By David Ignatius
Thursday, January 17, 2008
The promise of Barack Obama's presidential campaign was that it would transcend the old racial and ideological categories of American politics. Obama was sometimes described as "post-racial" or "the Tiger Woods of politics" -- someone who defied the usual dividing lines and, in that sense, could be a healer and a uniter.
The past week has illustrated that race is still a campaign issue. The flap about what the Clintons meant in their comments about Martin Luther King Jr. or an Obama "fairy tale" on Iraq is overdone, but the deeper question of Obama's racial identity is not. He is the first African American with a chance to win the presidency, and many blacks -- after initially holding him at a distance -- are now treating him as a symbol of racial pride and identity. Amid this heightened sensitivity, the jostling that's normal in a political campaign is taken as a sign of disrespect.
Fortunately, we have Obama to help disentangle the racial threads. I don't mean the candidate we see on the stump -- it's too late in the campaign for that -- but the one who wrote the book. Obama's first memoir, "Dreams From My Father," is one of the best political autobiographies I've read, and it deserves to be a modern classic on the subject of the moment -- race and identity.
Much of Obama's book is about his own search to understand his life as a mixed-race child of an African father and a white Kansan mother. He describes his early teenage struggles in "trying to raise myself to be a black man in America," shooting pool in the red-light district of Honolulu or learning to trash-talk on the basketball court. "I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood," he writes.
The book is cited these days because of Obama's frank discussion of his use of drugs in the years when he was dealing with the absence of his father and his uncertain identity: "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: The final, fatal role of the young, would-be black man." He was spared, he writes, in part because of a sense of guilt: "Slipped it into your baby food," his mother told him.
The book is so honest, and so funny and self-aware, that you come away thinking that Obama is that rare politician who genuinely understands who he is. You can't help but worry that once the packagers are done with him, this voice will be blunted. Certainly, by the time he wrote his second memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama was more into speech-giving mode.
Obama makes clear in "Dreams From My Father" that he brings another valuable gift to politics, in addition to his African American heritage. That's his identity as what sociologists call a "third-culture kid," whose formative years were spent living overseas. Journalist Lee Aitken, who studied the phenomenon when she was editing a special feature for expatriate families called "At Home Abroad" in the International Herald Tribune, says that Obama exemplifies many of these third-culture traits.
Third-culture kids learn how to make their way in unfamiliar surroundings. The late Ruth Hill Useem, a former Michigan State sociologist who studied them for decades, explained: "They adapt, they find niches, they take risks, they fail and pick themselves up again. . . . Their camouflaged exteriors and understated ways of presenting themselves hide their rich inner lives." In surveys, more than 80 percent said they could relate to anyone, regardless of race or nationality.
It's this voice of a seeker and adapter that you discover in Obama's writings. Describing the years when he was still trying to find himself, "like a salmon swimming blindly upstream toward the site of his own conception," he says he searched for an identity as a civil rights activist and organizer. "Because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white and brown, could somehow redefine itself -- I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life."
This is the voice I wish I'd heard when the Clinton and Obama camps were trading attack points and "gotcha" lines about race and gender. Clinton has a story to tell about her struggle for identity, just as Obama does. But these candidates are so hunkered down, and their sound bites so pre-chewed, that we begin to lose sight of what makes them trailblazers. What's new gets swallowed up by what's old.
On race, I want to listen to Obama -- not his handlers and spin doctors. His journey is inspiring, if he doesn't get lost on the campaign trail.