On my way to Denver for what is being billed as the political speech of my lifetime, I am doing my best to open up a lotus-like space inside my head in which I can enjoy the pleasurable sensation that comes to lucky Ivy League meritocrats of a certain age, when friends from college and graduate school are on the verge of really running things in America. On any given Sunday, you stand a better-than-even chance of knowing speechwriters, his economic advisers, the New York Times correspondent covering his campaign, or someone who played basketball last Tuesday with the candidate. While I don't know the candidate personally, I feel as if I do, in part because he was at Harvard Law School when I was at Harvard, and he lived a few blocks away from me in a "transitional neighborhood" in Manhattan where rich people brought their dogs to poop. I know where the candidate is coming from, I am thinking, as I watch the fluffy white clouds float by my airplane window in a sea of antidepressant Obama blue.
It is hard not to like the idea of a writer becoming president, even if most writers I know would run for cover when confronted with the collapse of the financial system or the threat of Iranian nukes. I enjoy reading Barack Obama the writer for his particular mix of personal empathy and isolation, his abstract sentimentality and carefully modulated personal bitterness about his father, who appears as much more of a monster than the gauzy title of Obama's first memoir might alone suggest. Open on the gray plastic tray table in front of me is my heavily marked-up first edition of Dreams from My Father, which I found in a used bookstore in Manhattan and bought and read with pleasure without the slightest inkling that the author might someday run for public office, and which I am bringing with me to Denver in something of a continuing state of shock that Obama is likely to be elected president. How wonderful and strange it would be if our creaky American empire were to be governed by poets! It is true that Barack Obama isn't Shakespeare or Cervantes, or even John Ashbery, and that most writers would make lousy presidents, especially in America, where literature and politics have learned to keep the other at arm's length. Still, it is hard to argue with the fact that Dreams is a terrific book--an insightful, well-written, cunningly organized black male bildungsroman that also serves as a kind of autobiographical rejoinder to one of my favorite American novels, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Obama cites Invisible Man as a major influence on his personal evolution along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, two classic first-person narratives in the African American literary canon that can properly be thought of as novels with strong autobiographical components. (Malcolm X is ostensibly based on a series of taped interviews with the ex-Black Muslim leader and was written after Malcolm's death by Alex Haley, who also wrote Roots.)
What's even more remarkable about Dreams from My Father is the fact that it was written by a man who has since decided to run for president by disowning the most striking parts of his own voice and transforming himself into a blank screen for the fantasy-projection of the electorate. It is hard to overemphasize how utterly remarkable it is that Dreams exists at all--not the usual nest of position papers and tape-recorder talk, but a real book by a real writer who has both the inclination and the literary tools to give an indelible account of himself, and who also happens to be running for president. In which connection, it seems right to mention that the Barack Obama who appears in Dreams, and, one presumes, in his own continuing interior life, is not a comforting multiracial or post-racial figure like Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter who prefers to be looked at through a kaleidoscope. Though there are many structural parallels between Dreams and Invisible Man, Obama believes in the old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic, and, in the end, quite weird idea of racial authenticity that Ellison rejected. He embraces his racial identity despite his mixed parentage through a kind of Kierkegaardian leap into blackness, through which he hopes to become a whole, untroubled person.
My own belief is that Barack Obama has the makings of an unusual and unusually effective president, because he might combine a writer's sense of the dramatic moment, and of how language helps to shape reality, with the brain--and perhaps the soul--of a Harvard-educated technocrat. At the same time, I find it hard not to wonder about how President Obama will see the world, and what the major fault lines in his personality might be. The fact that the talking heads and the voters alike are unable to see him plain is an optic effect that Obama anticipates in his first book. It is no accident that the literary model for Obama's narrative of self is Ellison's Invisible Man, just as it is no accident that liberals and conservatives alike seem to be talking about five or six wildly different people when they talk about Obama, none of whom bears all that much resemblance to the narrator of Dreams.
Dreams from My Father is a story about the consequences of a fiction created by a white mother and well-meaning white grandparents in order to give a fatherless black child a sustaining myth by which to live. It is one of the more interesting facts about Obama the writer that the father he chooses to represent, and whose legacy he chooses to embrace, is a bona fide monster--a scary polygamist who abused his wives and children and drank away his intellectual promise and his career, then crippled himself in a car accident that left him with iron legs, and finally wrapped his car around a tree in a second accident that luckily proved fatal to no one other than himself. Dreams is a book about Obama coming to terms with this troubling monster and creating a workable self out of the ruins of his father's life.
Obama's distanced and writerly view of a self as something that is summoned through a creative act of will is at odds with the author's hand-me-down ideas about racial authenticity; the tension between the created self and the given self animates Obama's writing, but is not resolved in any satisfactory way. Filled with striking, well-disciplined sentences and observations, Dreams is also shot through with the vanity of a young man trying on borrowed clothing in front of a mirror as he attempts to figure out exactly what kind of black man he will be, a process that tells us that the narrator comes from a privileged place in society. The structure loosely but deliberately mirrors the structure of Ellison's novel--a picaresque, which shows an intelligent and bookish young black man's struggle with internal and external definitions of self as he moves through a series of institutional settings and self-defining impulses cloaked in the garb of communal politics or culture: the campus anti-apartheid movement, black and anti-colonialist literature, community organizing, the black church.
