Deciphering Barack: Obama’s Mama Drives His Desire to Redeem

Nicholas Powers Oct 18, 2008

Why forgive? When we are wronged and wronged again by a loved one, why isn’t rage enough? It never is. Slowly, it becomes silence. The silence hardens into a brittle pride that breaks when revenge is beyond reach and the original pain, once throbbing beneath the surface is uncovered. Such a rending of pride happened to Barack Obama when his Aunt called from Kenya to say that his father, long absent from his life, died in a car crash.

The scene of unrecoverable loss begins his memoir Dreams From My Father, published in 1995 to good reviews and mild sales. It’s now seen as the Rosetta stone for Obama, the key to decipher the man who will be the next American president. It’s tempting to sift its pages for clues to how he would govern and the memoir offers them. He is driven by a need to redeem, to pay off debt owed by those whose shame has silenced them.

Obama’s father needed redemption. Even though he had a wife and children in Kenya, his father courted Stanley Ann and in a whirlwind of hunger and fascination they married and soon Obama was born. Two years later, he left for Harvard and in the distance between them their whirlwind unraveled. They divorced and when Obama asked for his father, she covered his absence with stories, creating a mythology for her son to love in place of a man.

Out of love for her son, she lied. Also, out of love, she woke early each day to teach him what he would not learn in school. She showed images of the Civil Rights Movement, played Mahalia Jackson records, read aloud about Thurgood Marshall and Fannie Lou Hamer. Obama’s mother taught him, “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear. Burdens we were to carry with style.”

Yet there were threats she could not see. He wrote that while waiting for his mother, he looked through a Life magazine and saw a black man who chemically peeled his skin to be white. The photo showed a face burned to a ghostly hue. Obama was terrified that a man, who like him was brown, could be possessed by an urge to destroy himself. He writes, “That one photograph told me, that there was a hidden enemy out there, one that could reach me without anyone’s knowledge, not even my own. I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror…and wondered if there was something wrong with me.” He did not ask his mother because he knew she could not answer. Her whiteness blinded her.

It was the beginning of Obama’s Double-Consciousness, a concept coined by W.E.B. Du Bois describing how brown folk endure, “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It is the archetypal experience of every minority surrounded by the images of a dominant culture in which they see their reflection distorted. In the pages of that Life magazine, young Obama saw the self-hate that could destroy him. It was then that he needed his father but in place of a man he had a useless myth.

Obama sought safety. If his mother could not shield him and his father was absent, he searched for it in African America. He passed into “blackness” under the camouflage of assumed solidarity. He studied “blackness”, first as a high-school basket-ball player, then as a college activist and finally as an adult community organizer. He listened to the old men gossiping as they shaved hair in the barber-shop, the women coming from church wobbling under the burden of old age and even older worries, the kids cursing in bitterness on the corner. Obama internalized black consciousness because it shined like a “UV-light” exposing the invisible racism of everyday life.

He was, if not safe, at least safer. But as Obama learned to see himself and the world through a black consciousness he could not close that inner-eye through which his mother saw him. She loved him not as a color but as her son. No one else could see in his face the source of his laughter or his tears or know why moods clouded his eyes when his questions weren’t answered. So even if she was naïve to the racism that magnetically clung to his skin her naiveté did not make her racist. The need to love another human being is worth more than the sometimes confused way that love was shared. And he had proof. When she visited him, he asked her about his father. “What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was something that I suspect most Americans will never hear from the lips of those of another race, and cannot be expected to believe exist between black and white: the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment.”

He knew that the void between the “races” has never been empty but is a murky silence where fear and hope, disgust and love float back and forth in a toxic storm. Obama knew that place well and has built his political career by standing in there and shaping that storm into crystal-bright words. It was why, years later, in 2004 he could take the stage at the Democratic Convention and with a cool calculated ease, give us the vision of a unity we desperately needed.

Yet the image he had of “blackness” was not one he learned from other black folk or even created but it was the one his mother taught him. She aged and died of cancer but Obama still saw himself through her eyes. It was as if to be seen by her he became those early Civil Rights images she showed him as a child, marching to the last door of power and getting in. He also knew that his father failed her and him and wanted to redeem the man she once loved. When he went to Kenya, Obama listened to stories about his father and discovered a man too proud to not castigate the powerful, too proud to stop as they stripped him of his title and job and too proud to speak of the pain of losing his place. His father drank himself numb until one night, too numb to turn the steering wheel of his car he crashed and was killed. Standing between the grave of his father and grandfather, Obama wept, speaking on their behalf, “Oh father I cried. There was no shame in your confusion…There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us.”

His words were his payment on his father’s behalf. Having lived between the lies people tell about others and about themselves, Obama knew that lies can separate us so far from reality that we become terrified of it and will commit crime after crime to keep it at bay. His father had lost his life and his son because of shame. Weeping over his grave, his son redeemed him by telling his story. It is this need, to redeem, to explain, to pay off the debt of those silenced by shame that drives him.

How much of Obama’s drive to redeem is translated into public policy is unknowable, too many other factors must be weighed. Yet something just as important is within the memoir. Dreams from My Father gives us evidence that Obama is a man, not a symbol and this book may be the last artifact we have of his humanity before he is swallowed by history