It had been – yet again – a vitriolic week of news coverage. It was enough to keep Dania away from social media for a time. “It’s for my health,” she explained in her Facebook post. Besides, she thought, I wanted to read more in 2018 anyway.
So when Gwen suggested that she read “Dreams From My Father,” Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir about his search for his heritage, Dania was hesitant.
“Gwen, I’m getting off-line to get away from politics,” she said. “I know Obama is bae, but I just…don’t, right now.”
“I know, I know,” Gwen said. “I figured with everything going on…” She glanced off to the distance, just for a moment. “…It might help to provide hope. Besides, Obama is a better speaker and writer than the current president, you can’t deny.”
“I mean, you can. People do.” Dania glanced again at the book’s cover. The pullquote from Toni Morrison labeled the book as “Quite Extraordinary” – high, if general, praise.
“True,” Gwen sighed. “Still, he wrote this before he was running for president. So it feels less shackled to appealing to voters. He discusses the problems with the country without proposing legislation, or his own election.”
Dania murmured. “It’s something.”
She picked up the book, inspecting it. A quote on the back compared the book to Gregory Howard Williams’ “Life on the Color Line.” Turning open to a random page, in a chapter labeled “Chicago,” she skimmed a paragraph:
“There was nothing definite I could point to, no hard statistics. The drive-by shootings, the ambulance sirens, the night sounds of neighborhoods abandoned to drugs and gang war and phantom automobiles, where police or press rarely ventured until after the boy was found on the pavement, blood spreading in a glistening, uneven pool – none of this was new.”
“Nothing new, all right,” Dania mused. “You said 1995?”
“Before he was a senator,” Gwen said. “He was elected president of the Harvard Law Review and got a book offer out of it. He only mentions Michelle at the very end, during the epilogue. This is pre-Malia and Sasha.”
“Hm. And you’ve read it?”
“I picked it up when he got elected,” Gwen began. Dania said nothing, waiting for the follow-up, which came moments later: “I only read it this past year. I understand the political exhaustion, too.”
“Do you wish you’d read it when he was actually president?” Dania asked. “Or before?”
Gwen sat back a little. “Huh,” she considered. “I’m not entirely certain. I suppose it gives some of what he did during his presidency context – you understand how adept he got at walking the fine, fine, fine line that is being a politician of color. The book is essentially about developing that awareness. It certainly gains something from reading it today.”
“Maybe I’ll give it a read,” Dania said. “I mean, come on. Anything besides that damn ‘Fire and Fury’ book.”
Gwen’s eyes perked up. “Have you read it?”
Dania’s face soured instantly, and she glared at Gwen. “No desire at all. I know what I need to know.”
– – – – –
It was right around the one-year anniversary of the inauguration that Dania finished the book. It had been slow-going – parts of it, the salacious stories of the young Barack’s failure in Chicago’s South Side, had gripped her with singeing familiarity. Sticking out through the book, however, Dania caught glimpses of the Obama that she knew – paragraphs detailing the troubles with the youth of crumbling housing project Altgeld Gardens, musings on the colonialist history of Africa’s subjugation. Still, credit where credit was due: Gwen was correct in her recommendation that Obama didn’t seem to be selling his candidacy in the book, so much as sharing his story. She secretly yearned to listen to the audiobook, where she would hear the President’s steady voice speaking every slur and curse that peppered the story of his youth.
She was sitting at her desk when she closed the book – she had realized that lying down while reading it introduced a risk of falling asleep, should she reach one of the book’s more languid passages. A final section, in which Barack’s African grandmother relayed, over thirty pages, the entire lineage of his ancestors, proved to be a particular slog. Fascinating, sure – Dania chided herself internally for finding a narrative of the African Diaspora “dull,” but mollified herself with the recognition that anyone‘s genetic history was certain to lag at times. Needless, she wouldn’t mention that to Gwen and Eleanor.
Dania tossed out a tweet recommending the former president’s book, and scrolled down just far enough to see the current president’s name before logging out.
Later that day, Dania sat in their living room when Eleanor appeared. Gwen, in the kitchen, listened.
