As noted before, I’ve been reading autobiographies from both candidates: John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir and Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I strongly recommend both books, which were written long before this presidential campaign.
Through the books you see what the authors think, but more important, you see how they think. You learn what inspires them, what thrills them, what restrains them and what shames them. You see how something that happened when they were 15 or 25 resonates through their lives, helping shape the men they became. After reading these books, I know for sure that much of what is said about McCain and Obama–by their fans and their foes– is simply not true, and the people saying it have not bothered to read the evidence right under their noses. It’s so much easier to chant along with the cable TV hosts.
Here are two passages from Obama’s book. As a teenager, Obama began to read black writers like W. E. B. DuBois, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In most of them, alas, he found anguish, doubt and self-contempt.
“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, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.
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 affirming message-of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility-need not depend on hatred of whites any more than it depended on white munificence. We could tell this country where it was wrong, I would tell myself and any black friends who would listen, without ceasing to believe in its capacity for change.
In those thoughts from 30 years ago, you can see the seeds of Obama’s fine speech on race given when the Rev. Wright controversy broke last spring, and the narrow path he tries to walk–successfully, it seems– between being an unelectable “race man” and ignoring the plight of blacks in America.