1Shortly after Barack Obama had been elected the first African American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review in 1990, Times Books approached him with the request for an autobiography that would tell the story of his success as a black professional and academic. Obama took time off from his work as a lawyer and wrote Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, published in 1995. The reviews, as he notes in the introduction to the second edition, “were mildly favorable,” but “sales were underwhelming” (vii). Today, this is a different story. Reprinted in 2004 and boosted by Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Dreams from My Father quickly climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and sold millions of copies. It was followed two years later by The Audacity of Hope (2006), in which Obama formulated his thoughts on what he called “reclaiming the American dream” and which launched his successful presidential campaign.
2Speaking in Chicago only hours after having been elected the 44th president of the United States, Obama reflected on the significance of this event and, in doing so, evoked a black woman named Ann Nixon Cooper. This 106-year-old woman, Obama noted, had seen America change from a segregated nation in the early decades of the twentieth century to a nation willing to elect a black American as its president in the twenty-first. Recalling Cooper’s lifespan, Obama re-cast his campaign slogan “Yes we can” as “that American creed” and walked his audience through the touchstones of twentieth-century history: the women’s suffrage movement, the Great Depression, the New Deal, Pearl Harbor, World War II. He further connected his personal story with one of America’s most emotional moments and figures in recent history: the struggles of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. About Ann Nixon Cooper’s life in the 1950s and 60s, Obama said: “She was there for the busses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We Shall Overcome’” (“Remarks” 322-23).
3Those familiar with Obama’s speeches and writings, especially his remarks on race in a speech he had delivered at the Convention Center in Philadelphia earlier in the year (“A More Perfect Union”), must have recognized this rhetorical gesture as Obama’s attempt to write himself into a prominent narrative of American history and come to terms with the role that race has played in this narrative.1 What the majority of his listeners probably did not recognize was the literary source that most likely motivated this gesture: Ernest J. Gaines’s fictional Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), a “neo-slave narrative” (Ashraf Rushdy’s term) which tells the story of the 110-year-old narrator, Miss Jane Pittman. This woman was born a slave in the 1850s, struggled her way through the civil war, looked forward to a brighter future during the era of Reconstruction, endured the setbacks of the Jim Crow system, and, toward the end of her life, witnessed civil rights marches and the rise of black militancy.
4Miss Jane Pittman’s story speaks to an understanding of history that Ralph Ellison likened to a boomerang in Invisible Man (1952): “[O]ur whole culture,” Invisible Man muses, does not move “like an arrow, but [like] a boomerang. (Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet ready)” (5). Yet the mere fact that Obama offered his thoughts as president-elect and not from an underground shelter on the outskirts of Harlem is reason enough to view Ellison’s remarks in a new context. According to the historical trajectory Obama had outlined in his speech on race, the election of an African American to the presidency may be understood as a major step toward fulfilling the promises of the U.S. Constitution. “The document they [the founding fathers] produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished,” Obama had argued: “It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery” and had, in the centuries to follow, seen generation after generation take part in “the long march … for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America” (“A More Perfect Union” 255-56).
5Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” (1963) is the obvious subtext here, especially King’s metaphor of the check with insufficient funds written by the founding fathers.2 But Obama’s victory speech also contained an implicit reference to Invisible Man. His election to the presidency, Obama alleged, was “the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day” (emphasis added). Obama’s election victory, this statement implies, rewrites American history because it reveals Ellison’s boomerang analogy as a dated concept.3 Thus, Obama aims to revise Ellison’s modernist doubts and the alienation of his narrator by claiming a new sense of trust in the collective future of the country and by suggesting that the boomerang of history (the notion that there always have been and always will be setbacks) can be bent into an arc of progress (transcendence of racism without denying the significance of race).4
6Obama’s victory speech elaborates on a concept he had already introduced in Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope: the willingness to hope for a better future as personal need and national creed, as a bulwark against pessimism and doubt. This concept is rooted in the theology of his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright and derives its name from a sermon Obama heard at Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. This sermon initiated Obama’s conversion experience, according to Dreams from My Father. Hearing the Reverend preach, Obama realized that these biblical “stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story,” that “[o]ur trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black,” and that “I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams” (294).5 This audacity of hope for a better future against the odds and the belief in America’s arc of history may prove to be lasting contributions to American political and literary discourse, the roots of which trace back to Frederick Douglass’s angry complaints in “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” (1852), Booker T. Washington’s concession of 1895 that “[i]n all things that are purely social, we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (83), and the fundamental question which W.E.B. Du Bois denounced in The Souls of Black Folk (1903): “How does it feel to be problem?” (101).6
