Obama On . . . | Feature | Chicago Reader

Obama On . . . 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Excerpted from Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama copyright 1995 by Barack Obama. Reprinted by permission of Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

his Indonesian boyhood:

"It had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia's language, its customs, and its legends. I had survived chicken pox, measles, and the sting of my teachers' bamboo switches. The children of farmers, servants, and low-level bureaucrats had become my best friends, and together we ran the streets morning and night, hustling odd jobs, catching crickets, battling swift kites with razor-sharp lines. . . . I learned how to eat small green chili peppers raw . . . I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy) . . .

"That's how things were, one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy's life. In letters to my grandparents [in Hawaii], I would faithfully record many of these events. . . . But not everything made its way into my letters; some things I found too difficult to explain [such as] the face of the man who had come to our door one day with a gaping hole where his nose should have been. . . . Nor did I mention the time that one of my friends told me in the middle of recess that his baby brother had died the night before of an evil spirit brought in by the wind--the terror that danced in my friend's eyes for the briefest of moments before he let out a strange laugh and punched my arm and broke off into a breathless run. There was the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields . . .

"The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel. My grandparents knew nothing of such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them with questions they couldn't answer."

"multi-racial people" and integration's "one-way street":

"'I'm not black,' Joyce said. "I'm multiracial.' Then she started telling me about her father, who happened to be Italian and was the sweetest man in the world; and her mother, who happened to be part African and part French and part Native American and part something else. 'Why should I have to choose between them?' she asked me. . . . 'It's black people who always have to make everything racial. They're the ones making me choose. They're the ones who are telling me that I can't be who I am. . . .'

"They, they, they. That was the problem with people like Joyce. They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people. It wasn't a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around. Only white culture could be neutral and objective. Only white culture could be nonracial, willing to adopt the occasional exotic into its ranks. Only white culture had individuals. And we, the half-breeds and the college degreed, take a survey of the situation and think to ourselves, Why should we get lumped in with the losers if we don't have to?"

the self-segregation of black students on campus:

"There were enough of us on [Occidental College's] campus to constitute a tribe, and when it came to hanging out many of us chose to function like a tribe, staying close together, traveling in packs. . . . Our worries seemed indistinguishable from those of the white kids around us. Surviving classes. Finding a well-paying gig after graduation. Trying to get laid. I had stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets of black people: that most of us weren't interested in revolt; that most of us tired of thinking about race all the time; that if we preferred to keep to ourselves it was mainly because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about it, easier than spending all your time mad or trying to guess whatever it was white folks were thinking about you."

the fragility of a middle-class black neighborhood:

"On the strength of two incomes, they had paid off house notes and car notes, maybe college educations for the sons and daughters whose graduation pictures filled every mantelpiece. They had kept their homes up and kept their children off the streets; they had formed block clubs to make sure others did too.

"It was when they spoke of the future that a certain disquiet entered their voices. They would mention a cousin or a sibling who came by every so often asking for money; or an adult child, unemployed, who still lived at home. Even the success of those children who'd made it through college and into the white-collar world harbored within it an element of loss--the better these children did, the more likely they were to move away. In their place, younger, less stable families moved in, the second wave of migrants from poorer neighborhoods, newcomers who couldn't always afford to keep up with their mortgage payments or invest in periodic maintenance. Car thefts were up; the leafy parks were empty. People began to spend more time inside; they invested in elaborate wrought-iron doors; they wondered if they could afford to sell at a loss and retire to a warmer climate, perhaps move back to the South.

