When power becomes justice and sentiment turns into love
Barack Obama went back to Chicago after visiting his relatives in Kenya in 1988 and eventually began a political career. In 1966, he was elected to the Illinois senate, graduating to the United States Senate in 2004. The rest is the moment of history the world will witness on Tuesday in Washington.
In between times, he met his wife, Chicago lawyer Michelle Robinson, in 1989 and the pair married in 1992. They have two children, Malia Ann, born in 1998, and Sasha (Natasha), born in 2001.
In this final extract from his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama seeks to draw conclusions from his journey thus far.
IT’S BEEN six years since that first trip to Kenya, and much in the world has changed. For me, it’s been a relatively quiet period, less a time of discovery than of consolidation, of doing the things that we tell ourselves we finally must do to grow up. I went to Harvard Law School, spending most of three years in poorly lit libraries, poring through cases and statutes. The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power – and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.But that’s not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.
We hold these truths to be self-evident. In those words, I hear the spirit of [nineteenth-century African American writers Frederick] Douglass and [Martin] Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin [Luther King] and Malcolm [X] and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up to their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country’s borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamouring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life, the same questions that I sometimes, late at night, find myself asking the Old Man. What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don’t always satisfy me – for every Brown v Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.
That faith, so different from innocence, can sometimes be hard to sustain. Upon my return to Chicago, I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the South Side – the neighbourhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass – what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we’ve always done – pretending that these children are somehow not our own.
I try to do my small part in reversing this tide. In my legal practice, I work mostly with churches and community groups, men and women who quietly build grocery stores and health clinics in the inner city, and housing for the poor. Every so often I’ll find myself working on a discrimination case, representing clients who show up at my law firm’s office with stories that we like to tell ourselves should no longer exist. Most of these clients are slightly embarrassed by what’s happened to them, as are the white co-workers who agree to testify on their behalf; no one wants to be known as a troublemaker. And yet at some point both plaintiff and witness decide that a principle is at stake, that despite everything that has happened, those words put to paper over 200 years ago must mean something after all. Black and white, they make their claim on this community we call America. They choose our better history.
I think I’ve learned to be more patient these past few years, with others as well as myself. If so, it’s one of several improvements in my character that I attribute to my wife Michelle. She’s a daughter of the South Side, raised in one of those bungalow-style houses that I spent so many hours visiting during my first year in Chicago. She doesn’t always know what to make of me; she worries that, like [Grandfather] Gramps and the Old Man, I am something of a dreamer. Indeed, in her eminent practicality and Midwestern attitudes, she reminds me not a little of [Grandmother] Toot. I remember how, the first time I took her back to Hawaii, Gramps nudged my ribs and said Michelle was quite “a looker”. Toot, on the other hand, described my bride-to-be as “a very sensible girl” – which Michelle understood to be my grandmother’s highest form of praise.
After our engagement, I took Michelle to Kenya to meet the other half of my family. She was an immediate success there as well, in part because the number of Luo words in her vocabulary very soon surpassed mine. We had a fine time in Alego, helping [my sister] Auma on a film project of hers, listening to more of Granny’s stories, meeting relatives that I’d missed the first time around. Away from the countryside, though, life in Kenya seemed to have gotten harder. The economy had worsened, with a corresponding rise in corruption and street crime. The case of the Old Man’s inheritance remained unresolved, and [family members] Sarah and Kezia were still not on speaking terms. Neither Bernard, nor Abo, nor Sayid had yet found steady work, although they remained hopeful – they were talking about learning how to drive, perhaps purchasing a used matatu together. We tried again to see George, our youngest brother, and were again unsuccessful. And Billy, the robust, gregarious cousin I’d first met in Kendu Bay, had been stricken with Aids. He was emaciated when I saw him, prone to nodding off in the middle of conversations. He seemed calm, though, and happy to see me, and asked that I send him a photograph of the two of us during better days. He died in his sleep before I could send it.
