Each month I lead a book review/discussion with a group of local business people. We usually read big-pic think books (The World is Flat, The Tyranny of Choice) or business advice/self-help books like New Ideas From Dead CEOs, Getting Things Done, and Mavericks at Work. This fall, however, we’re reading two autobiographies: Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir.
It’s a great time to be reading these books, especially in sequence, though I now wish I’d read them a year ago. I’ll say this at the least: Based on these two books, whoever wins, America is about to elect an interesting man as president. Interesting as in “May you live in interesting times”? We’ll see.
Over the next month and maybe beyond, I’m going to pick out some passages from these books and discuss. Obama’s up first. Dreams From My Father was written in 1995, two years before he was elected to the Illinois state Senate.
In Chapter 14, Obama, working as a Chicago community organizer in the 80s, tells a streetwise colleague named Johnnie that he has applied to law school at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. (A few pages earlier, by the way, Obama learns about a “dynamic” pastor named Jeremiah Wright.) Johnnie, who is proud of his educated friend, teases him:
“Harvard! Goddamn. I just hope you remember your friends when you up in that fancy office downtown.”
For some reason, Johnnie’s laughter had made me defensive. I insisted that I would be coming back to the neighborhood. I told him that I didn’t plan on being dazzled by the wealth and power that Harvard represented, and that he shouldn’t either. Johnnie put his hands up in mock surrender:
“Hey, you don’t need to be telling me all this. I ain’t the one going nowhere.”
I lit a cigarette and tried to decipher the conversation with Johnnie. had he doubted my intentions? Or was it me that mistrusted myself? It seemed like I had gone over my decision a hundred times.
And I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change. I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed. I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail, knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; [depressed Chicago neighborhoods] bring it back like Promethean fire.
Two points on this passage:
1. Considering the precarious state of the economy, we better hope he learned some of that stuff in law school, so he can take it to D. C. if he wins.
2. Throughout his book, Obama struggles with some of the issues that would continue to dog him as he ran for president 13 years later. Was he black enough? Was he too black? How could he integrate the “white” and “black” parts of his mixed-race identity? Where were his deepest roots?
In that connection, it’s interesting that O mentions bringing knowledge back to poor neighborhoods “like Promethean fire.” Prometheus, of course, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans; he remains a symbol of man’s courageous reach for knowledge and light. Comparing himself to Prometheus may seem grandiose, and I’d be surprised if some 527 hadn’t already cooked up a whack-ad mocking this, but I think it perfectly captures a young man’s desire to lift his people out of ignorance, even if he’s not always sure they’re his people.
By the way, the Prometheus line reminded me of a passage in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a struggling black Chicago family in the late 50’s. Walter Lee Younger, wonderfully played by Sidney Poitier in the movie version, feels trapped by his race, lack of education and poverty. In one scene he delivers a drunken rant about thwarted ambition and pride in front of his sister and her wealthy boyfriend George, a pompous “assimilationist” who’d be labeled an Oreo today. Walter Lee paints himself as a lonely fighter for a better life. As the couple leaves the apartment, George turns back to Walter Lee and says sarcastically, “Good night, Prometheus.”
I’d be greatly surprised if Obama wasn’t familiar with Hansberry’s inspiring play. Wonder if her line might have influenced what he wrote?