noticed that blacks were excluded or not fully welcome at white social events and that his white friends were uncomfortable at the black parties that Ray took Barack and his friends to at Schofield Barracks. The more mature Ray told him that most white chicks would not date him and it would be the same for Barack.
Barack, being who he is, went to the library and checked out books by Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright and Dubois and read their writings on the subject of race in America to corroborate Ray’s nightmare vision of black life in America. These thoughtful writers painted a dismal picture of the opportunities for blacks. Then he met a man named Malik who was a lapsed member of the Nation of Islam and a believer in the philosophy of Malcolm X whose book Barack had read. While discussing Malcolm X’s book with Malik another man joined in and said that Malcolm tells it like it is but he is not ready to leave the U.S. for Africa or the desert. Ray laughs and Barack admonishes him “What are you laughing about you never read Malcolm X.” Ray retorts “I don’t need a book to tell me how to be black.”
Then he was deeply wounded when his grandmother Toot asked Stanley for a ride to work since a man was pestering her for money at the bus stop. Stanley was angry and Barack offered to drive her instead. However Stanley was not angry about driving her but because she afraid because the man was black. Stanley saw the pained look in Barack’s eyes and said I am sorry I told you and then drove his wife to work. However the hurt remained.
Later Barack discussed this with Frank, an aging black poet, one of Stanley’s friends. Frank said Stanley is a good man but he will never know me because he has not lived the black experience. He also said that both Stanley is right and Toot is right to be afraid because she is aware to some degree that blacks have a lot of reasons to hate whites.
Barack says he realizes for the first time that he was utterly alone in life.
(Young Barack may have placed too much significance on Madelyn’s reaction to the bus stop incident. Any woman who was aggressively badgered by a homeless man for money be he white or black would be reluctant to go back to the bus stop the next morning.
Why he feels “utterly alone in the world “ one can only guess. His formative years were spent with his white grandparents and his white mother. His father was absent. His self worth and values were obtained from them and not from society in general or as he grew older from his black “friends”. So while he became aware of racial prejudice and its injustices as he grew older it was not a decisive factor in his development just a tertiary one but perhaps a prime motivator.
One has to speculate that if Barack had the ability to pass for white and didn’t believe his options were circumscribed would he still have accepted the challenge to go into politics and run for president or would he have joined a law firm and led a middle class life not making a major difference in our culture.)