I’ve just started reading Barack Obama’s 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”, and already it’s taking me in unexpected directions. It details his “personal, interior journey — a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American”. The first surprise for me happens in the preface (updated in 2004) where BO writes a moving tribute to his mother, who died the year after the book was published:
“I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book — less a meditation on an absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. … I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.”
Could any mother wish for a better tribute than that? But just stop for a minute and think what would have happened if BO had written a book about his mother instead of his father. Would he have been labelled a mommy’s boy? Would people have said that he was denying his black heritage and trying to ingratiate himself with whites (as he says himself):
… some people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some tell-tale sign.
I suspect that it is BO’s ability to bridge both black and white (and to combine the best of his parents’ respective heritages) that is an essential ingredient of his success. If he was white he wouldn’t be as interesting as he is, and if he was “black black” he would be too different from mainstream America. Of course the issue of race is not a straightforward one. But as slow reads points out, people see in BO what they want to see. They can identify with him, see themselves in him. My BO is not the same as your BO.
I think BO’s comment on his mother was such a powerful one for me because it was unexpected and yet it made so much sense. It has become a cliché to say that mothers are the unsung heroes of our lives but I see it every day in my work. We need to take mothers for granted because that enables us to make our ways in the world. If we are constantly looking over our shoulders to see that mother is OK, then we’re always held back. What I liked in BO’s short tribute was the recognition that the best in him comes from his mother’s love. For me it recalls Auden: “he was my North, my South, my East, my West” and also Shakespeare: “love is an ever-fixed mark … whose depth’s unknown though its height be taken”.