We celebrated the beginning of Passover with a seder dinner on Sunday with friends and another seder dinner on Monday evening with the congregation of the Chabad synogogue and the Rabbi, the Rebbetsin, and their three young children at the Chabad community center. Both dinners were studies in orchestrated disorder. With our friends, we read an abbreviated Haggadah. The service was interrupted by comings and goings at the table, reminiscences, astonishment at how much the young girls of one family had grown in a year, the good luck of the wife of another family in her struggle with an inherited degenerative disease, and pleasure that we all were together again. The fourteenth birthday of one of the girls was celebrated at the end of the meal, leaving all with satisfaction that the next year would be happy for all of us. The Chabad seder was barely an abbreviated service that lasted four hours, with each of the courses of the feast and glasses of wine at their appointed textual intervals. The Rabbi says that at least half of the families in the congregation of several hundred are mixed marriages. Chabad is conservatively orthodox, but happily embraces interfaith families in its mission of Jewish revivalism. My wife whispered to me, it's alright to think of the mass at this moment. And I had indeed pondered the Jewish teacher who founded the Christianity in which I was raised, before returning to the Hebrew prayers that he too heard many times.The Rabbi much enjoys the conviviality of the mealtime service. He and the Rebbetsin drew on family memories to consecrate the occasion. As we progressed through the meal, some of the children became restive. By the time the main course of poached chicken and potato kugel arrived, the children had left their tables and were playing in the quite limited space between them. As the Rabbi explained each stage of the service, the relationship of the prayers to the food, wine, and ritual, laying out the orderly rehearsal of Jewish gratitude to God, the children formed a conga line, playing choo-choo train, or raced to the entry hall, or interrupted their parents or parents' friends; or anyone, actually, who would adore them, as we all did. Halfway through the main course, I noticed motion near me on the floor out of the corner of my eye . For a half-instant, I though someone had brought a small dog to the room; then I realized it was Rabbi's four year old boy, crawling on all fours under the tables, chairs, playing some happy game, parting the forest of legs under the mantle of prayer. My wife and I independently wondered how such young children, who have never seen a train drawn by a steam locomotive, came to play choo-choo train, making the steam engine's iconic sound.
A cold front slowly entered Southern California over the past two days. It appeared at the coast Thursday about the time Sarah Palin revived the Republican Party in the vice presidential candidates debate. In the next twenty-four hours, it swept out the stale, stagnant atmosphere of the sprawling geographical basin with fresh, clean air. The daytime temperature dropped twenty degrees. At night, we slept under blankets comfortably for the first time in months. I prepared our Friday evening, Sabbath, dinner. Our table is now larger. My wife's nephew, twenty-three years old, came to live with us three weeks ago. And, weekly, we have a young woman friend join us at dinner. She is eighteen, vibrant with life and its opportunities, and beautiful. For this evening, her boy friend, who is in the Navy, a Seabee, accompanied her. For my wife and me, it is wonderful to have young people at our table, our own children grown up and living away in New York and Seattle.
The turn to Fall struck deep emotional chords in me, evoking childhood memories of New England, where I grew up. Autumn was the practical beginning of the year, when the school term began, my father prepared for the winter logging season in the woods, and my mother began pickling and canning the harvest. The change in weather coincides with the Jewish New Year. We had several days of celebration of the holiday this week, one afternoon with a friend and her family in her home, the next evening in the synagogue. My wife went to service on Tuesday to hear the blowing of the ram's horn.
I decided to make a rustic, harvest meal. I checked the Crockpot cookbook for some ideas, then decided on a roasted turkey medley. I picked up some fruit and vegetables and turkey breast meat at Von's. For dessert, I bought a chocolate layer cake with chocolate frosting, whipped cream frosting, and strawberries. I stored that in the refrigerator. I soaked the clay cooker. I seared large chunks of turkey in olive oil in a cast iron fry pan. Then I filled the clay pot with the turkey, and large cuts of apples, carrots, bananas, dates, olives, and red potatoes. I didn't spice them, wanting instead the robust flavors of the foods. Though the cooker goes into the oven, I suppose the cooking method is steaming, since the clay pot is covered, rather than roasting. I wasn't sure of the timing for all these ingredients, but hoped for the best. I also cooked, following a Southern recipe, white beans to accompany the meal. The aromas of the cooking food floated through our home like a happy song. When the meal was ready, I tapped out a scale on the dinner chime to call everyone to the table.
