by Jerry Waxler
I’ve been listening to Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. My reason for picking it up was because I wanted to know more about this person who has become a political celebrity in the last year. What I was really looking for was a genuine insight into his life that would help me learn more about him than I could learn through the marketing hyperbole, superficial glosses, and spin doctors.
The central purpose of memoirs is to share a view of the protagonist’s life experience. That’s a minimum requirement. But in addition to this central purpose, almost all memoirs try to accomplish other tasks as well. Travel memoirs show us a foreign country. Tell-all books turn into public confessions. Memoirs often are used as platforms to explain part of history or even teach a lesson. For example, Foster Winans’ memoir shows us the workings of stock brokers. Tracy Kidder’s memoir shows us the workings of a particular section of the army in Vietnam. Shirley Maclaine used her life experience to teach her ideas about how people should relate to the cosmos. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” uses his experience in a death camp as a teaching tool to show readers how to live a better life. If the memoir does its central job of sharing personal experience, it can make a good read, despite the other purpose. But if the other purpose takes center stage, it sometimes drains too much energy away from the personal experience and the book falls flat. I wondered if Obama would let me know his experience, or would his experience be drowned in his message?
The audio book starts out with a preface from his current situation as a politician. I became concerned that it was going to be more a political lecture than a memoir. His speaking voice is clipped and not as dramatic as the professional readers I had become accustomed to on other audio books, and his vocabulary uses a few more college words which slows down the narrative a bit. As he told of growing up I was distracted by his non-dramatic reading voice and the occasional sense that he was lecturing or making too many sociological points, but I continued listening, and gradually was drawn into his experience. That’s the job of any memoir, to help me enter the protagonist’s shoes and see the world from inside his experience. I think he does a decent job of sharing his experience.
Obama is in a position to share a fascinating insight into being black because he was raised by his white mother and her parents, and so he has seen this issue from both sides. I have heard glimpses of what it is like for black people who as children are innocent of race, and as they come of age start to realize that American culture still struggles with this ugly scar. What a disturbing insight for any young person to realize they are in a group that is disliked by another group, and that other group has power over them.
His experience reminded me of when as a teenager I read about the capture of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust. Reading the horrific accounts of Nazis hating groups and wanting to kill them made me realize that being Jewish is dangerous. As I’ve grown older, every few years another instance of group prejudice breaks into violence and murder; the civil war in northern Ireland, the Serbs and Croates, Tutsis and Hutus. And in the shocking aftermath of 9/11, hundreds of millions of people realized they could be hated and killed for being part of western civilization. To stop the outrage, we turned to the old standby. Find the cultural identity of those who hate us, and kill them first.
Perhaps the only antidote to this human problem of groups hating each other is to understand other people as individuals. And I can think of few better ways than through writing and reading memoirs. Obama’s coming of age tale helps me understand what it is like to be black in America. He tells me not from the point of view of a sociologist but from inside one person’s experience. Through the magic of memoir, he invites me into his thoughts, his revelation, his own real life. By reading, I enter the life of a black teenager, trying to evolve from an innocent and protected child into an adult, trying to understand from inside his life experience our complex cultural attitudes about being black and white in America, or in his case both.