Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2008, issue of National Review.
Who is Barack Obama? Obama the presidential candidate presents himself as a man who has loved America from his earliest childhood, a man proud of his mixed-race roots who comfortably transcends polarized racial politics, a man who eschews the ideologies of Left and Right, an optimistic healer. But in his critically acclaimed autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama is something else entirely.
Obama published his autobiography in 1995, when he was in his mid-thirties. Unlike most books by politicians, which are concoctions of clichés penned by ghostwriters, Dreams was clearly written by Obama himself. Unlike most politicians, Obama can write and loves language. (He was contemplating a career as a novelist at the time he wrote Dreams.) Most important, Obama wrote his autobiography after he had become a political activist but before he was a politician; the book is therefore candid in a way a conventional politician’s memoir would never be.
Dreams is a complex, introspective book. Its theme is how Obama, born in Hawaii to a white student mother and Kenyan student father, grows to view himself and the white society around him. The Obama of Dreams abandons his multiracial roots to forge an alienated black identity — that of a man steeped in radical ideology who views history in terms of a huge chasm separating oppressor from oppressed, white from black, and rich from poor; a man who is never more emotionally at home than when sitting in the church pew listening to Rev. Jeremiah Wright rant about white racism.
People and politicians change, and the Obama of today may not be the one of 13 years ago. But he has never forsworn Dreams or given a detailed explanation of how he has evolved since writing it. The book thus remains an extraordinary window into Obama.
What does he like about America?
Candidate Obama claims that “throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given.” He tells us his “heart swells with pride at the sight of our flag.”
In Dreams, his heart swells at many things but the sight of the flag certainly isn’t one of them. There he presents a warts-only history of the U.S., a story of evil and suffering. U.S. society is a “racial caste system” where “color and money” determine where you end up in life. He tells us of white children’s stoning black children, Jim Crow, and heatless Harlem housing projects. He describes “Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives.”
Obama says the Hawaiian islands, where he grew up, are beautiful, but quickly reminds us that behind the beauty lurks the “ugly conquest of the native Hawaiians . . . crippling disease brought by missionaries . . . the indenturing system that kept Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants stooped sunup to sunset in [the fields].”
Candidate Obama proudly tells audiences that his white grandparents were raised in the American heartland. But in Dreams he describes this heartland as the “landlocked center of the country, a place where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with conformity and suspicion and the potential for unblinking cruelty.”
Candidate Obama fondly tells audiences that one of his earliest memories is of sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders proudly watching the Apollo astronauts return to Hawaii after their splashdown in the Pacific. But in Dreams, even this event is an occasion for outrage, as Obama asks: “How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in bondage?”
American affluence offends Obama. The vast upper-middle class lives in a land of isolation and sterility. As a teenager, he envies the white homes in the suburbs but senses that the big pretty houses contain “quiet depression” and “loneliness,” represented by “a mother sneaking a tumbler of gin in the afternoon.” American consumer culture is comforting but mentally and spiritually numbing, yielding a “long hibernation.”
Studying U.S. law at Harvard, Obama concludes it is mainly about “expediency or greed.” Working in a large modern corporation, he sees himself as a “spy behind enemy lines.” Even science and technology draw his disdain as he warns of “technology that spits out goods from its robot mouth.”
Finishing Dreams, I could not recall a single positive sentence about the United States or European society. I reread the book specifically looking for positive remarks. The pickings were lean. Obama does write glowingly of JFK’s Camelot and its promise of a “bright new world,” but concludes this promise was a mere illusion quickly transformed into “war, riot, and famine.” At the end of the book, Obama acknowledges that “faith in other people” can be found everywhere: among Christians as well as Muslims and in Kansas as well as his beloved Kenya. If you’re looking for rousing patriotism, that’s about as good as Obama gets.
Earlier this year, Michelle Obama made headlines by declaring that her husband’s primary victories were the first time she had ever been “proud of my country.” Michelle’s remark simply echoes the assessment Barack presents in his 442-page autobiography: Aside from a few comments about what he regards as the largely unsuccessful struggle for civil rights in the Sixties, Obama has nothing positive to say about his country. Even his hopes for the future are modest and “sometimes hard to sustain.”
