Barack Obama’s memoir ends with a homecoming

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.

Click here to read the first part of my review of Dreams from My Father.

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, first thoughts

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.

Click here to read the second part of my review of Dreams from My Father.