Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part Two: Chicago, Chapter Twelve. Overcoming The Culture Of Defeatism.
It looked like Barack’s hard work in the Altgeld area was beginning to pay off. He had managed to overcome the cynicism and dispirited attitude of the local residents that nothing was ever going to change. This feeling of hopelessness had prevented the locals from supporting his rallies or showing up at his meetings.
However when people found out that Altgeld Gardens management was going to remove the asbestos in the management areas the residents became alarmed about the possibility of it also being in their their living areas. This problem became a catalyst for his organizing efforts and the people went to the Chicago Housing Authority and demanded that their living areas be inspected and if asbestos was present it be removed. At first they were stone walled by the Authority however sufficient people became involved that it got media attention.
Also Barack’s success in getting a jobs center established in the Altgeld gave heart to the people. Now their belief’s changed. Before they did not believe change was possible and Barack showed them if they acted together and asserted their right to safe, clean and functioning housing, it was possible to achieve change.
The necessary environmental surveys were done. Their consolidated demand for the maintenance that had been back logged for years was taken seriously. The politicians and CHA went to the Federal Government and received a grant as a result of the community’s demands and activism.
Unwed mothers gained hope that they could change their lives. Those who had dropped out of school went back to get their diploma’s or studied to take the high school equivalency test.
The aura of defeatism that had prevailed before, that there was nothing they could do to change conditions, began to lift and the spirit of the whole community began to change. The local Protestant churches announced the time and place of meetings and people showed up and were enthusiastic and aggressive about supporting petitions for better community services.
Their initial successes were cause for celebration and a real community spirit begin to form,.
Then the news came down that the Federal government would provide funds for the backlog of outstanding maintenance requests or asbestos removal but they didn’t have funds for both.
This disheartened some of his best community leaders and they decided to drop out of the activities that demanded change. One leader Bernadette and her husband decided to stop participating saying nothing is ever going to change here and the best we can do is move away as soon as possible. The communities feeling of powerlessness began to prevail. It appeared overcoming the culture of hopelessness and defeatism would take more than a few brief successes.
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part Two: Chicago, Chapter Eleven; Auma and Father.
Dr. Auma Obama
Auma his sister came to see him. She was studying in Germany for her master’s degree in linguistics and she came to Chicago to know Barack, a half brother she had never met. She was an intelligent woman. However she dispelled some myths he had in his head about his father probably planted by his mother.
Auma told him that Barack Sr. came back to Kenya with his masters from Harvard in Economics with high hopes of being an important administrator in the post colonial government. The two major tribes in Kenya were the Kikuyu and the Luo . The Luo was the smaller and less powerful politically of the two. (Tom Mboya was a powerful Luo in the government and in the beginning Barack Sr.’s mentor and protector. However he was assassinated by a Kikuyu gunman.) Jomo Kenyatta was the President and a Kikuyu. Barack Sr. had a job in the administration, however, he was passed over for more important jobs in favor of Kikuyu administrators.
Barack Sr. believed that the government should rise above tribalism and that favoritism based on tribal origins was wrong and inhibited Kenya as a country. He didn’t care who heard his criticisms and they got to Jomo Kenyatta, who called him in and warned him to be quiet. Barack Sr., who was also a heavy drinker, failed to take heed and he was dismissed from the government and prevented from working in the private sector also. Auma related that these were bad years for the family. Ruth, the wife he met at Harvard, left with her two children and Auma and her brother stayed with Barack Sr. However they had to live off the kindness of relatives and often did not have their own house.
During this time Barack Sr. had a serious auto accident and it took him nearly a year to recover. After he was released from the hospital he went to Hawaii for a visit with Barack Jr.
After he returned home Kenyatta died and Barack Sr. was able to get a low level job in the Water Department. ( A drastic come down for a man of his intellect and ambition.) His constitution was weakened by the auto accident (and several bouts with malaria). Barack Sr. was a severely disillusioned man and his dreams of rising to the top of the first native generation to lead Kenya after the British left were dashed. He continued to drink heavily and ultimately died a premature death a disheartened and failed man.
Barack is stunned by this information about his father who he had placed on a pedestal before this.
He begins to have a premonition that the fate of his father as a black African and the problems that prevented him from fulfilling his hopes and ambitions may be also his fate as a black American.
Auma leaves with the admonition that they should both return for a visit to their father’s grave in the Luo home village to see him lying peacefully with his ancestors. She also leaves him with the haunting thought that the black man’s true self might be found wanting. A myth that probably haunted his father living in post colonial Kenya where the British had taught generations of natives that they were not able or ready to govern themselves.