Obama is touted as a post-racial statesman who sees beyond the narrow issue of white versus black. The Obama of his autobiography is, to the contrary, obsessed with race: Almost all of Dreams is about race and race conflict.
Obama’s early life is marked by uncertainty and rootlessness. Born in Hawaii, he is abandoned by his black Kenyan father at age two. At six he goes to live in Indonesia with his white mother and Indonesian stepfather. At age ten, he leaves his mother and returns to Hawaii, where he spends the rest of his youth, living mainly with his lower-middle-class white grandparents and attending an expensive, almost-all-white prep school.
In multiracial Hawaii, Obama’s encounters with racism, he admits, are pretty slight. On occasion, he deploys what he calls a “bad-assed nigger pose,” but he understands its artificiality. Obama seems well accepted by the youth around him, but, inside, he feels anxious and apart. A turning point in the narrative occurs when some of his white teenage friends attend an otherwise all-black party with him but feel uncomfortable and ask to leave. Obama is enraged and wants to punch his friends.
He begins to inundate himself in black literature: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and W. E. B. DuBois. Saturated with themes of anger and alienation, Obama withdraws into a “smaller and smaller coil of rage.” He suffers a “nightmare vision” of black powerlessness and feels whites have maimed blacks with a tragic “self contempt.” Malcolm X becomes his favorite author, although he admits all the talk about “blue-eyed devils and apocalypse” is a bit much.
Teenage Obama now sees himself as a “would-be black.” He begins to deliberately craft a black identity with alienation and anger at its foundation. The reader of Dreams cannot help being struck by the unexplained contrast between the circumstances of Obama’s life — an opportunity to attend a fine school, white grandparents who love him — and his great anger at white society.
Today, Candidate Obama presents himself as a multiracial American who is proud of his mixed ancestry and can comfortably draw from both his white and his black roots. In Dreams, he takes the opposite stance. He deliberately and repeatedly rejects a multiracial identity. For example, attending an expensive private college in California, he meets many young people of mixed black and white ancestry who view themselves, not as black, but as multiracial. Obama specifically rejects this option as a sellout. He also rejects integration as a goal because it is “a one-way street. The minority is assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around.”
After college, Obama has an affluent white girlfriend who loves and wants to marry him. She brings him to visit her family, who warmly accept him. Obama is attached to the girl and respects the family’s deep cultural heritage, but he eventually dumps her because she is not black. He feels that if he marries her he will ultimately be assimilated into a foreign white culture, a fate that is unacceptable to him.
Obama comes to define and identify himself as a black man. As a young man he views his white ancestry not as an asset, but as an impediment to achieving authentic blackness. The dozens of cultural and historic figures appearing throughout Dreams are almost all black. (White author Joseph Conrad makes a token appearance as a deranged racist.) Obama identifies his principal role models: Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and W. E. B. DuBois. He states that while he might love his white grandfather and Indonesian stepfather, he could “never emulate” them because of the racial difference: They were “white men and brown men whose fates didn’t speak to my own.”
Obama is fascinated by his black ancestry. When he journeys to Kenya he has a deep sense of joy and belonging — he feels he has finally come home. By contrast, he has very little interest in his white ancestors or in the history of white America. He views U.S. history simply as a melodrama in which whites crush blacks (although class oppression and brutality against other minorities provide secondary plotlines).
It is true that Obama never abandons his affection for his white mother and grandparents. The memory of his immediate white relatives does remind him that not all whites are culpable racists and that some “could be exempted from the general category of distrust.” But beyond this he has no identification or psychic ties to larger white society.
Dreams does present one exception to Obama’s black exclusiveness. As Obama studies radical Marxist-Leninist literature (Frantz Fanon, neocolonialism, etc.), he comes to see himself as the champion not just of blacks but of the downtrodden of all races. But this shift only distances him farther from the dominant white and European culture, which he views as the focal point of global exploitation. Even in his thirties, he writes with enthusiasm about the Viet Cong, the Mau Mau Uprising, and black rioters in Detroit who lashed out with “street crime and revolution” against complacent white oppressors.