We stood at our chairs. My wife lighted the Sabbath candles and recited in Hebrew a prayer. Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam ... familiar phrases that entered the Christian liturgy, being translated to Latin, then English, and eventually filling the little Episcopal church I attended as a child. I spoke a blessing, asking for protection for the young Seabee, who deploys in Iraq in the Spring. My family liked the meal and appreciated the occasion. They agreed it was rustic; but they were confused by the steamed bananas and dates in the mix. Well, my wife explained, it's an international, rustic, harvest dinner! I had thought the fruit were at least in the spirit of an English stew or pudding, which might have figs and prunes. No one believed I cooked the cake, but everyone ate it enthusiastically.
Today, the sky carries more gray clouds and smells like rain. The sun appeared briefly in the morning, but was succeeded by a formation of darker, but not ominous, clouds. My wife told me again what a wonderful meal I prepared last night. It was a joyous evening. Perhaps it is raining in the mountains, maybe in Big Bear. I wrote a check to the McCain-Palin campaign and mailed it. I am simultaneously lifted and subdued by my gratefulness.
I don't take any pleasure in the exposure of Edwards' infidelity; I simply feel sad for the pain his family must have felt, when they first learned of it, and the pain they feel now in its public exposure--pain that is added to the private suffering of his wife's struggle with cancer. It takes a special kind of ego to be a politician. It does not take a special kind of ego to be unfaithful to one's spouse and family; infidelity is as common as mud, as sin; nothing special about it.
A CDC study based on 12,000 interviews, taken in 2002-2003, show that men adopt at a rate twice that of women. The reason is that men, who marry women with children, who are living with their mothers, sometimes adopt their new wives' children. This is quite remarkable, I think. The fact speaks volumes about the desire of men to form families, even to the extent of taking legal, as well as financial, responsibility, for children of other men.
I happened coincidently to be reading, over the past several days, Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, when I read Juan William's disheartened recitation of the familiar facts about the disintegration of American family life, especially the Latino and black families. As Williams' Wall Street Journal article today, "The Tragedy of America's Disappearing Fathers," says, of special concern to him, over 70% of black children are born out of wedlock. The absence of the father in the mother-headed household has devastated, especially, the psychological and social development of black boys and young men. The social chaos of boys deprived of the disciplined guidance of loving fathers is in evidence all around us.
As readers of this blog are aware, the disarray of the black family, society, and culture is a major theme of my conservative social concerns about America. Living in a middle-class African American neighborhood, knowing my neighbors, where most households have the two biological parents and the father is strong, employed (or now retired), and caring, I can observe the positive effects of the intact black family with middle class economic status. Children graduate from college and enter the work force. Teaching is popular among the women and young men often enter the military or private business. They grow up avoiding crime. The families are nodes of extensive kin networks, some of the families present in Sprawling Suburb for three generations. There is race pride of course, but there is, more, family pride.
Fishkoff portrays the incredibly successful Chabad-Lubavitch movement in America in the last half of the twentieth century. The movement is a Jewish revival movement, historically led by charismatic, learned, spiritual Rebbes. Young members of this fundamentalist Hasidic movement, after some years of education and training, venture out on missions across the world to bring lapsed Jews back to appreciation and observance of strict Orthodox Judaism. The movement originated in Russia and came to America in the second great Jewish diaspora. It is built on two powerful foundations, the Orthodox Jewish family, which is paternalistic, and the Rebbe, to whom each member has a personal spiritual connection.
The fruit of these foundations is that the young Hasidic missionaries have tremendous self-confidence and faith in their mission. Often they are the only open Jews in the communities where they are sent by the movement. They are supported by the central movement only for a year; after that, they have to support their missionary work themselves through donations raised as they bring Jews back to Judaism. They endure poverty, grueling hours of selfless dedication to their cause, and everywhere meet great success. Combined with their spiritual outreach, the members of the faith do not practice birth control, so their families grow regularly, providing no respite from the 24/7 demands on their lives.
