Saturday, October 25, 2008

On finding "home"

I remember in the midst of the 2004 Democratic Convention, hearing Barack Obama speak for the first time. And like most of America, I was intrigued...who IS this guy? So a few months later when I saw his book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, I decided to read it.

In it, I found the journey of a young man with a Black African father and White American mother trying to find out where he belonged in the world. It was pretty hard-hitting and gut-wrenching at times. Here's a short passage from when Barack was in high school as an illustration.

Following this logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. N#####r.

The exploration of his identity continued from there and eventually through his journey to Africa to learn what he could about his father and his Kenyan family.

Shortly after this book was published, Obama's mother died. It was re-printed in 2004 when interest in him soared after his speech at the DNC. In the preface to the new edition, Obama laments that most of the book centered on his search to find himself by learning about his absent father. And he says this.

I think sometimes that had I known she (his mother) would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book - less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life...I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.

I just recently found an audio interview (pdf transcript) Obama did back in August 1995 not too long after the book was published. Its about 13 minutes long and you can listen to it here.

When talking about why he wrote the book, here's one of the things he said.

I talk a lot in the book about my attempts to renew the dream that both of my parents had. I worked as a Community Organizer in Chicago, (and) was very active in low income neighborhoods on issues like crime and education and employment, and seeing that in some ways certain portions of the African American community are doing as bad (as thirty years ago), if not worse, and recognizing that my fate remained tied up in their fates. That my individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country.

When asked whether he has ever been tempted to avoid the difficulty of these kinds of conversations about race, here's what he says.

I think there's an impulse among all of us to shy away from these issues. There's a certain race-weariness that confronts the country, precisely because the questions are so deeply embedded and the solutions are going to require so much investment of time, energy and money...

I think what kept me going is the recognition that we can't solve these problems by ignoring them or pretending they don't exist. One of the things that strikes me, and the country right now, is our tendency to either pretend that racial conflict does not exist, and to pretend that we live in a color-blind society...or to say that race is everything, that there is no possibility of common ground between black and white.

I think the truth of the matter is...some sense that although the lives of blacks and whites in this country are different, although our historical experiences are different, my family is an example - and hopefully I am an example - of the possibility of arriving at some common ground.

I have seen people who have been marginalized by this culture - be it because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. - have to go through similar struggles to find an identity they can call "home." Some never take the risk and pretend the marginalization doesn't exist. And I've seen the storehouse of rage that builds to explosive levels as a result. I've also seen those who stay in the place of that quote from Obama during his high school years. They are usually the ones who, as Obama said, see race (or other isms) in everything and remain trapped in their feelings of victim-hood.

But the ones like Obama, who have faced the ugly truth and grappled with the rage to come out on the other side, have a strength of self that can buffet just about any storm.

As I've watched the Obama campaign over these many months, I keep going back to the man I was introduced to four years ago as I read this book. My hope is that this is the man that shows up after winning the election to be sworn in as our next President.

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