Monday, February 2, 2009

Obama's Dreams

On Friday, I finished reading Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father to my friend Trink. After we finished, I borrowed the book so I could re-read the last chapter and epilogue. When I read it to Trink, I found myself choking back tears. I was surprisingly moved by Obama's realization of the ways in which we're all connected to family, whether we know or them or not, and to each other -- race to race, class to class, gender to gender, religion to religion, nation to nation. Another friend of mine told me months ago that she had been planning to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary until she read this book. Now I see what she did: a hopeful, expansive vision of our common humanity.

In the epilogue, I found these passages (pages 437-9) especially compelling:

"The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power -- and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.

"But that's not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident. With those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country's borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life, the same questions that I sometimes, late at night, find myself asking the Old Man [Obama's father]. What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don't always satisfy me -- for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself moderately encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

" . . . despite everything that has happened, those words put to paper over two hundred years ago must mean something after all. Black and white, they make their claim on this community we call America. They choose our better history."

Perhaps one day we will all choose our better history. Thank you, Mr. President for your candor and your hope.

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