Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a three-part analysis of Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.” Read Part 1, “Bill Ayers’ motive for penning memoir.”
Bill Ayers and Barack Obama have a good deal in common. Indeed, their respective memoirs, “Fugitive Days” and “Dreams From My Father,” read like they could have been written by the same person – and, in fact, they may very well have been.
All the cited quotes that follow come from these two books. On the subject of content, I will refer to the author of “Dreams” as “Obama.” On the subject of style, I will refer to him as the “‘Dreams’ author.”
“Dreams” melds two styles: one, a long-winded accounting of conversations and events, polished just well enough to pass muster; the second, a fierce, succinct and tightly coiled analysis of the events that have been related.
“Fugitive Days” is fierce, succinct and tightly coiled throughout. It lacks the sometimes tedious fluff of “Dreams” and is the better book.
In the way of background, Ayers and Obama both grew up in comfortable white households and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since.
Just as Obama resisted “the pure and heady breeze of privilege” to which he was exposed as a child, Ayers, too, resisted “white skin privilege” or at least tried to.
“I also thought I was black,” says Ayers only half-jokingly. He read all the books Obama did – James Baldwin, Leroi Jones, Richard Wright, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
As proof of his righteousness, Ayers named his first son “Malik” after the newly Islamic Malcolm X and the second son “Zayd” after Zayd Shakur, a Black Panther killed in a shootout that claimed the life of a New Jersey state trooper.
Tellingly, Ayers, like Obama, began his careers as a self-described “community organizer,” Ayers in inner-city Cleveland, Obama in inner-city Chicago.
“They talked into the night about children, welfare, schools, crime, rent, gangs, the problems and the life of a neighborhood,” Ayers tells us of the poor black folks he tried to organize. “Dreams” is filled with such encounters.
In short, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama’s head and relating in superior prose what the “Dreams” author calls a “rage at the white world [that] needed no object.”
Indeed, in “Dreams,” it is on the subject of black rage that the author writes most eloquently. Phrases like “full of inarticulate resentments,” “knotted, howling assertion of self,” “unruly maleness,” “unadorned insistence on respect” and “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage” lace the book.
In “Fugitive Days,” “rage” rules and in high style as well. Ayers tells of how his “rage got started” and how it evolved into an “uncontrollable rage – fierce frenzy of fire and lava.”
Indeed, the Weathermen’s inaugural act of mass violence was the “Days of Rage” in 1969 Chicago.
As in Chicago, that rage led Ayers to a sentiment with which Obama was altogether familiar. Ah, yes, “audacity!”
Ayers writes, “I felt the warrior rising up inside of me – audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity.” This is one of several references.
The combination of audacity and rage has produced two memoirs that follow oddly similar rules. Ayers describes his as “a memory book,” one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history.
Obama says much the same. In “Dreams,” some characters are composites. Some appear out of precise chronology. Names have been changed.
“Is this then the truth?” writes Ayers of “Fugitive Days.” “Not exactly. Although it feels entirely honest to me.”
“What I’ve tried to do,” says Obama in the same spirit, “is write an honest account of a particular province of my life.”
The reader knows that Ayers – with some justification – has much to hide. He senses that Obama does too, but he is never quite sure why.
This presumed poetic license leads to the frequent manipulation of dates to make a political point.
“I saw a dead body once, as I said, when I was 10, during the Korean War,” writes Ayers. This correlation is important enough that Ayers mentions it twice. The only problem is that Ayers was eight when the Korean War ended.
Obama tells us that when he was 10, he and his family visited the mainland. On the trip, back in their motel room, they watched the Watergate Hearings on TV. The problem, of course, is that those hearing started just before Obama turned 12.
One could forgive a single missed date, but inconsistent dates and numbers appear frequently in both books and often reinforce some moment of lost innocence.
In the same spirit, both books abound in detail too closely remembered and conversations too well recorded. These moments in both books occasionally lead to an awareness of ugly and unrelenting racism.
In 1970, for instance, the 9-year-old Obama alleges to be visiting the American Embassy in Indonesia. While waiting, he chances upon “a collection of Life magazines neatly displayed in clear plastic binders.”
In one magazine, he reads a story about a black man with an “uneven, ghostly hue,” who has been rendered grotesque by a chemical treatment.
“There were thousands of people like him,” Obama learned, “black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.”
Obama’s attention to detail is a ruse. Life never ran such an article. When challenged, Obama claimed it was Ebony. Ebony ran no such article either. Besides, black was beautiful in 1970.
In a similar vein, Ayers tells of hitching a ride in Missouri with “Bud,” the driver of a “brand-new Peterbilt truck.” The man proceeds to regale Ayers with a string of dirty jokes – at least two of them retold word for word – before reaching under his seat and pulling out a large pistol, his “Nigger neutralizer.”
“White people can never quite remember the scope and scale of the slavocracy,” Ayers reminds the reader again and again. He writes as though he were not one of them.
In Obama, alas, Ayers may have found a much more a lethal weapon to use against the “marauding monster” called America than any pipe bomb he could have ever built.
Tomorrow: Part 3: “Real author of Barack book: Why it matters”
Read Part 1, “Bill Ayers’ motive for penning memoir.”