Jews raised in secular households with little knowledge of Judaism, beyond Passover, come into the new synagogues and community centers to re-establish the roots of their being. We are friends with our local Chabad Rabbi, his wife, and family. My wife, who is a typical Jew brought back to Judaism, is an active member of the congregation. The Rabbi and his wife, the Rabbetsin, perfectly exemplify the personal inner strength and resolve of the revived Jewish tradition and strong family structure. I have watched the Rabbi bring his new born son to Shabbat services in the living room of his rented, sparsely furnished, house, holding him as he sings the Hebrew prayers and recites and explains the meaning of the observances about which the beginner audience is unaware. The women sit in the living room separated from the men by a divider. They will occasionally get up and help the Rebbetsin with her chores of preparing the Sabbath eve meal, then return to the service. In the beginning there were perhaps a half dozen young families at the services, with babies or infants to be held and fed. Now, the Rabbi has had to rent new quarters to house the fifty or so families that regular attend and support the synagogue. All of this social development is drenched in the power of family love, the loving and caring father working, at historically ordained tasks, along side his equally dedicated and loving wife, and the love of Judaism, with its message of a loving God who cares about the Jews, mediated through the spiritual illumination of the Rebbe in Brooklyn.
To this humanity reaffirming vision, Juan Williams' article contrasts, nearly in despair, the sociological facts of the disintegration of the black family over the past sixty years. Young black men and women are drenched, not in spiritual uplift, but by the ugliest gangster culture America has seen, where violence and ill-gotten wealth of a few pop media and sports stars, with their displayed bling, are idolized and women are sexually exploited, used, abused, and discarded by men who feel used, abused, and discarded by their own social institutions.
Black society looks something like the physical destruction of German and Japanese cities; but, in this case, it is not the firepower of white European and American armies that caused the damage, but the complete collapse of bourgeois values in black majority culture. It was the "black power" movement of the 1960s that encouraged--demanded--that blacks abandon their "mainstream" values, which the burgeoning middle class had adopted in imitation of the white middle class, and endorse black power collectivist themes--black nationalism, victimhood and empowerment narratives, racist politics, and, for a minority of blacks, the Nation of Islam. It was a disasterous choice, which must be laid completely at the feet of the black sponsors of black power and their radical white supporters. It was the death of nearly all that was of worth in black society.
The contrast between the success of the family-based and religion-based Hasidic movement and the existential failure of black society is the contrast between spiritual illumination and materialistic philosophy, between God and Marx. Some of us had initially great hope that Barack Obama would provide the leadership to lead the African American people back to the truth about themselves and authentic faith in themselves, away from the demagoguery of racist separatists and class-warfare Marxists like Reverend Wright. It remains an open question whether Obama has the personal strength to go to the black community and ask them to return to the middle class bourgeois values, still cultivated by the small, surviving black middle class and its intact families. He spent two decades immersed in this hateful, black liberationist, abomination of Christianity; he might truly not believe in bourgeois values. So far in this campaign, it appears that, though he is a gifted politician, he has not figured out how to provide this leadership, if he wants to do so. Perhaps he is afraid of alienating some of his enthusiastic support among black voters; but authentic courage is, in recognizing the need, to take the risk and see the project through. There is a real possibility that Obama will be president. If he could accomplish one thing as president, I would ask him to accomplish the revival of black bourgeois values, reconstitution of the black family, reinstatement of values such as the worth of monogamy and having children within marriage, and the importance of the father in the home, loving and caring for his children.
A recent CDC survey has discovered that 1 in 4 US teens, aged 14 to 19, is infected with a sexually transmitted disease, HPV being the most common (others being chlamydia, genital herpes, and trichomoniasis). Alarmingly, "nearly half of the blacks ... were infected with at least one of the diseases monitored in the study." Among white and Hispanic teens, infection was at less than 20 percent. (Lawrence K. Altman, New York Times News Service, "Teen sex study 'alarming'," published in The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, California, Wednesday, March 12, 2008, A1. )
The infection rate among blacks is further evidence of the collapse of African American social structure, its families, its class structure, its values, its religion. The infection statistics need to be lined up with:
the percent of blacks born out of wedlock,
one-third of abortions are to black women,
the percent of black children raised without their father present,
the percent of black men in jail or prison or otherwise having been through the justice system,
the rate of illegal drug use,
the prevalence of black on black crime,
the ubiquity of black gangs in poor black neighborhoods,
the unemployment rate among black youth,
attitudes of anti-learning, anti-education, and anti-intellectualism
the low rates of black college attendance,
fascination with instant celebrity and wealth that denigrates the slow, intergenerational progress of hard work, savings, and investment
the rate of black poverty,
the rate of dependency on welfare and kin networks,
the low rates of attendance in black churches by black men,
Pre-teen and teen girls' emulation of the fashion and manners of sexually promiscuous images of women in music and video, and
the violent, crime-worshiping, anti-mainstream, racist, sexist, misogynist, popular black hip-hop and rap culture ("mutha-fucka, mutha-fucka, mutha-fucka, mutha-fucka ..." boom the hopped-up cd players in cars that speed around our integrated neighborhood).
That only about 25% of black households are two-parent married families in the middle class is the source of the problem.
The MSM are spinning the STD survey results as a story of the lack of adequate sexual education. Nonsense. It's not inadequate education; it's inadequate values. Children should not be having sex, not with adults, not with other children. They shouldn't be giving each other oral sex or other forms of advanced petting or having intercourse.
The problem is a generation of governmental policies based on a Left-Libertarian ideology that undermined the black family, undermined black ownership of private property, undermined lower class black respect for middle-class black achievement, promoted black nationalism that undermined integration, promoted permissiveness, excused all failures of blacks and the black community as the result of white racism and white racist "oppression," and validated the anti-family, anti-education, anti-business, anti-private property, anti-intellectual, violent popular culture of the most alienated, twisted segment of the black ghetto.
Only a radical change in values in the black community can save it. A change in governmental policies and ideology toward conservatism can help, but it is up to African Americans themselves, and no one else, to heal their situation.
Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father (1995), is generally classified, judging from Border's shelf placement, as racial literature. (See my synopsis of the work.) Such classification confines the work to a narrow, if feted, category; but it denies the work its full current interest. Obama has been described as a "post-racial" politician; his autobiography might also be described as post-racial. Most classical, American black authored racial literature has been about black men and women dealing with and entering a white world--Frederick Douglass, Narrative and Life and Times, Richard Wright, Native Son, Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Obama's story is about a man of amorphous race dealing with and entering the black world.
Obama believed himself to be unique in his situation--light skinned, indoctrinated by his mother when of school age to identify himself as black, seeking over his life to establish his authenticity as a black man. But surely he is not, was not, unique in his racial heritages or his situation. Since the 1970s, the US has seen large immigrations of brown-skin peoples from Asia and Latin America. Assimilation of these groups--Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Mexican and other Latin American groups--has produced many tens of thousands of interracial marriages and children of, perhaps we should call it, fusion race.
In the section of the country where I live and where Obama attended college for two years, Southern California, the traditional white population has shrunk to a minority. Having taught at a university for this entire generation, I saw the fruits of this racial and cultural transformation. Interracial dating (usually with white men dating non-white women, as is often the case with first generation assimilation) was common. It was also visible in the campus faculty, as self-conscious diversity recruiting developed. One new woman faculty member in the 1990s was white in skin-color, but identified herself, and was presented by the University, as black. Her effort to establish authenticity as a black woman was parallel to Obama's story. As new communities sprang up in the interior valley communities, such as the Moreno Valley and Rancho Cucamonga, interracial marriages were also common. My wife and I often went to movie theaters in the Moreno Valley, where, beginning in the 1980s, we always met new black-white married couples also attending the movies. No doubt, in the angst of adolescence, some of their children also felt racially between-races; Barack Obama would have had plenty of company as a fusion-race.
Lack of historical perspective is not perhaps unusual for an autobiography; but lack of perspective makes the themes of the autobiography more self-important and dramatic than his situation or story warranted. Let us look at the background of some of the themes.
Social Division--All societies are divided vertically (stratified) and horizontally (segregated). Divisions are created by all the familiar qualities of humanity--class, race, gender, age, intelligence and merit, luck, and many others. The qualities that create these divisions are, as social scientists have told us for several generations, social-cultural constructions. In the US, for several hundred years, mulattos were considered black; today, mulattos might be considered black or not. In Brazil, one of the last countries of the Americas to abolish slavery, mulattos were common and not categorized as blacks. Class identification is notoriously amenable to social distortion. Even age is a fluid category, as better health has made "fifty the new forty" and "sixty the new fifty". Obama thought he was confronted with a fact of racial color and racial treatment; but there were no such "facts". Rather, young Barack Obama sought to construct situations that would lead others to identify him as black and to invite racial treatment--he sought acceptance in black communities, he worked in a confrontational occupation.
Historical--In the autobiography, Obama strives to magnify the racial segregation and discrimination and suppression of the African American people at the time of his parents' marriage and his birth. His first chapters sketch a social world in which African Americans were still kept down and out. In one passage, he says, "How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in bondage?" Bondage? Black Americans were not in bondage after passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1868 (and not all black Americans had been in bondage before the Civil War, as a matter of historical fact). Elsewhere, he writes, "In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way." Strung up, i.e., lynched? Lynching was uncommon after 1945 and declined dramatically in the 1950s after President Eisenhower sent US troops into the South to enforce Brown v. Board of Education. That is not to deny that awful racial violence occasionally occurred (and still does), but the nation had clearly turned a corner in its history, which Obama does not acknowledge. What Obama is doing in these passages is trying to appropriate black cultural memory as one path to assimilation in the black community. Obama's parents' marriage and their production of Barack Obama Jr. was representative of one of the greatest social transformations of American history, the breakdown of legal segregation, the weakening of social discrimination, the opening of opportunity for social, economic, and geographical mobility for African Americans (and other nonwhite peoples).
Obama was the beneficiary of this great social transformation, though "affirmative action" merits only one mention in his autobiography, that I found. He does not deny, however, that at all points of his educational and business career, his opportunities were multiplied due to social desire by whites in power who wished to accelerate black advancement, beyond what his quite obvious high intelligence and great abilities deserved and would yield.
His quest for membership in the black community was also part of, and benefited from, the black nationalism and black power movements. Great efforts were made by black leaders to call African Americans into a single black community, where their social and political power would be magnified. At the end of his autobiography, he tells of joining the black nationalist church of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, signaling his final absorption in a defiantly black community.
Existential--There are different genres of autobiography. For successful men, the most common is "triumph of the will" (I started at the bottom, I had a dream, I faced obstacles, I was alone, I triumphed). For women, a common theme is "coming out" (I was buried in the home, a timid person, I had a dream of living in the world on my own, I came out, I faced obstacles, I had help from friends, I succeeded). Obama's biography is somewhat different. He sees his story as one of self-identification and transcendence. He was trying to figure out who he is. He succeeded through a complicated contradictory maneuver. As he went into the black community and was absorbed by it, thereby completing his self-identification as a black man, he simultaneously transcended that community. He transcended the conflicting black and white communities through expression of hope for unification of both while maintenance of the identity of both.
In other words, he took the path of diversity as ideologically laid out in diversity theory from the 1970s and later social theorists. Diversity should be celebrated, with each (racial, ethnic, language, heritage, gender, age, etc.) group feeling positive about its characteristics and qualities; at the same time, conflict is minimized between them, because each should recognize the positive qualities of all others. American schools became the primary practitioners of diversity education, with each group getting its recognition. Diversity politics was supposed to be the opposite of idea behind black nationalism. Black nationalism sought promotion of black power and pride, but built community and identification on hatred and resentment ("negative reference social group formation", as the sociologists say). Diversity politics trumped black nationalism by building community on respect, not hatred, for the "other".
In conclusion, Barack Obama was not, is not, unique. He is a product of America's great social transformation of the last generation. His autobiography exaggerates the specialness of his circumstances, the distance he traveled on his journey, the depths of racism and black repression from which he rose. These exaggerations are, I suspect, the man's political ambitions seeping into his recollections. They are, perhaps, just kind of misunderstandings of himself and his times that we should expect from his self-realization as a messianic leader, who hopes to bring America along a path that he believes it has not taken and that he thinks he pioneered.
Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), is Barack's account of his discovery of himself in the midst of his discovery of his American and African heritages. "Discovery" is, however, a misleading term, autobiographically, factually, and interpretively. His racial identity and his racial heritages were not objective facts waiting for discovery, like continents hidden over the horizon waiting for explorers to bump into them or unknown planets and stars waiting for the astronomer's telescope to focus upon their coordinates in the sky. As Dreams From My Father implicitly shows, black identity and black African heritage were choices made by the young man; he could have chosen to be other.