Where Obama's narrator provides the reader with a model consciousness, sensitive, responsible, and aware, who moves from triumph to triumph along the road to successfully embracing the fullness of his black identity, Ellison's story ends badly. The Ellisonian collision between the individualist consciousness and the realities of the color line in America produces a kind of fatal and indigestible dark matter that is aware of itself yet can never claim a full share of humanity. Ellison's protagonist is invisible because the symbolic radiance of his black skin queers the efforts of others to relate to him as an individual, and makes him prey to the manipulations of whites and blacks alike who utilize the brutal and absurd dynamics of the color line to satisfy private lusts for power and domination. The tragic thrust of Ellison's novel is often reduced to the banality that black people are invisible to white people. Ellison's deeper point is that the symbolic and actual baggage of race makes it difficult if not impossible for a black man to ever realize his full humanity in the eyes of anyone--white, black, communist, capitalist, or himself. A lone atom aware of his fate but powerless to change it, Ellison's narrator winds up in an underground room in a whites-only building in Manhattan lit up by 1,369 light bulbs powered by stolen electricity, listening to the startlingly original recordings of the young Louis Armstrong--completely illuminated and yet totally invisible.
Obama's decision to identify with the lineage of his black Kenyan father to the exclusion of his white U.S.-born mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and her parents allows him a measure of release from the cruel racial logic that binds Ellison's narrator--he comes from outside American society, and therefore he is not entirely bound by the overdetermined racial logic that unites the children of slaves and masters. Yet, while Obama's rejection of his "white blood" may seem familiar from the writings of African American authors like Malcolm X, it is actually much stranger; Obama's partial "whiteness" is not the product of an ancient rape by an anonymous slave-master but is instead the color of the mother who raised him. Obama's embrace of authenticity separates him from Ellison's profoundly modernist consciousness, and prevents him from seeing the serial absurdities of his own story. Where Invisible Man bubbles with fiery, absurdist humor, the narrator of Dreams rarely cracks a smile. One can only imagine what Ellison would have done with Obama's straight-faced account of his futile career as a community organizer in Chicago, or with the incredibly juicy character of Dr. Jeremiah Wright--a religious con man who spread racist and anti-Semitic poison while having an alleged sexual affair with a white church secretary and milking his congregation for millions of dollars and a house in a gated community whose residents are overwhelmingly rich and white.
The fact that Obama is hip to Ellison's rather depressing take on what race might mean for his career in American politics comes through in occasional moments of brutal honesty in his later writing, like his analysis of the basis of his political appeal in The Audacity of Hope: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." Here, Obama seems to agree with Ellison about the effect of the racial baggage that people bring to his public performance as a politician. The black candidate is rendered invisible to his white audience, a fact that would appear to leave him with little choice but to use that blindness in a strategic way if he wishes to lead.
It is one of the outstanding ironies of Obama's story that his political rise has been fueled by a tactical grasp of the same racial logic that condemned Ellison's invisible man to living in a basement by himself. The blank screen approach that Obama has embraced works well in a moment dominated by the collapse of Wall Street and the Iraq war, issues for which all possible solutions seem unpalatable; what voters want is to feel that things will change, without too much uncomfortable detail about what will actually happen. The fact that the candidate does not make the usual appeal to the authenticity of his personal story makes the usual attacks on him seem nonsensical, regardless of whether or not they are true, a fact that the Clintons lamented during the primary season and will find equally frustrating during the general election. Crazy right-wing charges that Obama shares the loonier opinions of Dr. Wright or that he is a secret Muslim blend seamlessly into reports of his calls for immediately beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq or his promise to sit down with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions, or the fact that he began his political career at Bill Ayers's house in Chicago, or that his financial backer Tony Rezko was a scummy slumlord who paid for the Obamas to have a new backyard. None of it sticks, because Obama is not that kind of candidate. The campaign uses the Ellisonian condition of invisibility to its advantage while also exerting a powerful form of mental jujitsu on guilty white liberals, a species that Obama knows well: Attacks on the candidate are simply projections of the (racist) mentality of his accusers. As they erase the weirder and more specific points of his sensibility in a blizzard of superlatives, whites create an image of a black superman as a kind of photo-negative image of liberal guilt.
On the copy of Time that I take with me to Denver, Obama emerges on the cover from some weird murk that makes it look like he was photographed from the head up while naked in a hyperbaric chamber. This being Time's seventh Obama cover in the last year, it seems fair to observe that his face is looking a little fleshier than usual. Whereas he once seemed to channel Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X circa 1963, he now looks more like a man who is tired from the physical ordeal of the campaign. The most striking thing about this week's Obama photograph is his mouth, which is a little bit hard, with upturned corners giving a suggestion of a smile. He's a political Mona Lisa. "He hears America singing--and griping, fretting, seething, conniving, hoping, despairing. He can deliver a pitch-perfect expression of the racial anger of many American blacks," writes David von Drehle, "and, just as smoothly, unpack the racial irritations gnawing at many whites."
Yet, however much the candidate is adored, and no matter how powerful the Democratic Party's mojo seems this year, it is hard to imagine that the Ellisonian premise of black invisibility can survive the premise of a modern presidential campaign, which is that the candidate should make himself known to the voters. Obama's failure thus far to construct a convincing public story about who he is and where he comes from is not an accident, but rather a product of the strategy that won him the Democratic nomination, and which informs his larger take on the realities of race in America. Of course, Barack Obama has already spelled out a convincing story of who he is and where he is coming from in Dreams from My Father--a story that has real literary merit but does not accord in every place with the usual pieties about race in America. Obama's put-downs of peers with mixed racial backgrounds who define themselves in a more ambivalent way seem at odds with the author's self-proclaimed talent for empathy. "That was the problem with people like Joyce," he writes of a female classmate who was not interested in campus activism. "They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people."