"So despite the deserved sense of accomplishment these men and women felt, despite the irrefutable evidence of their own progress, our conversations were marked by another, more ominous strain. The boarded-up homes, the decaying storefronts, the aging church rolls, kids from unknown families who swaggered down the streets--loud congregations of teenage boys, teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block--all of it whispered painful truths, told them the progress they'd found was ephemeral, rooted in thin soil; that it might not even last their lifetimes."

the concern with self-esteem among African-Americans:

"By the time I reached Chicago, the phrase self-esteem seemed to be on everybody's lips: activists, talk show hosts, educators, and sociologists. It was a handy catchall to describe our hurt, a sanitized way of talking about the things we'd been keeping to ourselves. But whenever I tried to pin down this idea of self-esteem, the specific qualities we hoped to inculcate, the specific means by which we might feel good about ourselves, the conversation always seemed to follow a path of infinite regress. Did you dislike yourself because of your color or because you couldn't read and couldn't get a job? Or perhaps it was because you were unloved as a child--only, were you unloved because you were too dark? Or too light? . . .

"What I doubted was that all the talk about self-esteem could serve as the centerpiece of an effective black politics. . . . Better to concentrate on the things we might all agree on. Give that black man some tangible skills and a job. Teach that black child reading and arithmetic in a safe, well-funded school. With the basics taken care of, each of us could search for our own sense of self-worth."

the appeal and limitations of black nationalism:

"Ever since the first time I'd picked up Malcolm X's autobiography, I had tried to untangle the twin strands of black nationalism, arguing that nationalism's affirming message--of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility--need not depend on hatred of whites any more than it depended on white munificence. . . . In talking to self-professed nationalists, . . . though, I came to see how the blanket indictment of everything white served a central function in their message of uplift; how, psychologically, at least, one depended on the other. For when the nationalist spoke of a reawakening of values as the only solution to black poverty, he was expressing an implicit, if not explicit, criticism to black listeners: that we did not have to live as we did . . .

"A steady attack on the white race, the constant recitation of black people's brutal experience in this country, served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair. Yes, the nationalist would say, whites are responsible for your sorry state, not any inherent flaws in you. In fact, whites are so heartless and devious that we can no longer expect anything from them. The self-loathing that you feel, what keeps you drinking or thieving, is planted by them. Rid them from your mind and find your true power liberated. Rise up, ye mighty race! . . .

"So long as nationalism remained a cathartic curse on the white race, it could win the applause of the jobless teenager listening on the radio or the businessman watching late-night TV. But the descent from such unifying fervor to the practical choices blacks confronted every day was steep. Compromises were everywhere. The black accountant asked: How am I going to open an account at the black-owned bank if it charges me extra for checking and won't even give me a business loan because it says it can't afford the risk? The black nurse said: White folks I work with ain't so bad, and even if they were, I can't be quitting my job--who's gonna pay my rent tomorrow or feed my children today?"

the rise of black race-baiting:

"Black politicians less gifted than Harold [Washington] discovered what white politicians had known for a very long time: that race-baiting could make up for a host of limitations. Younger leaders, eager to make a name for themselves, upped the ante, peddling conspiracy theories all over town--the Koreans were funding the Klan, Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus. It was a shortcut to fame, if not always fortune; like sex or violence on TV, black rage always found a ready market . . .

"What concerned me wasn't just the damage loose talk caused efforts at coalition building, or the emotional pain it caused others. It was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists . . . it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair."

the Legacy of Harold Washington:

"There was no political organization in place, no clearly defined principles to follow. The entire of black politics had centered on one man who radiated like a sun. Now that he was gone, no one could agree on what that presence had meant."

comparing the poverty of Altgeld Gardens with that of Indonesia:

"Everything about the Gardens seemed in a perpetual state of disrepair. Ceilings crumbled. Pipes burst. Toilets backed up. Muddy tire tracks branded the small, brown lawns strewn with empty flower planters--broken, tilted, half buried. The CHA maintenance crews had stopped even pretending that repairs would happen any time soon. So that most children in Altgeld grew up without ever having seen a garden . . .

"I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.

"It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made [people] so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars? Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue . . . "

first experiencing Africa:

"You could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it's supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway. You could see a man talking to himself as just plain crazy, or read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate. Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal."

practicing law and its limits:

"The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power--and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.

"But that's not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience. . . . I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the same questions that have come to shape my life. . . . What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? . . . I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately prevail."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Barack Obama

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Sherlock's Last Case First Folio Theatre
October 02
Galleries & Museums
October 23

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories