Today Barack Obama will announce his choice of a running mate for the race to the White House. I did not sign up for his text message. Instead, I am reading one of his memoirs, Dreams from My Father. I can already tell you that the book is beautifully structured and written. Unlike John McCain, Obama writes his own books.
Written in 1995, when Obama was a mere 34 years old, this book amazes me with its psychological and spiritual insight even though I have only reached p. 46. Willa Cather once wrote that the most exciting thing in the world was to get inside the skin of another person. Obama does in this book what he did in his famous speech on race earlier this year–he helps us get inside the skin of “the other.” He has been the “other” himself all his life. His very existence occupies the space where other’s dreams had been. This process began in his own family, and it is a large part of his “rock star” appeal today. When we look at him, we see a deeper version of the American Dream than the one peddled by advertising. Hidden under American bravado are deep wounds, doubts, and guilt feelings for atrocities committed in the past and still continuing.
While the book is about an absent parent, his father, Obama writes movingly about his mother. How many male authors have written convincingly about what it is like to be a woman? How many men in their 30’s have curiosity about their mother’s inner lives, let alone empathy and insight? Obama may struggle with arrogance, as his critics claim, but that very arrogance may be rooted in recognizing that the average person does not perceive, intuit, and ponder the same way he does.
To illustrate my point, here’s a scene from the book. Young Barry and his step father Lolo are outside talking about “man things.” Barack’s mother is watching them, not hearing them, but imagining their conversation: “She looked out the window now and saw that Lolo and I had moved on, the grass flattened where the two of us had been. The sight made her shudder slightly, and she rose to her feet, filled with a sudden panic.
Power was taking her son” (p.46).
I will read on to discover how power, cultural and religious differences, mother love and a childhood full of journeys molded the man who may soon become our president, but first, I want to savor what this passage tells me about him. His language is powerful, succinct. The verbs sing on the page. The outward motions convey inner realities. And the author, the “I” of the story, is outside the action. The details tell the story–for example the grass flattened where the older man and younger boy had been. The theme of the presence of absence is all contained in that one image.