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Obama’s Debt to His Brazilian Readers

President Obama's bookBarack Obama owes us another journey to Brazil. Not as president, but as a writer. His presidential duties did not permit him to meet with readers during his recent state visit. And that’s too bad because one could say that he wrote a classic, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. edited a beautiful book of United States slave narratives. U.S. events in the last few decades will permit the publication of a new collection of narratives of people of African descent, written by those who are experiencing the results of the end of racial segregation.

Transforming themselves into black entrepreneurs, artists, intellectuals and politicians, they are pioneers. Obama’s book will be part of this collection of the classic narratives by the first black North Americans to assume outstanding positions in the U.S. society that was, until recently, racist.

But it is not merely an historic opportunity that makes Dreams from My Father a classic; it is also its literary quality, its psychological depth, its political analysis, and, above all, its author’s majestic work of reconstructing his life with the life of his father, someone he barely knew.

The trajectory of the son of a black African and a white North American, born and raised in 1960s Hawaii, the book presents the author’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood alongside the trajectory of his father, born in a magical world into occidental standards, from Kenya, a student in the United States, an important public servant, when he returned to his country, who was marginalized due to sudden political changes. All this makes the narrative a book of adventure, of political reflection, of reconstitution of a time, of comparison between social classes and continents.

The book begins with the news of his father’s death, received in New York by means of a telephone call from Kenya in the voice of an aunt whom Obama does not know. He hardly knew his own father, who had returned to Kenya when his son was only two years old. And he had come back to Hawaii for a few days when his son was already a teenager. Despite the fact that they had spent so little time together, the author examines his father’s influence in the formation of his own racial consciousness, his political creed and his social militancy.

Throughout the years, in readings and conversations, in travels and militancy, he sought his origins; he constructed his consciousness. Through writing, he slowly built a self-analysis of the roots of his political and existential positions, his blackness, his vision of the world from the side of the poor, the excluded, the victims of colonialism.

It is surprising how this young North American gained the perception of an outsider by living in distant Indonesia and in the Chicago neighborhoods of the poor and the blacks. And how the author succeeded in perceiving and showing the connections and antagonisms between the two worlds.

In addition to its beauty and its galvanizing story, the book constructs great characters, recreated by the author’s art: his maternal grandparents, white North Americans; his many African siblings and other relatives on the Kenyan side of his family; his colleagues at work; people on the street with whom he socialized; and his mother, the great and discrete heroine, who deserves her own biography. Without her and her decisions, Obama would not exist nor would he have had the opportunity to live his personal adventure.

All this is transmitted in poetic language with images that permit the reader to live in the streets of Chicago, to hear his maternal grandparents’ dialogues and doubts in 1960s Honolulu, to witness the debates among radical and moderate black militants, to learn about the anguish and disorientation of those who seek to imitate the colonialists.

In the most emotional chapters, the reader travels through the streets of Nairobi and through the interior of Kenya, socializing with a magical world of brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, wives of his father’s polygamous lifestyle; and, above all, his grandfather, a story that seems to have been written by a Gabriel García Márquez.

Independent of any evaluations that will be made of his presidential administration, Obama’s election will continue to be one of the most striking political events of the 21st century.

If this election had never occurred, however, Obama would still remain a great writer due to the theme, the depth, the sincerity, the richness of the text and the plot as he writes about his world, about the socializing and disparity between whites and blacks, America and Africa, colonized and colonialists, about hope and convergence.

Considering his age, he will still be able to write more and pay off the debt that he left with his readers in Brazil when he was unable to meet with them during his recent visit.

Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his website at www.cristovam.org.br/portal2/, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SEN_CRISTOVAM in Portuguese and http://twitter.com/cbbrazilianview in English and write to him at cristovam@senado.gov.br.

New translations of his works of fiction The Subterranean Gods and Astricia are now available on Amazon.com.

Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome (LinJerome@cs.com).

 

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