7Obama’s overt references to Martin Luther King, his covert references to Gaines’s and Ellison’s novels, and the expansive scope of his remarks suggest an intimate knowledge of African American rhetorical, literary, and intellectual traditions.7 I believe that Obama’s use of these traditions neither constitutes a “rejection of his ‘whiteness’” nor a “Kierkegaardian leap into blackness,” as David Samuels argues in his enlightening but frequently troubling piece for the New Republic (“Invisible Man”). Rather, these sources enable Obama, “a black man with a funny name” (Dreams viii), to create a public story of his life by working through some of the most influential African American conceptualizations of self and society: double consciousness, racial invisibility, and black nationalism.8Dreams from My Father depicts what Ron Walters has called “the story of his journey into functional Blackness” (8), and one does not have to be naïve to assume that this journey is not premised on the “old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic and … quite weird idea of racial authenticity” (Samuels, “Invisible Man”) but follows from a keen understanding of the powers and limitations of race in American political, cultural, and literary history.9
8The title of Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father,announces an intergenerational perspective that involves both a passing on of dreams from father to son and the son’s search for his father’s past. This double perspective is emphasized further by the subtitle, A Story of Race and Inheritance, which connects Obama’s search for his Kenyan father, who left the family when his son was two years old, whom Obama only saw once for a few weeks when he was ten, and who died when Obama was twenty-one, with the search for a viable narrative of his life, for a way to make sense of his transatlantic heritage.10 Integral elements of this search are core themes of African American letters: the quest for self-discovery vis-à-vis social constructions of race; the search for ancestors, the meanings of home, and the power of dreams in the struggle for racial equality. In the words of Cornel West: “What is my relation to my African heritage …? How do I understand my African American tradition and sense of homelessness in America?” (x).11
9In his introduction to the 1995 edition, Obama establishes a connection between his unusual life story and the complex generic status of his narrative as “autobiography, memoir, family history, or something else” (xvii). Categories and labels, it seems, are always applied by others and rarely describe an inside experience: “Whatever the label that attaches to this book—… what I’ve tried to do is write an honest account of a particular province of my life” (xvii). His story, Obama writes, differs from what he considers the typical autobiography or memoir; the book is “a record of a personal, interior journey—a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American.” He continues:
An autobiography promises feats worthy of record, conversations with famous people, a central role in important events. There is none of that here. At the very least, an autobiography implies a summing up, a certain closure, that hardly suits someone of my years, still busy charting his way through the world. I can’t even hold up my experience as being somehow representative of the black American experience. (xvi)
10This passage foregrounds an awareness of personal writing as an act of self-creation. “He, too, will have to invent himself” (428), Obama writes about his father as a young boy dreaming of living in America, but he might just as well be talking about himself. The modern black intellectual, as Ross Posnock suggests, is a public figure in American life rarely found but more often made (cf. 1-2); “blackness” is something to be achieved, and not simply inherited, as Algernon Austin has illustrated.12
11The project of making his life meaningful moves Obama towards a pernicious problem: the problem of race, which Du Bois announced would be the problem of the twentieth century (cf. Souls 100) and which has shaped African American literature from its inception. Obama’s life story may not be “representative of the black American experience,” but it must come to terms with this historical experience—and especially the literature that has voiced the many and often contradictory facets of this experience—if the narrator is to make sense of his own experience. This applies to Dreams from My Father as well as to Obama’s later presentations of his life story, for instance in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Here, he sought to establish a connection between his family history and American slavery by crediting his grandfather, whom he described as “a cook, a domestic servant to the British,” with having “larger dreams” for his son, Obama’s father (“Keynote” 98). In the context of the debates over Obama’s “blackness”—whether he was “black enough” or “too black” for a presidential candidate—the reference to his grandfather’s life as a servant is important because it allows him to claim a family history of servitude even though he has no slave ancestors. Stanley Crouch, for instance, writing in the New York Daily News (“What Obama Isn’t: Black like Me”),harped on the fact that Obama “does not share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves.”13 Yet it is the birth of “black” literary selves and the willingness to speak autobiographically that has driven African American literature since the early days of the slave narratives, and it is Obama’s self-conscious investment with African American literature that allows him to propose a more nuanced understanding of racial belonging than Crouch and others have advocated.14
12Feelings of alienation lead the young Obama to a place frequently depicted in black autobiographies: the library as a source of personal enlightenment and intellectual growth. Two prominent examples areRichard Wright’s Black Boy of 1945, where the narrator describes an endless hunger for books (cf. 220-21), and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X of 1965, where Malcolm X recalls how “reading had changed forever the course of my life” (180) and states “that my alma mater was books, a good library” (181). Obama is struggling to understand the implications of being perceived as black in an almost all-white school (and, since his father is absent, in an all-white family): “I was different, after all, potentially suspect,” he writes; “I had no idea who my own self was” (82). He turns to the classics of African American literature in order to find solutions to his problems: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well as writings ofLangston Hughes and James Baldwin.15 As the narrator describes the situation:
