Obama’s “(In)visible” Childhood

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Dreams of My Father: Fact or Fiction?


  I remember being blown away when I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father two years ago. Initially, I had approached the book with skepticism in large part because I expected to read a blase, ‘boots-strap’ memoir written without much flair. That wasn’t the case. Dreams struck me as a modern, non-fiction version of Invisible Man. The young, energetic, community organizer Obama bore more than a passing resemblance to Ralph Ellison’s half-century old protagonist, who, after landing in New York, throws himself headlong into organizing the dispossessed masses. From those early sparks of recognition, Obama’s story bloomed into a full-blown re-writing of Ellison’s novel. From its colorfully dramatic prose, to the main character’s transformation from innocent idealist to experienced pragmatist through a series of political awakenings, to the narrative “voice” itself, the story sang to me through a chorus that only Ellison could’ve authored. Indeed, in an interview shortly after the book was published in 1952 Ellison said, “[I]t’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality…Before he could have some voice in his own destiny he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then.” As a seasoned reader of Invisible Man (I’ve read it probably five or six times) I could easily trace the same pattern playing itself out in Obama’s memoir— the waking up from the “illusions” of his youth to the “realities” of urban American politics. More saliently, the unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man is haunted by and in many respects constructed through his deceased grandfather to whom he feels inextricably bound, while the Obama of Dreams is dogged by a father of mythic proportions who he never truly knew but was always trying to appease. At times it honestly felt as though I was reading a novel and not a memoir, which, because of the story-teller’s skill and truly poised writing, didn’t bother in me in the least.

Now, in the wake of the James Frey and Augustus Burroughs revelations, as well as questions surrounding the authenticity of memoirs in general, The Chicago Tribune has published a story about Obama’s childhood that casts a shadow of doubt on Obama’s version of his childhood, and that might ultimately smear his sparkling image. In particular, The not-so-simple Story of Barack Obama’s Youth draws upon a cacophony of voices from Obama’s time in Hawaii and Indonesia to challenge the Senator’s portrayal of himself as a young man struggling with or even interested in racial issues. In this regard, the sections I’ve attached below were especially striking.

The handful of black students who attended Punahou School in Hawaii, for instance, say they struggled mightily with issues of race and racism there. But absent from those discussions, they say, was another student then known as Barry Obama.In his best-selling autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama describes having heated conversations about racism with another black student, “Ray.” The real Ray, Keith Kakugawa, is half black and half Japanese. In an interview with the Tribune on Saturday, Kakugawa said he always considered himself mixed race, like so many of his friends in Hawaii, and was not an angry young black man.He said he does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa said, were not about race. “Not even close,” he said, adding that Obama was dealing with “some inner turmoil” in those days.

“But it wasn’t a race thing,” he said. “Barry’s biggest struggles then were missing his parents. His biggest struggles were his feelings of abandonment. The idea that his biggest struggle was race is [bull].”

And later,

“Punahou [the prep school Obama attended] was an amazing school,” Smith [a former classmate]said. “But it could be a lonely place. … Those of us who were black did feel isolated–there’s no question about that.”As a result, the handful of black students at Punahou informally banded together. “The brothers,” as Lewis Anthony Jr., an African-American in the class of 1977 put it, hung out together, often talking about issues involving race and civil rights. They sought out parties, especially at the military bases on the island, where African-Americans would be in attendance.Obama, however, was not a part of that group, according to Anthony and Smith. Both of them seemed surprised to hear that in “Dreams”–which neither of them had read–Obama writes about routinely going to parties at Schofield Barracks and other military bases in order to hang out with “Ray,” who like Anthony and Smith was two years ahead of him in school.

“We’d all do things together, but Obama was never there,” Smith said, adding that they often brought along the few other black underclassmen. “I went to those parties up at Schofield but never saw him at any of them.”

Given the “questions” regarding Obama’s African-American authenticity these passages give pause to those who already doubt Obama is really “black” enough. Furthermore, a third grade teacher’s recollections of a youthful Obama submitting an essay in which he announced his goal of becoming president paint the picture of a preciously ambitious youngster. “He didn’t say what country he wanted to be president of. But he wanted to make everybody happy.”

Despite the article’s pretensions of objective newsgathering, the conclusions one is left to draw are clear enough: Obama was an outsider who wanted to be an insider, a fatherless boy looking for validation. The conclusion one can all-too easily draw is that only when it became a useful dramatic device did he conveniently “become” black. What’s interesting about the article as a whole is that it privileges the memories and opinions of the real-life characters from the book and people from Obama’s past, some of whom clearly did not like their portrayals, while seeming to unequivocally suspect Obama’s side of the story.

Whether the exposure of James Frey and Augustus Burroughs will hurt Obama or not remains to be seen. Has the recent spate of pseudo-memoirs blunted the public’s capacity for outrage? Or will the Obama phenomenon, which is based largely on his unimpeachable image, suffer for his transgressions of truth? One thing is for sure, if Obama’s political career ends before it really begins, he can always fall back on his literary gifts.

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