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Black history for whites - Part 2

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 19, 2007

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Chapel Hill, NC - “That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.”

This line is at the heart of a current New York Times best seller, one that ought to be required reading for people of every color who are wrestling with the question of what it means to be black in today’s America.

No, the bus ride is not about Montgomery or the freedom rides of the 1960’s. This one took place in Chicago in the 1980’s.

The story comes from “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Barack Obama’s memoir of his early life. After graduation from college, Obama spent several years as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side before he entered Harvard Law School. As the child of a Kenyan father and white American mother, he did not automatically fit in with the African American culture of the Chicago community he sought to organize.

But he found his place and came to this important bus ride after arranging a successful confrontation between the residents of a rundown housing project and the city’s top housing officials. Even though the “success” proved incomplete, he wrote, “I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way. It was the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way (wealth, security, fame) but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on, beyond the immediate exhilaration, beyond any subsequent disappointments, to retrieve that thing that you once, ever so briefly, held in your hand. That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.”

I admit that I read Obama’s book to try to find out why and how this new U.S. Senator has become a presidential candidate who represents a serious threat to the plans of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and the other Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in 2008.

I got my answer.

First of all, Obama is a thoughtful, reflective, persuasive communicator when it comes to describing what he learned about the condition of the mostly unemployed and mostly poor blacks in and around Chicago’s housing projects. His commitment to them is clear. But it does not keep him from examining the causes of their problems. These include their exploitation by other blacks and their own failure to assert their rights and take advantage of some of the few opportunities available to them. Obama is brutal in his criticism of some black leaders and ministers, who feather their own nests at the expense of those who need their help.

On the other hand, his description of despair and lethargy in the housing projects can help whites understand why they are often blamed for the conditions of the people in the projects.

Obama’s experience in Chicago is only one part of his story, which is framed as a quest to understand his Kenyan father, who returned to Kenya before he knew his son.

Obama was born in Hawaii, where his mother and her parents lived and Obama’s father attended university. Obama grew up there, except for a few years in Indonesia where his mother’s second husband lived.

Although he was devoted to his white mother and grandparents, his experiences outside the home made it impossible to ignore that he was black, and he embraced his black friends and black culture. Nevertheless, his “white roots” gave him a degree of objectivity about his “black experience” that enables him to clearly describe to whites some things they have had a hard time understanding about blacks.

In the final section of his book, Obama describes his trip to Kenya, where he meets uncles and aunts and the children of his father’s other wives. Traveling on ancient trains and crowded buses, he makes his way to his family’s home village. There, one of his grandfather’s wives tells him the complicated story of his great grandfather, his grandfather, and, at last, his father and their successes and failures in their efforts to succeed.

This knowledge gives Obama some of the comfort he sought. It also gives his readers a tale that is better than fiction—and more reasons why Obama is such a compelling candidate.

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D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5:00 p.m.

Bookwatch will return to the air at the conclusion of UNC-TV’s fund raising “Festival” programming.w.

 
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