Saturday, December 08, 2007

Barak & Clarence's Memoirs A Stark Contrast

A black man nominated by Republican President George H.W.Bush and a black man seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party have both written books describing their lives from childhood to the present day. Both of these men are the products of divorced parents, and this is where the similarities end. I have not read these books yet, but I am basing my points about Clarence Thomas from watching him on 60 Minutes. I am basing my points about Barak Obama from this liberal gay blogger's piece at Pajamas Media.

One obvious contrast is in the titles of these books. Clarence has the maternal grandfather who did raise him in his title, and Obama has the divorced father who had nothing to do with him in his title.

Clarence Thomas grew up in the Jim Crow south. His grandfather, whom he called "Daddy," was a black man with a strict work ethic. Thomas witnessed his grandparents' steadfastness despite injustices, their hopefulness despite bigotry, and their deep love for their country. On 60 Minutes he told how his grandfather had told him to not be quitter. Clarence attended catholic seminary toward becoming a catholic priest. After Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Clarence overheard white students say that they hoped King was dead. This attitude by future priests in the Roman Catholic Church was more than Clarence could bear, and he dropped out of seminary. This estranged him from his grandfather. Clarence did not get swallowed up into the abyss of victimhood.

Intimately and eloquently, Thomas speaks out, revealing the pieces of his life he holds dear, detailing the suffering and injustices he has overcome, including the acrimonious and polarizing Senate hearing involving a former aide, Anita Hill, and the depression and despair it created in his own life and the lives of those closest to him. My Grandfather's Son is the story of a determined man whose faith, courage, and perseverance inspired him to rise up against all odds and achieve his dreams.

In the 60 Minutes interview Clarence said his journey was coming home to his grandfather's instructions instead of running away from them.

Bruce Bawer explains what he finds disturbing about Barak's book.

As the title intimates, the figure in Obama’s carpet is his father, a Kenyan exchange student who met Barack’s white, Kansas-born mother at the University of Hawaii. After marrying her and fathering Barack, Dr. Obama – as he was universally known – returned to Kenya to take up a high-ranking government position. Thereafter, he showed little or no interest in Barack, whom he met only once, when the boy was ten. Though Barack’s mother had a brief second marriage that took her and the boy to Indonesia, she raised him mostly in the Aloha State – and, by his account, was unfailingly selfless and loving, as were her parents, “Gramps” and “Toot,” who helped bring him up.

Yet on whom does Barack’s memoir focus? On his father – whom Barack, against all evidence (which suggests that Dr. Obama was colossally selfish and narcissistic), seeks to portray as heroic, sympathetic, indeed near-mythic. Obama père was a polygamist (and a lousy husband to all his wives), but Barack gives no indication that he finds this morally problematic; on the contrary, he seems determined to excuse his father’s many failings as consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and/or racism.

He treats his mother and grandparents, who by his own account raised him with extraordinary devotion, all but dismissively. At one point he even suggests that Gramps and Toot were really racists – and that all white people, in fact, are racists, and that black people have been so deformed by this racism that black individuals can hardly be held responsible for their own moral lapses.

At times it’s as if there were no historical injustices in the world other than those visited upon blacks by whites. Obama routinely refers to other black men (but never white men) as “brothers”; he exhibits considerably more concern for the dignity of black men than for that of women or non-black men; and he’s acutely sensitive to perceived racial slights (yet even as he deplores the subordination of blacks in America, curiously enough, he appears to accept as his due his family’s lofty position in Kenya).

What does it say about the young Obama that he was well-nigh obsessed with his vain braggart of an absentee father but trivialized his mother’s accomplishments? What does it mean that he himself plainly can’t see that his father comes off in these pages as a world-class jerk and his mother as a woman of admirable self-discipline and quiet achievement? What does it mean that throughout his account of his work as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama himself is in sharp focus while the underprivileged folks he’s supposedly trying to help are hazy figures in the distant background? What does it mean that some of the characters in this book – whom one would otherwise assume to be important people in his life – are, as he admits in the introduction, composites? What does it mean that despite his fixation on his father and his Kenyan kin, their religion (Islam) is barely mentioned, and that in the most substantial reference to it, he gives a genial thumbs-up to his brother’s newfound religious fervor?

Raised on glorious Hawaiian beaches by three wonderful people who were utterly devoted to him, he attended top schools and walked straight from graduation into a cool job in New York – all in all, a pretty lucky guy. Yet between this memoir’s lines, one senses a barely suppressed rage; his good fortune notwithstanding, one has the distinct feeling that Obama feels he – Dr. Obama’s son! – still hasn’t received his due.

I personally think that having in the future a black American President could be a help to a country with wounds dating back to the Civil War and earlier. However, I think it will only be a help when this future black American President does not employ the "I'm a victim of racism" card to get elected. It will be helpful for this person to get elected for the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.

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