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