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.)