At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem. (85-86)16
13Thus, while Obama appreciates the literature on an aesthetic level, and while he recognizes its emotional urgency, he is unable to fit his own experience into this tradition because it focuses too much on the problems of race (anguish, self doubt, self-contempt, withdrawal), and not enough on potential solutions (its redemptive power as well as hopes and dreams).17
14The text to which Dreams from My Father relates most explicitly is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It is here that the youthful Obama finds at least temporary answers: “Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order” (86). Yet even this autobiography, with its scenes of hipster life, its revolutionary rhetoric, and its spiritual ending, ultimately leaves him unsatisfied. Obama’s initial appreciation and eventual dismissal of The Autobiography of Malcolm Xmake sense because they allow him to claim the text as part of his literary ancestry while simultaneously providing him with a foil against which he can establish his post-black-nationalist position on race. This functional stance also informs his characterization of a Kwame Touré’s (Stokely Carmichael) appearance at Columbia University as “a bad dream” (140).18
15Malcolm X’s racially derisive rhetoric is troubling: Malcolm “spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction” (86).19 This, then, is where the revolutionary powers of black autobiography reveal their limits, at least according to Obama’s functional reading.20 For Malcolm X, his white blood signifies a history of violence, rape, and enslavement, but, as Obama points out, it lacks a concrete referent: The white man who raped his mother remains an abstraction, however emotionally charged, because Malcolm X has no personal knowledge of him. The circumstances of Obama’s mixed racial heritage, on the contrary, are much more concrete. The brief love story of his mother, a young white college student from Kansas, and his father, the first black African student admitted to the University of Hawaii, inspires Obama to speak with personal knowledge of racial reconciliation.21 David Samuels speaks of “Obama’s rejection of his ‘white blood’” and the “exclusion” of his white mother from the narrative, but I believe that Obama’s focus on his black father—he neither excludes nor rejects his mother—can be explained by the fact that the long history of African American literary and intellectual engagements with questions of self and society has more to contribute to the project of developing a workable life story than his mother’s Midwestern heritage.22 Moreover, Obama is very explicit about the legal implications of his parents’ relationship. “Miscegenation. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos” he writes, noting that the marriage between a white and a black person was “still described a felony in over half the states in the Union” in 1960 (11-12).
16Reading Malcolm X, Obama recognizes the powerful ideals of black nationalism but criticizes its insistence on racial division. He writes: “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 affirmative message—of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility—need not depend on hatred of whites” (197). Most detrimental, according to Dreams from My Father, is the discrepancy between the idealism of black nationalism and the actual problems in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. Obama contrasts the “morality of subtle distinctions” his mother had taught him (199) with the “unambiguous morality tale” provided by the nationalists, a morality tale “easily communicated and easily grasped” and aimed almost exclusively against “the white race” (198). It is not the message of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility that causes problems, but the pragmatic inflexibility and subsequent sociopolitical failures of this cultural model. Obama thus wonders whether “nationalism could deliver” and identifies “questions of effectiveness, and not sentiment” as well as “the distance between our talk and our action” as the cause of his disagreements with the black nationalists (200, 203).23
17Obama’s complicated position vis-à-vis black history shapes his understanding of African American writing (and vice versa). In the introduction to the 1995 edition, he taps into the evocative power of Ellison’s InvisibleMan and Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk while ultimately seeking to move past the racial logic he associates with them:
When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background …, I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose—the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, … it’s on the nightly news for all to see, … well, I suspect that I sound incurably naïve … Or worse, I sound like I’m trying to hide from myself. (xv)
18This passage recalls the opening of Ellison’s novel, in which the unnamed narrator confesses that he may be “an invisible man” but is “not a spook.”24 Obama echoes these words when he writesthat people “no longer know who I am” and think of him in terms of “the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto.” Moreover, he evokes Ellison’s thoughts about invisibility as the result “of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come into contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality” (Invisible Man 3). Ellison had made a distinction between the eye as an organ of visual perception and the inner eye, which leads people to either ignore African Americans or take them for granted.25
19In Obama’s account, however, people actually notice him, but they search his eyes for signs that would reaffirm their prejudicial views about being of mixed racial descent in America. It seems that while “blackness” means invisibility, a mixed racial background means partial visibility at the price of being stereotyped as a tragic figure. The sense of tragic “mulatto-hood” implied in the reactions of those with warped perceptions is immediately rejected.26 Whatever tragedy race has brought to the American continent, Obama argues, it determines the lives of all of its inhabitants, the descendents of the Pilgrim Fathers (“Plymouth Rock”), the generations of immigrants coming to the New World (“Ellis Island”), and the sons and daughters of slaves (“Africa”). This tragedy, he insists, is not invisible, but “on the nightly news for all to see,” and it complicates Shelby Steele’s suggestion that “[p]eople who are the progeny of two races have a more ambiguous racial fate and, therefore, at least some feeling of homelessness” (4-5).27
