Barack Obama as Invisible Man

David Samuels has a piece in The New Republic, comparing Dreams From My Father and Invisible Man:

“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.”

To be really simplistic about it: Dreams from My Father  (DFMF) is Invisible Man  (IM) with a happy ending, much like Lion King is Hamlet with a happy ending.

But to be more specific, DFMF is IM run in reverse. The Obama character (and I use the word character because the Barack Obama in the book is wholly the invention of Barack Obama the writer; in this regard an analogy can be drawn between Dante the traveller and Dante the poet in The Divine Comedy) runs the reverse course as the protagonist in IM. The protagonist IM starts out as an idealistic, color-unconscious, smart, overachieving youth who believes that his skin color will not be a source of prejudice for other people. But by the end, the IM protagonist realizes the bitter conclusion that everyone else refuses to recognize his individulity and is thus rendered “invisible” as a human being.

The Obama character in DFMF, however, starts out with the bitterness (albeit a kind of caricaturized, teenage bitterness) about his lack of a clear identification with either blacks or whites. The narrative of DFMF is the Obama’s character eventual reconciliation with his “black” heritage, culminating in his marriage to a “real” black person, living in a “real” black community, and joining a “real” black church. All this is topped off with the belief that the Obama character has somehow transcended the black-white racial divide.

So whereas IM is a story about the collapse of racial reconciliation, DFMF is a story about synthesizing the dialectics of race relations in this country.

Now, the real interesting question to me is this: does Obama the writer, nay, Obama the person, actually believes his story in DFMF? Or is he just writing the story to present a non-threatening, uplifiting, and optimistic view about race relations to a country that is not quite ready to really talk about race relations in a honest, subtle way?

As well writte as the DFMF is, it reminds me of one of those Asian American novels in which the protagonist manages to reconcile the dualing aspects of his identity. Well, in reality, all that reconciliation stuff is hogwash. I’m even having trouble doing that, and I’m not even biracial: just a Chinese immigrant who grew up in his formative years in America. Now, imagine what it’s like for someone who is bi-racial?

In the end, I’m afraid Ralph Ellison’s pessimistic conclusion is correct: we just can’t get past the Other.


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