Learning from Barack: Anger, Empathy, Community

November 21, 2008

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?”

Two reviews: J.D. Salinger and “Lost in America”

June 9, 2008

One of the most intriguing opening lines of any novel has to be those of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything personal about them.

Given Salinger’s fierce protection of his privacy and his refusal to give interviews or make public appearances over the last 30 years, the “two haemorrhages apiece” could apply equally to him. As openings go, Holden’s lines are a curious mixture of defensive and confessional with a literary reference thrown in for some added intrigue.

Like countless teenagers before me, I was completely captivated by Catcher when I first read it. Rummaging through some of my storage boxes yesterday (looking for Irvin Yalom’s “Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy”), I came across my old Penguin Modern Classics copy of Catcher together with a battered edition of short stories called, “For Esme With Love and Squalor”. On the inside cover my sister has written a short inscription to me for my 16th birthday when I visited her in Johannesburg in April 1986.

As an adolescent I could totally see myself in Holden Caulfield. We both came from ‘nice’ but dysfunctional families, we both read a lot and both suffered from what one reviewer calls “angst and alienation”. I liked his chatty tone and the way that he has about glossing over difficult things with a shrug. Salinger’s unauthorised biographer, Ian Hamilton, writes that by the late 1950s, Catcher (published in 1951) had “become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed”.

Interestingly, Catcher apparently has the distinction of being the most prescribed novel at high school in the U.S. and the most banned. One concerned parent counted 237 appearances of the word “goddam” in the novel, along with 58 “bastard”s, 31 “Chrissakes,” and six “fucks.”

Today, 22 years after I first read it, I find it difficult to read. Perhaps it brings back memories of being defensive and a bit lost as a late adolescent. I also find Salinger’s style a bit self-indulgent. He’s like a teenager who wants to be noticed and told how clever he is, but he doesn’t actually want to engage with his audience. Perhaps that’s too harsh but a brief comparison with another experience of growing up Jewish in New York (Nuland’s ‘Lost in America” below) makes Salinger appear lightweight. Of course that’s an unfair comparison since Salinger’s book was published in 1951 and was groundbreaking for its time (and also captured a sense of the post-war rebellion against authority and ‘phonyness’). I am intrigued by Salinger’s long silence (he hasn’t published since 1965) but reading the Wikipedia article on him here I can see why. His last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924” was roundly criticised as being far too long, narcissistic and obscure. Sundeep Dougal comments that

The most common complaint against Hapworth has been that it should have been at most half its published length, ending at the point where Seymour finds another pad of paper and takes off again in what has been called “a pompous display of erudition”. The Los Angeles Times commented in 1988 that it “was widely regarded as narcissistic, prolix and ultimately obscure in its intent” …

Here is the opening of Hapworth:

Some comment in advance, as plain and bare as I can make it: My name, first, is Buddy Glass, and for a great many years of my life–very possibly all forty-six–I have felt myself installed, elaborately wired, and occasionally, plugged in, for the purpose of shedding some light on the short, reticulate life and times of my late, eldest brother, Seymour Glass, who died, committed suicide, opted to discontinue living, back in 1948, when he was thirty-one.

Since then, Salinger apparently writes only for himself and a select audience. He is now 89 and, according to his daughter, has a whole filing cabinet of unpublished writing, which is to be published after his death.

Sherwin Nuland’s “Lost in America: A Journey With My Father” (2003) is a moving account of growing up in New York with a father who was disabled as much by physical and emotional afflictions as by an inability to integrate into America. Nuland, who is a surgery professor at Yale, starts off with an extraordinary account of his own depression, which confined him to a mental hospital for a year when he was in his early forties.

I was a bit worried that the author’s depression would bring me down, but so far the book has been mostly about his quirky Russian immigrant father, who clearly had a massive influence on his life. His father, Meyer Nudelman, came to America as a Russian immigrant at the age of 19 but remained largely unassimilated into American society for the rest of his life, speaking his own dialect of Yiddish-English for example. The dust jacket sums it up pretty well:

… Pursuing the immigrant’s dream of a better life but finding the opposite, he [Meyer] lived an endless round of frustration, despair, anger and loss: overwhelmed by the premature deaths of his first son and wife; his oldest surviving son disabled by rheumatic fever in his teens; his youngest son, Sherwin, dutiful but defiant, caring for him as his life, beset by illness and fierce bitterness, wound to its unalterable end. … Lost in America, Nuland’s harrowing and empathetic account of his father’s life, is equally revealing about the author himself. We see what it cost him to admit the inextricable ties between father and son and to accept the burden of his father’s legacy.