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part Two: Chicago, Chapter Ten. Self Esteem.
In 1987 and ‘88 Barack continues his organizing work as winter in Chicago sets in. For him it is a lonely existence as he has not established relationships or friendships with people his own age. He is still working through his search for identity and the black place in America.
He conducts his interviews to find out what things the community needs to better itself. While talking to the interviewees he also learns of their hopes and despairs, triumphs and failures, like the black mother who raises a son to graduate from Yale Law School only for him to become a victim of schizophrenia, who now spent his days alone in a room reading newspapers. Another man saw his father’s business schemes turn to dust and for him to turn to alcohol and gambling as a way of life.
In Chicago he encounters the philosophy of Black Nationalism as espoused by the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan. Also he learns of conventional Islam as followed by Rafiq al Shabazz the other community organizer he encountered at Altgeld Gardens and other Afro centric philosophies. He determines the motivating force behind most is hatred of the white man as the cause of all the problems of the blacks in America.
Rafiq while hating the whites also loathes the blacks as unreliable. Barack sees self loathing as a common thread in black culture. He sees that from Rafiq to Malcolm X and even further back blacks have been handicapped by self loathing as a result of being stripped of their culture and identity and bound in slavery. Many slaves did not know their birth date or fathers names and were deprived of knowledge of their history and even the ability to read and write. After freedom was granted they had few skills or assets with which to develop and were systematically excluded from voting, the professions and business. Thus this inability to adapt to a free society inflicted from without led to a conscious or subconscious lack of self esteem and self loathing which further inhibited the development of blacks which continues into the present.
Barack sees that a basic problem of black life is a lack of self esteem and hatred of the whites. Also the race baiting of the Korean market owners or the Jewish landlords was not the way to overcome this problem. Motivation driven by hatred was self defeating.
Harold Washington had become Mayor of Chicago, not by mobilizing the black vote by hatred but by campaigning on a coalition of whites and blacks who were faced with the same economic problems in a Chicago hard hit by the social and economic problems caused by the loss of its manufacturing base.
One day he noticed a volunteer named Ruby wearing blue contact lenses and asks why. She gives him a weak answer saying they were “just contacts. The company I work for makes them.” However Barack sees a deeper meaning and wonders if Ruby could love herself for who she was. He takes her to a show of black woman celebrating their black womanhood and Ruby, with tears in her eyes, thanks him.
He has given her self esteem a boost.
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part One: Origins, Chapter Nine. Motivation.
BARACK”S MOTIVATION: ALTGELD GARDENS
After the debacle of his first community meeting Barack was determined to carry on and succeed. However the vast housing wasteland that was the far south side of Chicago was daunting.
He considers possible improvements for the two thousand unit Altgeld Gardens made up of two story buildings run by the Chicago Housing Authority, a patronage trough, poorly maintained and used as a dumping ground for welfare recipients who were mostly black. Altgeld was not as bad as the high rise complexes like Cabrini Greens, Robert S. Taylor and others but it was getting there.
Once high wage factory workers had lived there but they had gone with the manufacturing base. Now Altgeld was surrounded by the polluted Calumet River, a mile long waste treatment plant camouflaged by an earthen berm dotted with dying saplings, and the residue of the waste left by a century of industrial activity. In the Gardens the air was thick with a stench from the river and the treatment plant and no green areas or flowers were to be seen. A child could grow up there without ever seeing a garden.
A meeting at a catholic church, Our Lady of The Gardens, located there was the reason for the visit. However the atmosphere of the Gardens caused him to feel as if he was the captain of a sinking ship. He realized his main source of support, the catholic churches, eight in all, across the South Side, were too few and too spread out to make much of a difference.
All except Father Will at St. Catherine’s were led by white men who were looking to be transferred as soon as a replacement could be found.
He was at the church to meet with Father Will, Angela, Shirley and Mona about what could be done to improve conditions at Altgeld. Perhaps a job bank would help those who had transferable skills.
However Angela, Mona and Shirley had felt betrayed when the administration of the $500,000 appropriated for job development was established by Marty at a University in the suburbs. This was probably to avoid any charges of mismanagement, but it meant no administrative jobs for them or in the area that needed jobs the most. They wanted to be leaders and not just “clients to be served.” They were threatening to quit. Barack looked out the window and saw some young boys playing a pickup basketball game and said what happens to them if you quit? Shirley, Angela and Mona thought over the ramifications of Barack’s question and decided to stay even though the possibility of being job bank administrators was gone.
They planned to go forward with a plan to establish a jobs office by organizing a meeting at St Catherine’s with Ms. Alvarez, a director of the Mayor’s office for Education and Training (MET).