20Obama refuses to be reduced to a “divided soul … trapped between two worlds.” The reference here is toDu Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, itself one of the literary sources on which Ellison “signified” in Invisible Man and many of his essays.28 For Du Bois, the problem of the race is encapsulated in the concept of double-consciousness:
[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…. (102)
21For Obama, these strivings do not necessarily have to remain irreconcilable, even though they cannot be reconciled easily.29 The way out of this “Du Boisian dilemma” (Gerald Early’s phrase; cf. xvii), out of this “double bind” (Sandra Adell’s term), is to recalibrate the equation: Instead of reconciling two thoughts, two strivings, and two ideals in one body—Americans of all colors and creeds must make one out of many (“E pluribus unum”) by reconciling many thoughts, many strivings, and many ideals in one body politic. Here, Obama comes full circle from Ellison’s prologue (the boomerang analogy) to the novel’s epilogue, where the narrator notes: “Our fate is to become one, and yet many” (435).30
22In the epilogue of Dreams from My Father, Obama speaks of the need to find “solutions to the puzzle of being a black man” (442). His autobiography offers one such solution by translating the search for racial belonging and ancestral roots into a call for community: “I’ll organize black folks,” he writes about his commitment to civil rights work and social engagement in words reminiscent of Du Bois (133). This commitment is central in the history of African American thought. It is voiced inMartin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” which includes a line that Obama evoked in his speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008: “We cannot walk alone” (“Great Need” 244; “Democratic” 136, 137). In the “Great Need” speech, Obama further spoke of “King’s vision of a beloved community” and called for renewed efforts to establish this community.31 In Dreams from My Father, this vision and the pledge to contribute to its realization begins with Obama’s work as a community organizer in the impoverished South Side of Chicago. Upon leaving for Chicago, he observes:
Whatever my father might say, I knew it was too late to ever truly claim Africa as my home. And if I had come to understand myself as a black American, and was understood as such, that understanding remained unanchored to place. What I needed was a community…. A place where I could put down stakes and test my commitments. (115)
23After he has worked as an organizer for a while, he realizes: “There was always a community there if you dug deep enough” (190).
24This realization is part of a larger personal development, which had begun with his naiveté after graduating college and gains depth in the streets of Chicago: “[A]bout to graduate from college, I was operating mainly on impulse,” he notes,
like a salmon swimming blindly upstream toward the site of his own conception. In classes and seminars, I would dress up these impulses in the slogans and theories I’d discovered in books. (134)
25What is missing is a personal connection, and he makes this connection when he visits Africa (like Malcolm X and Baldwin, he has to leave the country of his birth in order to gain a fresh perspective on questions of racial identity and race relations).32 This Africa, mainly Kenya, is not an authentic place of tribal community, and it is neither “just like [Alex Haley’s] Roots,” as Obama’s friends in Chicago assume (302). It is a place where “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” (311). It is also the place where Obama comes to a personal realization at his father’s grave (this is the inheritance to which the subtitle refers). In order to gain a sense of communal connection and personal responsibility, people have to recognize the powers of their personal stories and their ties to the stories of others:
I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright. (430)
26This basic human connectedness among members of a widely dispersed and fragmented family provides the emotional and philosophical basis for Obama’s political vision. In his speech on Martin Luther King Day, he recalled King’s allegorical reading of Americans as “all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” and in his presidential victory speech, he maintained that “our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared” (“Remarks” 322). Dreams from My Father supplies the personal context for this recollection. “[M]y identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there,” Obama writes, referencing Baldwin’s justification for leaving the United States but moving beyond Baldwin’s disillusion by acknowledging his personal conviction as a matter of choice, as an attempt to formulate a sense of self based on the notion of “functional Blackness”: “At least that’s what I would choose to believe” (111).33 In other words, rather than embrace the “old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic and … quite weird idea of racial authenticity,” as David Samuels claims, Obama actually proposes an understanding of race that moves beyond the specter of identity politics: personal stories and literary histories are the powerful sources through which a functional sense of self and a political vision can be created.
27What his father’s youngest brother, Sayid, says about the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, motivates Obama to come back home. It rings true for his political message and finds a middle ground between black nationalism, double consciousness, and racial invisibility: “‘We share more than divides us’” (382). From this sense of a common history, a common purpose, emerges one of Obama’s most frequently repeated biblical acknowledgements, a modified version of Cain’s question to God: “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper” (cf. “Great Need” 240; “More Perfect Union” 265; “Democratic” 127). This realization empowers Obama to call on his fellow citizens to “make their claim on this community we call America” and “choose our better history” (439).