by Jerry Waxler
I finished Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my father.” I had been concerned earlier in the book that his emphasis on ideas might dull the edge of his memoir. So it was with some surprise when I got to the last third of the book, and found him shifting away from ideas, and switching into pure storytelling mode. That is a fascinating literary device. I wonder sometimes how conscious an author is of such stylistic development, transforming from his style in the beginning, a memoir mixed with an essay, into a strictly story telling style at the end. In any case, it worked, and I found that the ending was quite satisfying.
What impressed me about this story was that it was a Homecoming. Homecomings are the classic ending of the Hero’s Journey. This idea of homecoming turns up a lot in stories, but each story has its own spin on what Homecoming means. In the Odyssey, Ulysses really returned to his ancestral home. In the first Star Wars, Luke Skywalker came “home” to Princess Leah, who later turned out to be his sister. So it was a return to his “true home.” Obama’s homecoming also has an interesting twist. It was not the home he was born in, but the place his African father was born. When you have roots in more than one place, where is your home? It’s a question all travelers and transplants face. I think Obama raised this question beautifully, and without answering it, let the story do his work for him, by showing us what it was like for him to visit his African family, and let us feel it, see it, hear it ourselves through the art of storytelling.
In Alex Haley’s famous novel and mini-series, Roots, the author went back to Africa to look for his own roots buried in history, highlighting the longing and the frustration to see backwards through time, through layers of generations, and lost history. This attempt to find deep, ancestral roots has universal elements, as many of us wonder where we came from, and can’t ever quite scratch that itch. Take me for example. My grandparents fled Russia during the pogroms, a horrible period in Jewish history, in which Russian thugs and militia pillaged Jewish towns, a sort of state-sanctioned vigilante movement to terrorize Jews. When my grandparents came over to this country, they went through the Ellis Island immigration process, and some clerk on Ellis Island gave them an English spelling for their Cyrillic name. In their case it was Waxler, in others Wexler, Wachsler, Wechsler. Who knows what the original name was? Over time, the area where they left was subjected to the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s and Hitler’s massacres, and the German invasion, shrouding my ancestry deep in the fog of history. But I still wish I knew what it was like, who those people were, how they lived.
In Obama’s case, unlike the vast majority of African Americans, he had a chance to actually visit the land of his African father. That is fascinating! Obama’s life represents the cross roads of black and white, African and American. What a GREAT story. When he meets his own extended biological family, he acts as a sort of representative to explore the tragedy of black ancestors being kidnapped from African villages, forcibly resettled, and then put in forced labor for a couple of hundred years to help other people succeed. We can’t change the past, but hopefully through the telling and sharing of the story, we can empathize, learn, grow together and heal.
I don’t know Obama’s future as a politician. But I do know that by opening a window into his own experience, he has helped me grow richer in understanding. By sharing his story, he has already fulfilled one of the roles of a leader.