Barack Obama grew up without a father and his mother was quite frequently absent from his life. This prompts David Maraniss to conclude that in a very real sense he “raised himself” (xix). He “worked his way alone through many confounding issues life threw his way” (xix). If this is true then an argument can be made against Maraniss’s idea that genealogy and family have very little to do with how he became the man that he is today. But there is more, so much more, to be seen in this observation. Maraniss says the questions about nature and nurture are completely fair and then explains why this is true. Even though family is “certainly . . . not everything . . . [this social influence] is crucial” (xix), he writes. One can, for example, easily see how the imprint of Obama’s mother, and maternal grandmother, are deeply impressed upon him from the very earliest stages of his life.
In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama acknowledged that his mother and maternal grandmother shaped him into the man that he eventually became. In his best-selling memoir Obama takes a great deal of liberty in recasting this story. He understandably changes names and places to protect people. He also creates composite characters by referring to people and events in one context that were very often in different contexts. Maraniss understands this style and does not dispute its place in memoir writing but believes Obama sometimes tells a story that is not quite faithful to the composite of historical facts. Maraniss believes Obama did not manufacture whole stories but rather he created fairly accurate stories that led to some glosses and mis-statements that can, and should, be corrected by deeper research and further biographical study. In my view David Maraniss is fair in this assessment. I feel certain that this challenge will deeply frustrate those who adore President Obama. Some may even see this as a personal attack on his truthfulness but it is not written in this way if the book is read with care. Maraniss clearly does not believe that Obama is a liar in any meaningful sense of the word, just a memoirist who tells a story that does not reveal the whole of his real life story in context.
The author’s insights into how Obama became the person that he is now flow out from the Introduction. (If you have no interest in reading the book then the Introduction is worth reading for gaining some clear insights into how to write a biography and how to relate nurture and nature in developing personal character formation.) Consider this for example:
The effects of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia are also readily evident in the adult Obama, his uncommon combination of cool remove and adaptability. That is environment. As for nature, there are parts of his appearance and personality–his voice and self-confidence, for starters, each of which should not be underestimated as factors in his political ascent–that can be traced clearly to his absent father. He has his white grandfather’s long face and his motions and gestures. And, all in all, the past might be even more essential in figuring out someone who remade himself. People are shaped equally by action and reaction, by what they accept and what they reject from their own inheritance. Obama is best understood with that in mind, not only by how his family and environment molded him but how he reshaped himself in reaction to them (xix).
If you cannot see how valuable these insights are into understanding a person then I fear that you have little intellectual or emotional curiosity. It is unlikely that you have ever asked yourself these kinds of questions, questions that will help you understand how you were influenced by your own nurture and nature.
My adult children, ages 35 and 39, have recently developed a keen interest in family history. I have learned things about my nature and heritage, and even about the personality of my relatives, that have given me fresh insights into myself that have enriched and improved my own life. Consider this particular biography such a book except that the person being studied here is the sitting president of the United States.
More than once Barack Obama has paraphrased the words of William Faulkner– “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”–in his personal writings or speech making. It is this idea that drove David Maraniss to travel to Indonesia, Kenya, Kansas and Hawaii. It pushed him to interview people who knew the young Barack Obama. This is also why he meticulously interviewed hundreds and hundreds of relatives, neighbors, friends and acquaintances. And this is a major reason why the story he now tells has never been told, at least not with this level of thoroughness and insight into the man. If for no other reason than this BOTS sets the standard for future studies of Barack Obama, a standard that other writers will need to study in order to understand and measure the man and his actions
BOTS unfolds, in the early chapters, in the small towns of Kansas, where the president’s maternal family lived for several generations. It also unfolds in some of the remotest parts of western Kenya, where Obama’s father and African family lived for generations. The first third of BOTS is really a study of family roots. Obama’s mother and father met when his dad was a student at the University of Hawaii. His mom became pregnant when she was only 18. Within a few months she married Barack, Sr. As the inside dusk jacket of says, “This is a roots story on a global scale, a saga of constant movement, frustration and accomplishment, strong women and weak men, hopes lost and deferred, people leaving and being left.” This sentence sums up the dynamic of Barack Obama’s background very well. Most of what we know about his mother, father and grandmother has been told and retold. There is not much new to be discovered here except the point that Barack’s mom made a conscious decision to never attack Barack’s dad by speaking ill of him. Yet Barack, Sr. abandoned his young family when he (ironically) went to Harvard to pursue doctoral studies. (He never completed his degree at Harvard even though he did get close to completion. He was required to leave the U.S. by the INS, but not for political reasons.) Barack’s dad was intellectually brilliant but a completely self-absorbed person with no moral center. He drank heavily, used all kinds of drugs and essentially wasted an incredible opportunity to make something of himself. In spite of all this he had several responsible positions in the government of Kenya after returning to his country. By all accounts he could have gone very far if he had learned to master himself.
For those who wonder Barack’s dad was not a practicing Muslim. The president’s Kenyan grandfather was a convert to Islam but Barack, Sr., like the president’s mother as well, was an atheist. Barack’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was also a gifted intellectual. She plainly loved her son but she also had a deep desire to engage with the world. After meeting and marrying her second husband, an Indonesian, she moved to his homeland and had a daughter, Maya. Young Barack lived in Indonesia during this time, which were his primary school years. His mother, Stanley Ann, invested a great deal in helping young Barack develop his mind, as well as the basic discipline of hard work. She privately taught him in the home at night even though he went to school during the daytime. Her second marriage failed in less than five years. She returned to Hawaii with Barack, and his half-sister Maya, but then rather quickly returned to Indonesia to pursue her social studies and work in anthropology. She also wanted to raise Maya as an Indonesian, both culturally and linguistically. But Barack was raised an American since he returned to Hawaii and lived with his maternal grandparents. This is why Barack’s grandparents played such a hugely important part in his development, especially his grandmother Madelyn. (Madelyn Dunham died only two days before the November 2008 election. At the time she was the last influential parent figure left in his family.) When Barack’s mom moved back to Hawaii she would only live there off and on, say for a few months at a time. She spent much of her adult life outside the United States. She died of uterine cancer in 1995, only three weeks short of turning fifty-three. She lived long enough to see the release of Barack’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, in July of 1995. It was a book that received little or no notice until Obama became a national political figure in 2004 and then the book became a national best-seller. (I read it in early 2005.)
Tomorrow: Barack Obama, The Story, Part 3.