How much did Barack Obama understand that he was inventing himself through decisions and actions? It is some of the charm and literary suspense in the autobiography not to know how self-conscious Barack was as he constructed his self-consciousness. Looking back at the events of which he writes, he brings considerable self-consciousness to understanding his journey, but this self-consciousness is subtly inflected with political self-awareness. The outcome of Barack's story, written before he entered politics, is his realization that he is a messianic savior, nearly in the religious sense, with a message and a mission.
Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white American mother, Ann Dunham, and a black Kenyan student whom she met at the University of Hawaii, Barack Obama, Sr. Both parents had more important personal quests than maintaining a family and raising a child. Barack Sr. was given the opportunity to attend the School for Social Research in New York City on a full fellowship, which would have supported his family in that city, or Harvard University Graduate School, which offered only tuition, which would not pay to bring his family to Massachusetts. Barack Sr. chose Harvard, leaving his family behind. Ann divorced Barack Sr.
After obtaining his Ph.D. at Harvard, Barack Sr. returned to Kenya and pursued a career in government. After marrying several wives (in polygamy) and siring additional children, his public career collapsed. He turned to drink. In 1982, he died in an automobile accident, perhaps due to drunk driving. After he left his first marital family, Barack Sr. saw his son, Barack, Jr., only once, during a one-month visit when his son was ten years old.
Barack's mother, Ann married another foreign student in Hawaii, Lolo Soetoro, from Indonesia. Change in government in Indonesia required Lolo to return home. A year or so later, in 1967, Ann followed with Barack, Jr. in tow. They made their home outside Jakarta until he was ten. Lolo and Ann were unable to afford a private school in Indonesia. Barack attended public school (two years a Muslim school and two years a Catholic school), with supplemental home schooling from his mother. Concerned that he was not developing his potential, she sent him back to Hawaii after enrolling him in a private school in Honolulu. A year later, Ann left Lolo and also returned to Hawaii. He lived with her and his sister (by Lolo), until his mother returned to Indonesia to do field research for a Ph.D. in anthropology; then he lived with her parents until he graduated from the preparatory secondary school and went to Occidental College in 1979.
During his years of secondary school, Barack entered adolescence. His coming of age produced an identity crisis. Who and what was he? His mother had made the identification for him. He was black. While in Indonesia, she began a campaign of entreaty and education. The black people were noble. "To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear." (P. 51.) Prior to his mother's education, he had not observed that his father was black and his mother was white. "That my father looked nothing like the people around me--that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk--barely registered in my mind." (P.10.)
There were several problems with his maternally imposed racial identity. First, when he returned to Hawaii, in Hawaii's multiracial and casual society, no one paid much attention to Barack. He was not identified as of any particular race. Second, he had no black parent for a model and guide. His father was not present. Though Barack had some exchange of correspondence with his father, it did not provide the clues he needed to grow up black.
In a word, as a result of his racial amorphousness, Barack felt inauthentic as a black man. The main theme of the autobiography is his effort to find authenticity as a black man. Barack discovers unresolvable conflict in every situation and relationship into which he moves from adolescence to adulthood, from school to career. In the end, he never finds authenticity as a black man. How he deals with this failure and resolves the conflicts in his life creates the Messianic political leader we see running for president this year.
At Occidental College and Columbia University, he gravitated toward other black students. He learned about black nationalism. He was particularly attracted to Malcolm X, though he did not become a member of the Nation of Islam. He became a reluctant radical--reluctant, because he was not sufficiently confident of his own identity to take a strong leadership role. He was continually torn between two worlds, the disadvantaged black community, to which he believed intellectually he should belong, and the white world of business, money, and power. He thought that, if he would be accepted in a black community, his black identity would be established; yet, he was pulled to the white world, because he was bright and academically successful. Schools and businesses called him out, as the nation embraced affirmative action. After college, he worked briefly in a large business corporation in New York City; then he became a community organizer in south Chicago.