Generally, Obama sees an unbridgeable gulf between races: “The other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.” He states that at the core of black consciousness is the experience of white hatred of blacks. This hatred inspires an anger in turn that can either be directed out toward whites or in toward blacks themselves, in self-loathing:
Black awareness] hadn’t arisen simply from struggles with pestilence or drought, or even mere poverty. [It] had arisen out of a very particular experience with hate [of whites toward blacks]. That hate hadn’t gone away; it formed a counternarrative buried deep within each person and at the center of which stood white people — some cruel, some ignorant, sometimes a single face, sometimes just a faceless image of a system claiming power over our lives.
As a youth, Obama is shocked when a black mentor tells him that “black people have reason to hate,” but later comes to accept this view. He ponders whether the “ghostly figure” of white hatred can ever be “exorcised” from black dreams. And he goes so far as to ask whether blacks can love themselves without hating whites, but provides no answer.
Candidate Obama declared that he was shocked when he heard Rev. Jeremiah’s Wright’s outrageous remarks about American society. Despite the fact that he had been a member of Wright’s church for over a decade, Obama asserted that he had never heard such remarks from his spiritual mentor before.
But in the autobiography, Wright’s rants are in plain view. It is obvious that Obama is drawn to Wright’s ministry not in ignorance, but precisely because of the Reverend’s politics. In Dreams, Wright asserts: “Life’s not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be.” Obama apparently agrees, ignoring the obvious facts that nearly all black homicides are committed by other blacks, and that the number of violent crimes committed by blacks against whites is about eight times greater than the number of such crimes by whites against blacks.
When Wright, in the pages of Dreams, rants from the pulpit about Hiroshima and proclaims that “white folks’ greed runs a world in need,” it’s not so jarring, since Obama has been saying pretty much the same thing throughout the book. Obama expresses joy and a real sense of belonging in connection with only three places: his childhood home in Indonesia, Kenya, and in the pews of Reverend Wright’s Trinity United Church.
Obama and the Underclass
In his personal life, Obama has received highly favorable treatment from white society. His grievance appears, at least on the surface, to be abstract rather than personal. It is the existence of the black poor and underclass that justifies his alienation from and hostility to his nation. For Obama, the black ghetto epitomizes the callousness, greed, and injustice of U.S. society.
Obama became a community organizer in south Chicago to save the black urban poor and underclass. This was no mere job to Obama; it was a quasi-religious calling, his mission in life, offering the promise of personal “redemption.” But at only one point does Obama pause in his narrative and ask the big questions. Contemplating the tangle of homicide, drug addiction, alcoholism, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and educational failure that blights the public-housing complex where he is working, he asks: What causes this? Who is responsible? After all, there are no white people there, “no cigar-chomping crackers . . . no club-wielding Pinkerton thugs.”
With this question, Obama broaches the central paradox of modern race relations. Why, at a point when white society ended segregation, created affirmative action, and erected a massive new welfare state, did the self-destructive behaviors of the black lower classes soar, and entire communities begin spiraling downward in devastating social entropy? But, having raised this question, Obama offers no answer. The only solution he suggests is increased HUD funding. Some pages later he returns to vague charges about racism and hidden structures of power.
Elsewhere in Dreams, however, Obama hints at an explanation for this silence. He says that focusing on the self-destructive behavior of the black underclass smacks of “the explanations that whites had always offered of black poverty: that we continued to suffer from, if not genetic inferiority, then cultural weakness.” A focus on behavior will only confirm the “worst suspicions” of blacks about themselves, pushing them deeper into helplessness and despair.
Black well-being therefore requires that the blame for black behavior always be placed in historic context — that is, shifted to whites. If 69 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, if blacks kill blacks, if black-run schools don’t teach, it is the white man’s fault. Alternative explanations will only relieve white guilt while raising black self-doubt.
Self-Portrait of the Author
Dreams from My Father reveals Barack Obama as a self-constructed, racially obsessed man who regards most whites as oppressors. It is the work of a clever but shallow thinker who confuses ideological cliché for insight — a man who sees U.S. history as a narrow, bitter tale of race and class victimization. The Barack Obama presented in these pages is not electable to national office. No wonder that Obama, aided by a compliant media, has created a new self for public view, one the Obama of Dreams wouldn’t recognize and probably would disdain.
— “Michael Gledhill” is the pseudonym of a writer based in Washington, D.C. This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2008, issue of National Review.