Learning from Barack: Anger, Empathy, Community

Reading Parts 2 and 3 of Dreams From My Father, I was struck by the power of anger as a force for change, Obama’s capacity to learn and grow out of adversity and the intertwining of the personal and the political. Barack’s experiences as a community organiser in the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1980s provide a few hints of the powerful political figure to come but the lasting impression for me was how an accumulation of small changes can make a big difference.

I was impressed with Obama’s honesty, his determination, his willingness to learn from people and his ability to integrate the diverse strands of his experience (Hawaiian, Indonesian, white, black, African, American) into a meaningful whole. For a start, there’s the interconnectedness of education, health, crime, the economy, identity. One moving scene towards the end sees a solitary Barack sitting in a packed Chicago church listening to the charismatic African-American preacher Jeremiah Wright give a sermon on the “audacity of hope”. The boy next to him nudges his arm and hands him a tissue, at which point Barack realises that he has tears running down his cheeks. In the context of his Chicago community work it makes a lot of sense and seems to mark a moment of emotional homecoming and integration.

On a personal level, the young Barack reminded me a lot of my friend Kevin R. A young American volunteer from Washington DC, Kevin came out to South Africa in the mid-90s to volunteer for a year at a black school in Limpopo province. He was tall, good-looking, confident, had a way with languages (he was half-Italian) and full of ideas. Like Barack, he grew up with his mother who encouraged him and his sister to travel back to Italy once a year to keep his ties with his father’s family alive. Kevin was smooth like Barack and had a way with women which I envied.

Kevin and I finished up our work in Limpopo at the same time and he came to stay with me in Cape Town before boarding a yacht to sail across to South America. Like the young Barack, Kevin had a yearning for his dad, who now lived in Brazil, and this was a good way of making his way back to America. I lost contact with him but I’m sure he made good. Probably not quite as good as Barack but he was headed for a good grad school and then a job with the UN, the World Food Programme or the EU.

Like Kevin, the young Barack had drive, curiosity, empathy, a sharp intellect, and a dissatisfaction which drove him on. Obama also has a great way of telling stories — you’re right there with him in the South Side of Chicago, noticing the sweat on the necks of the old men playing cards, breathing in the polluted air and feeling the cold wind blow about your ears.

One phrase that stood out for me was “a capacity for outrage”. He describes community workers worn down by the system who’ve lost the capacity for harnessing the anger that you need to make things happen.

There are many lessons to be learned in this autobiography. For a start I’m wondering about anger as a positive force for change, and the delicate balance between anger, empathy and hope. A few quotes to finish off with:

On community: “… communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens”.
On anger: “… anger’s a requirement for the job” (his first boss giving him advice)
On community work: “… getting to the centre of people’s lives”.
On black identity: “… are you surprised black people still hate themselves?”

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4 Responses to Learning from Barack: Anger, Empathy, Community

  1. litlove says:

    Well done you on finishing the book! I have yet to start the second part, having had a rather more fraught week than I expected, but I like very much what you have to say here. I find anger the emotion I am most afraid of, but if I think of it as the force of separation, the energy that makes you grow up, and move away from submission and complicity and parental anxiety and embrace the new, then you can see where Obama’s coming from in channeling that anger into something creative and potentially healing. Takes a big grown up to really make it work, though, and I think he may well be that.

  2. Pete says:

    Hi Litlove – I had to give the book back on Friday hence the quick read. I skimmed the section on Kenya, but the discussions with his Kenyan family and the exploration of his roots there were not riveting reading for me. I like your comment about anger and healing. Still trying to work that one out for myself but Obama’s book gives me hope that I can channel my anger in a good way. It makes me want to go back and sift through my old diaries again, tracking the themes of anger and empathy there. Thanks for the comment.

  3. seachanges says:

    I did not read this one but was very impressed by The Audacity of Hope. Isn’t it just wonderful to have someone literary in the White House?!

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    I’d like to read some of Obama’s writing sometime — if only to enjoy the fact that I have such a smart, thoughtful president! But I’m glad to hear you are finding the book so thought provoking. What a wonderful image of Obama sitting there with tears running down his face.

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