“Dania!” she cried, holding out her phone. “You’ve read Dreams From My Father?”
“Yeah, Gwen recommended it,” Dania said. “I finished it this morning.”
Eleanor turned. “You’ve read it, too?”
“Isn’t it fascinating?” Eleanor said, sitting down with Dania on the couch. “I mean, he’s such a good writer. He used speechwriters once he was president, but you really get his writing from the book. It’s impressive.”
“I guess so,” Dania said. Remembering a passage, she laughed. “It’s definitely funny to hear him talk about being a grassroots organizer who wants ‘change,’ considering that’s basically what he ran on.”
“That and ‘Hope,'” Eleanor said. “There’s the one part where he talks about grassroots stuff, but then questions whether that actually changes anything.”
“That happened?” Dania said. “I must have missed it.”
“It’s near the beginning of one of the chapters. You remember the passage, Gwen?”
“I can paraphrase,” she responded. “Something to the tune of ‘I knew the government was corrupt, so I decided to enact change at the grassroots. And all my friends said that was a good idea before leaving to mail their grad school applications.'”
“Right?” Eleanor said. “I mean, personally attacked, obviously. But, like, cool that he had that ‘grassroots can’t solve everything’ realization somewhere early in life.”
“It’s pretty good,” Dania said. “Although there are a few parts of it that are a little…”
She stumbled over the words. Boring wasn’t the right way to put it.
“A little what?”
“Well, it’s a memoir,” Dania explained. “Don’t parts of it feel a little…memoir-y?”
Eleanor’s nose crinkled. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know memoirs, how it’s all the stuff that person did, like a story of a life,” Dania explained. “So, obviously, some of those moments are more interesting than others. But the others are still kinda there.”
“I see what you mean,” Gwen stepped in. “The more impressive or formative moments in Obama’s life seem to overshadow the rest of his story.”
Dania, ceding the lexical ground to Gwen yet again, indicated her agreement.
“Perhaps,” Gwen said. “I was able to trace some of his more presidential leanings in the book already. When he’s an activist at Altgeld, and we get these long passages about the black youth there – here, let me see the book, I’ll find the passage.”
“I didn’t love those parts,” Dania admitted, handing Gwen the book. “I don’t know, I guess I’m a story person. I like stuff to happen in the book. And stuff happens, obviously. Just not all the time.”
“Well, he’s building character,” Eleanor said. “This is arguably the blueprint for building someone you want to be president. I mean, take the political angle off of it – and he really doesn’t advocate for any specific political viewpoint here, does he?”
“I mean,” Dania hesitated, her mind wandering back to the news cycle. “If you can considering caring about impoverished youth to be a political viewpoint.”
Eleanor sighed. “Okay, well, regardless. It’s a fascinating story of a young man discovering himself, and what he believes in. I personally liked the opening chapters most of all – there’s a part where his grandmother gets scared by a homeless person, and his grandfather ––”
“The white grandmother, right?”
“Yeah, on the mom’s side,” Eleanor clarified. “And the grandfather tells Obama that she was most scared because the homeless person was black.”
Dania said nothing, but nodded her agreement. She remembered the moment from the book, but had no verbal response to give Eleanor. At least…well, this wasn’t her country. Not really, not legally. But the incident had sparked something for her when she read it. She had felt, on some level, like an outsider since arriving here. But for a moment, reading Obama’s telling of the incident, she had felt the terror trickle in, heavy like sand – of having no place where one felt like an insider.
“Here it is,” Gwen said, gripping the book, with a finger pointing to the passage. “When the group of boys in the car is outside his door:”
As I try to pierce the darkness and read the shadowed faces inside the car, I’m thinking…The world in which I spent those difficult times was far more forgiving. These boys have no margin for error; if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from the truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can’t admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them, or others like them, eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt.
“Well,” Eleanor said, after considerable pause.
“It’s a shame you can’t speak like that on the campaign trail,” Gwen moaned.
Dania, who understood the sentiment, if not the phrasing, nodded in agreement.
Image Credit: Wikimedia
“There was nothing definite…” excerpt taken from p. 252
“As I try to pierce…” excerpt taken from p. 270