The search for authenticity in the midst of conflicting choices led Obama to see the world, almost in a Platonic sense, as dual. There is the false world of shadows and the real world behind them. The shadow world includes black nationalism and black power. In college, radical black politics is simply so much play-acting that affects nothing real--is even amusing to those persons with real power. Out in the working world, trying to organize black communities to better themselves, he came to include mainstream politics, which he experiences in the Chicago mayoralty of Harold Washington, as play-acting. When black politicians get into power, they do not change anything fundamental about the distribution of power, capital, and opportunity. The lives of poor blacks, in the communities he tries to organize, are just as impoverished and desperate under a black mayor as under white mayors. Needless to say, Barack Obama was discouraged.
Unable to find his black identity in America, Barack traveled to Kenya, seeking to learn more about his deceased father and his black African heritage. Though he has met several of his half-siblings, it is only in Kenya that he encounters the full, sprawling, genealogical and family disorder that his father created through polygamy. He met his father's widows, several of whom are white. He meets many relatives. He meets his father's sister and one of his grandparents. From these relatives, he was able to construct a family narrative from his African grandfather's life in the British colony, through the second world war, to Barack Sr.'s colorful and dramatic life.
Though he enjoyed being in a black society, where his blackness was normal, his discovery of his family led only to further conflict. He discovered that in Kenya, black racial identity was less important than tribal identity. And he discovered that his family, so called, was an indefinite network of relatives.
"What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?
I could list the various possibilities. But I'd never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love as constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances ... Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to a face or a name but were actually commitments I'd made to myself.
In Africa, this astronomy of mine almost immediately collapsed. For family seemed to be everywhere..." (Pp. 327-328.)
"If everyone was family, then no one is family.... I'd come to Kenya thinking that I could somehow force my many worlds into a single, harmonious whole. Instead, the divisions seemed only to have become more multiplied, popping up in the midst of even the simplest chores." (P. 347.)
Faced with failure to establish an authentic identity, unable to resolve successfully the contrary pulls of apparently conflicting worlds, several paths opened for Barack Obama to follow. One path he explored early in his youth--alcohol and drugs. He was able to pull himself off this path, apparently during college. Another path disclosed itself furtively and slowly. He could transcend the conflicting worlds as a political leader. On several occasions, he glimpsed himself as an inspired messianic leader. At Occidental, he helped organize a divestiture rally. He was a lead speaker. He took the stage in a "trancelike state". (P. 106.) He had prepared notes for his brief talk; but in talking, he connected with the audience. He felt his words take hold of them and draw him on. When, years later, he decides to take up community organizing, he thought of organizing as "redemption." (P. 135.) As an organizer, he found his voice to inspire, encourage, persuade, and empower the black community to take control of its destiny and work on its own betterment.
At the close of the autobiography, Obama reveals his discovery of the formula that would enable a people, a city, a nation, to overcome the divisions that split it. Many of the divisions were based in hate. The black community harbored a heritage of hatred toward whites. Blacks also wounded themselves with self-hatred. And the black community was divided between the middle-class black families who left the poor communities for better homes in better suburbs, and the poor blacks, who could not leave and lived, discouraged, under municipal regimes of both black and white. This hatred had to be transcended. Obama found the solution when he joined Reverend Jeremiah Wright's Trinity Church on Ninety-fifth Street, Chicago. Reverend Wright preached a sermon on "The Audacity of Hope," that reached Barack. Everyone had to give themselves to someone larger than themselves, who would "put a floor on despair" and enable them to hope. Listening to Reverend Wright's sermon and then the choir sing of how Jesus had carried them so far, Obama finally established his black identity and found his emotional home. He was not raised a Christian--his mother was a secular humanist. Christianity was the final and necessary ingredient of his identity. Faith in hope would transcend despair and hate. Hope would enable everyone to rise above the polarities, contradictions, divisions, and conflicts of American society. Barack Obama had found his voice and his message. His mission awaited him.
Revised, February 25, 26, 2008.
Update. March 9, 2008. Based on over 40 interviews with persons who knew Barack Obama during the period covered in his autobiography, two journalists reveal that Obama's memories are not completely accurate from the perspective of those who knew him. There was less racial sturm und drang and more alienation due to parental abandonment. He was less of an outsider and fit in more with his peers. Characterizations of youthful friends and acquaintances are skewed, according to them. Certain events couldn't have happened. And so on.(Kirsten Scharnberg and Kim Barker, "The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama's youth", The Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2007. Thanks for the reference to Little Green Footballs.)