In the introduction to his seminal work of 1903, The Souls of Black Folk, African-American activist, historian and philosopher WEB DuBois declared that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." Certainly there were other preoccupations in the world exterior to the United States – the spread and defeat of European fascism, holocausts perpetrated for a variety of reasons – but between the insulation provided by its two oceans, DuBois' prediction for American society can be said to have held true.
DuBois wrote that beyond the challenges of interaction with their lighter-hued and more powerful compatriots, America's people of colour had to wrestle with an interior double-consciousness, the task of merging their "African and American" identities. There was of course a tremendous amount of racial mixing going on, the vast majority of which was coercive in one way or another (my own colouring is the result of such pre-20th century cross-racial couplings). But voluntary union and progeny - especially within the context of marriage – was extremely rare and, in many states, illegal even in the last half of the 20th century, when in 1961, as the result of an idealistic love between two students at the University of Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama was born.
Both his parents came from humble backgrounds, she from the struggling white lower-middle-class American Midwest, he from black rural Kenya, but both were gifted with remarkable minds which they were encouraged by their families to develop. That their marriage did not last long did not compromise the encouragement of their son to aim high; but the circumstances of this child's life, raised in Indonesia by his mother and in Hawaii by her parents, could not prepare him for how to be black in America's racially polarised society.
In a society dictating that one drop of black blood determined your identity as a member of debased minority now rising up against the mechanisms of its oppression, how to define yourself when both sides of the conflict were flowing through your own veins, and initiated through love? You know yourself to be black, but how to be black when your nurturing family is white, and on an island where fellow blacks were rare on the ground? How to learn to be a (black) man when your white grandfather is a good but essentially ineffectual man of disappointed dreams, your African father nothing more than a few stories, pictures and infrequent letters?
When he finally visits, when you are ten years old, he is forbiddingly distant, and even if he were present had no experience of being both black and white. Happily black but also white, how to interact with those people, black or white, for whom your very being produced dissonance while you had no examples, no roadmaps to follow?
Dreams From My Father, first published in 1995 but never before in the UK, is a classical Bildungsroman-style memoir of Barack Obama's journey through these dilemmas. Written after his graduation from Harvard Law School, where he had been the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, and two years before his first election to public office (the Illinois State Senate), it recounts Obama's journey from happy, race-less boy running barefoot through the muddy back streets of Jakarta to perplexed adolescent and student in Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York, and to eager but ignorant and, eventually, reasonably productive community organiser on Chicago's South Side.
It is also a meditation on the questions and legacy posed by his absent father, whom he only saw for those few fraught weeks at age ten and who died in a car accident when Barack, Jr. was 21, and finally prepared to make the journey to Kenya and establish some form of relationship. Embarking at last on that sojourn seven years later, the son learns of more frustrated dreams, tragic flaws in a father he had always held up as distant paragon, and learns that nothing in the past can provide a straightforward answer for his present and future. However, he also discovers a large family, tormented in its own particular ways but strong and loving, and the missing key to himself, complementing rather than complicating that which was already known.
Obama's writing is characterised throughout by a graceful eloquence, a generosity of perception and spirit rare in young men of many gifts and charisma. He admits that most of the related conversations are approximations, his ear for which could be the envy of many a novelist, and this from someone whose primary writing was previously academic. While DuBois' colour-line might have been a particularly American problem in 1903, one century later the challenges of mixed-lineage, border-dancing and divided loyalties are of utmost import and encompass the globe. For those who wish to understand, for those in need of a possible roadmap, here is a testimony for the ages.
Candace Allen's novel 'Valaida' is published by Virago
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