Mary, another of Father Wills parishioners was also a volunteer. She was from a large Irish Catholic family in Indiana. She had been disinherited when she married a black man and located to St Catherine’s Parrish where they bought a house and had two daughters. Mary’s husband had left long ago and now she was raising her two racially mixed daughters by herself. She also taught elementary school at St. Catherine’s.
This time the group was able to assemble 100 people for the meeting in the Gardens and Ms Alvarez reluctantly showed up. Ms Alvarez also promised, after some equivocation, to have a MET intake center established within the next six months in the Gardens. Angela, Mona, Mary and Shirley were overjoyed by their success.
Before the meeting Mary had asked, “What motivates you to do this Barack? Father Will and myself have our faith but you don’t seem very religious. So, why Barack?” The question went unanswered because of an interruption. Later Barack, after some reflection about life in Indonesia where village life was being disrupted by industrialization or that same industrialization was destroying the habitat that supported life, told her “You know I don’t think our reasons are all that different.”
Barack leaves it open as to what he meant unless he actually was religious or perhaps a humanist, at least a pragmatic one.
Dreams From My Father, A Story Of Race And Inheritance. Barack Obama. Book Review. Part One: Origins, Chapter Eight. Realities.
When Barack arrived in Chicago Harold Washington had been elected as mayor and the spirits of the black community were running high in expectation of a larger share of the patronage and opportunities the mayor’s office had under its control. However a large number alderman were white and beholden to the political machine created by Richard Daley and the other white politicians that had gone before him.
Washington was a consensus builder and was aware that white votes as well of black votes put him into office. He wanted to be thought of as the Mayor not the Black Mayor. He governed the city with an even hand towards all groups. Obama took note of the fact that Washington was able to build a coalition of Whites and Blacks to further the interests they shared in common.
Marty Kaufman’s (Obama has changed the names of all but well known figures in this book.) plan was to work through the Catholic and Protestant churches to form a coalition to force the investment bankers, the politicians and the “fat cat lobbyists” to create the conditions to repair Chicago’s manufacturing base which was severely damaged when the steel mills shut down. To this end the legislature had appropriated $500,000.00 for a jobs development bank. Now all the communities on the Southside had to do was find jobs and put people back to meaningful work.
Marty was astute enough to know that a white organizer would not be accepted so the plan was for Obama’s to work through the black Christian pastors and ministers to determine the needs of the community and then try to organize to achieve those ends and thus gain influence and perhaps enlist a source of real power; the unions on their side.
He became friends with the pastor he calls Will of St Catherine’s church. St Catherine’s was a Catholic church but Will had never been ordained as a priest. The Cardinal and the Archdiocese accepted him and the fact that he wore a collar. Father Will mentored Obama on the vicissitudes of community relations.
Marty started Barack’s training by having interview people to learn what their needs and fears were. The older church going generation was fearful that their achievements in establishing economic stability and quiet neighborhoods was being lost on the younger generation of immigrants to Chicago while their own children had become educated and successful and moved to other areas of the city. Now the neighborhoods were starting to deteriorate and were beset by gangs and drugs.
He organized a mass meeting with the police commander as a speaker. The purpose was to petition the police to more effectively control the gangs and drugs. He enlisted the local pastors to announce the meeting on the Sunday before it was to take place and to urge their congregations to attend in order show a united front to the police that the citizens wanted something done; that maintaining a declining status quo was not enough. On the night of the meeting only thirteen people showed up and the police commander cancelled sending a human relations specialist instead.
Father Wills counseled him why the meeting failed and the reasons for the local pastors not getting behind Barack and making it a success. Most of the pastors were aware that they were more likely to get what they wanted through their alderman and ultimately the Mayor: the ultimate wielders of power in the city. While they were not oblivious to the problem of declining neighborhoods, drugs, gangs and the lack of jobs they thought they were more likely to solve these problems by petitioning their elected officials than community meetings with bureaucrats. Further each congregation had its own agenda of achieving their goal and their goals and methods were not all the same. Also many of the pastors were in competition with each other for more congregants and their votes to increase their political influence and the benefits to be obtained. So they were unlikely to work together or even send their congregants to be organized in a united front by an outsider whom they saw as the black representative of a white power group.
Barack begins to see that instilling a belief in individuals that uniting into community groups to change their own destiny from the ground up was a long and difficult road. Further there were other groups in the city with similar goals or which made similar promises and although these groups were splintered and inefficient they were seen as loyal to the black cause and had made some progress in the past.
Barack saw that community organizing was a heart breaking job with a low success score and that change was more likely to come from the top down even in a democracy.