Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”
Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice
Barbara Clare Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey
When Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance first appeared in 1995, it was greeted with relatively modest sales but favorable reviews: critics welcomed a politician who actually possessed writerly skills. In the wake of Obama’s celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and successful bid for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate, sales mounted, and a second edition appeared, this one containing the convention speech. In 2006, the audio book version, featuring the author as reader, won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. In 2007, a third edition was published, this time accompanied by an excerpt from Obama’s 2006 policy book, The Audacity of Hope. By July 2008, as the election neared, Obama’s autobiography had been on the best-seller list for 104 weeks. As of this writing in the summer of 2009, the book has sold millions of copies and been translated into eight different languages.
While Dreams from My Father has supplied some fodder for attacks by conservative pundits, it has for the most part inspired positive reviews, many of them bordering on hagiography. Toni Morrison praised Obama’s novelistic skill in “reflect[ing] on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had.” Joe Klein, in Time, proclaimed that the book “may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, described Dreams from My Father as “the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography [ever] written by a future president.” Indicating the book’s popular appeal, the hundreds of reviews recorded on Amazon.com give the now-President’s autobiography an overall rating of 4½ stars. An informal web-based survey of college course syllabi suggests that, either excerpted or in its totality, Obama’s autobiography is being frequently assigned to college students. Dreams from My Father has proven to be an outstanding success in commercial, critical, and popular terms.
Arguably, however, it is precisely because the President’s literary star has ascended to such heights that his text warrants critical scrutiny. For success in the U.S. book market is in large part a measure not just of literary excellence or authorial prominence but also of a text’s embodiment of normative assumptions about society and self. In particular, a narrative of ascent—of which Dreams from My Father is a prime example—characteristically invokes dearly held myths about bootstraps individualism and social mobility, however poorly such notions may mesh with the realities of life in modern capitalist society. In this post-millennial moment, rife with anxieties domestic and international, economic and political, there is a particular yearning for tales about individuals who have passed over barriers and triumphed over hardships, thereby affirming the nation’s transcendence of its ugly racial past and entry into a present that is, if not “post-racial”—the current popular buzz-word—at least qualitatively more benign. To the extent that the identity quest embarked upon and achieved in Dreams from My Father can be taken to illustrate the integrity of not just its central actor, but the nation that has chosen him to be its leader, the text functions as Exhibit A in the case for American progress.
My principal goal in this essay—which is directed primarily to teachers of Obama’s text—is to examine the various rhetorical maneuvers that the author deploys in order to render maximally persuasive his odyssey to self-knowledge. I shall engage in a study not just of literary devices—which Obama handles with considerable skill—but of the ideology of form. This project will involve textual analysis on both the macro-level—the text’s apparatus of prefaces and postscripts, its tripartite division, the structuring of its individual units—and the micro-level—its narrative voice, methods of characterization, deployment of metaphor. To a significant extent, however, the effect of Dreams from My Father is contingent upon what the text does not say—the structured silences that allow it to minimize or, on occasion, exclude material that might impede its ideological work. In order to read the text fully, I shall as needed move outside it—not just to events and situations in Obama’s own life that are elided in his narrative, but also to events in the life of the mysterious father who inhabits the core of the narrative. Although readers may find most provocative the occlusions and obfuscations discussed in the final portion of this essay, they are urged to view these in the context of Obama’s overall rhetorical project, in which the said and the not-said are indissolubly linked…
…“A broader public debate”: Narrative frames
The teleological structure of Dreams from My Father can be described in various terms: a narrative of ascent and quest; a record of redemption, reinvention and rebirth; an odyssey from isolation to belonging, alienation to community. Obama’s story is distinctly gendered—unabashedly Oedipal in its focus on fathers and sons—and raced—it places front and center the identity dilemma of a young man of mixed descent coming to terms with the dualisms and hierarchies of a society obsessed with racial categorization. As Obama puts it in his 1995 Introduction, the text records “a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American” (xvi). Dreams from My Father thus invokes such classic accounts of black male self-discovery as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Malcolm X’s Autobiography, as well as various autobiographical and fictional writings of James Baldwin and Richard Wright—many of which are referenced, implicitly and explicitly in the course of Obama’s narrative. Where these earlier explorations of selfhood characteristically end in defeat or ambivalence, however, Obama’s journey—described throughout the text by means of a trope of voyaging, charting, and traveling the seas—ends in a triumphal homecoming. The text assures its readers that, although not without a few false starts that were soon corrected, its protagonist has moved from a child’s non-racial consciousness through an ambivalent Third Worldism to a confident blend of cosmopolitanism and American nationalism, bolstered by an ecumenical optimism that Obama loosely terms “faith.”…
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