There were other deaths that year. Michelle’s father, as good and decent a man as I’ve ever known, died before he could give his daughter away. Gramps died a few months later, after a prolonged bout with prostate cancer. As a World War II veteran, he was entitled to be interred at Punchbowl National Cemetery, on a hill overlooking Honolulu. It was a small ceremony with a few of his bridge and golf partners in attendance, a three-gun salute, and a bugle playing taps.
Despite these heartaches, Michelle and I decided to go ahead with our wedding plans. Reverend Jeremiah A Wright jnr performed the service in the sanctuary of Trinity United Church of Christ, on 95th and Parnell [in Chicago]. Everyone looked very fine at the reception, my new aunts admiring the cake, my new uncles admiring themselves in their rented tuxedos. Johnnie was there, sharing a laugh with Jeff and Scott, my old friends from Hawaii and Hasan, my roommate from college. So were Angela, Shirley, and Mona, who told my mother what a fine job she’d done raising me. (“You dont know the half of it,” my mother replied with a laugh.) I watched Maya politely fending off the advances of some brothers who thought they were slick but who were, in fact, much too old for her and should have known better, but when I started to grumble, Michelle told me to relax, my little sister could handle herself. She was right, of course; I looked at my baby sister and saw a full-grown woman, beautiful and wise and looking like a Latin countess with her olive skin and long black hair and black bridesmaid’s gown. Auma was standing beside her, looking just as lovely, although her eyes were a little puffy – to my surprise she was the only one who cried during the ceremony. When the band started to play, the two of them sought out the protection of Michelle’s five- and six-year-old cousins, who impressively served as our official ring-bearers. Watching the boys somberly lead my sisters out onto the dance floor, I thought they looked like young African princes in their little kente-cloth caps and matching cumberbunds and wilted bow ties. The person who made me proudest of all, though, was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol. He still works at his accounting firm, but talks about moving back to Kenya once he has enough money. In fact, when we saw each other in Home Squared, he was busy building a hut for himself and his mother, away from our grandfather’s compound, in accordance with Luo tradition...’ And when we went together to stand by the Old Man’s grave, I noticed there was finally a plaque where the bare cement had been.
Abongo’s new lifestyle has left him lean and clear-eyed, and at the wedding, he looked so dignified in his black African gown with white trim and matching cap that some of our guests mistook him for my father. He was certainly the older brother that day, talking me through prenuptial jitters, patiently telling me for the fifth and sixth time that yes, he still had the ring, nudging me out the door with the observation that if I had spent any more time in front of the mirror it wouldn’t matter how I looked because we were sure to be late.
Not that the changes in him are without tension. He’s prone to make lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture, and scolds Auma for what he calls her European ways. The words he speaks are not fully his own, and in his transition he can sometimes sounds stilted and dogmatic. But the magic of his laughter remains, and we can disagree without rancour. His conversion has given him solid ground to stand on, a pride in his place in the world. From that base I see his confidence building; he begins to venture out and ask harder questions; he starts to slough off the formulas and slogans and decides what works best for him. He can’t help himself in this process, for his heart is too generous and full of good humour, his attitude toward people too gentle and forgiving, to find simple solutions to the puzzle of being a black man.
Toward the end of the wedding, I watched him grinning widely for the video camera, his long arms draped over the shoulders of my mother and Toot, whose heads barely reached the height of his chest. “Eh, brother,” he said to me as I walked up to the three of them. “It looks like I have two new mothers now.” Toot patted him on the back. “And we have a new son,” she said, although when she tried to say “Abongo” her Kansas tongue mangled it hopelessly. My mother’s chin started to tremble again, and Abongo lifted up his glass of fruit and punch for a toast.
“To those who are not here with us,” he said. “And to a happy ending,” I said. We dribbled our drinks onto the checkered-tile floor. And for that moment, at least, I felt like the luckiest man alive.
Dreams From My Fatherwas published first in the US in 1995. It is available in Ireland in paperback, published by Cannongate