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A newly discovered anecdote from Bill Ayers’ 1993 book “To Teach” solidifies the case that he is indeed the muse behind Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.”
In the book, Ayers tells the story of an adventurous teacher who would take her students out to the streets of New York to learn interesting life lessons about the culture and history of the city.
As Ayers tells it, the students were fascinated by the Hudson River nearby and asked to see it. When they got to the river’s edge, one student said, “Look, the river is flowing up.” A second student said, “No, it has to flow south-down.”
Not knowing which was right, the teacher and the students did their research. What they discovered, writes Ayers, was “that the Hudson River is a tidal river, that it flows both north and south, and they had visited the exact spot where the tide stops its northward push.”
In his 1995 book, “Dreams From My Father,” Barack Obama shares an intriguing story from his own brief New York sojourn.
He tells of meeting with “Marty Kauffman” at a Lexington Avenue diner, the man from Chicago who was trying to recruit him as a community organizer.
After the meeting, Obama “took the long way home, along the East River promenade.” As “a long brown barge rolled through the gray waters toward the sea,” Obama sat down on a bench to consider his options.
While sitting, he noticed a black woman and her young son against the railing. Overly fond of the too well remembered detail, Obama observes, “They stood side by side, his arm wrapped around her leg, a single silhouette against the twilight.”
The boy appeared to ask his mother a question that she could not answer and then approached Obama:
“Excuse me, mister,” he shouted. “You know why sometimes the river runs that way and then sometimes it goes this way?”
The woman smiled and shook her head, and I said it probably had to do with the tides.
Obama uses the seeming indecisiveness of this tidal river as a metaphor for his own. Immediately afterwards, he shakes the indecision and heads for Chicago.
This one anecdote holds a host of problems for Obama. For one, the East River would be hugely out of his way no matter where he lived in New York and especially if he lived anywhere near the Columbia campus on the upper West Side.
More troubling, his serendipitous journey to the river enables him to tell a story that is transparently fabricated and almost assuredly hatched in the weathered brain of Bill Ayers.
Even were there no other clues, Obama’s frequent and sophisticated use of nautical metaphors makes a powerful case for Ayers’ involvement in the writing of “Dreams.”
Despite growing up in Hawaii, Obama gives no indication than he has had any real experience with the sea or ships. His answer to the boy that the backflow “probably had to do with the tides,” if anything, confirms his inexperience.
Ayers, however, knew a great deal about the sea. After dropping out of college, he took up the life of a merchant seaman.
“I’d thought that when I signed on that I might write an American novel about a young man at sea,” says Ayers in his memoir, “Fugitive Days,” “but I didn’t have it in me.”
The experience had a powerful impact on Ayers. Years later, he would recall a nightmare he had while crossing the Atlantic, “a vision of falling overboard in the middle of the ocean and swimming as fast as I could as the ship steamed off and disappeared over the horizon.”
Although Ayers has tried to put his anxious ocean-going days behind him, the language of the sea will not let him go.
“I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience,” Ayers writes of his maritime adventures. Yet curiously, much of this same nautical language flows through Obama’s earth-bound memoir.
“Memory sails out upon a murky sea,” Ayers writes at one point. Indeed, both he and Obama are obsessed with memory and its instability. The latter writes of its breaks, its blurs, its edges, its lapses. Obama also has a fondness for the word “murky” and its aquatic usages.
“The unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs,” he writes, one of four times “murky” appears in “Dreams.”
Ayers and Obama also speak often of waves and wind, Obama at least a dozen times on wind alone. “The wind wipes away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed,” he writes in a typical passage. Both also make conspicuous use of the word “flutter.”
Not surprisingly, Ayers uses “ship” as a metaphor with some frequency. Early in the book he tells us that his mother is “the captain of her own ship,” not a substantial one either but “a ragged thing with fatal leaks” launched into a “sea of carelessness.”
Obama, too, finds himself “feeling like the first mate on a sinking ship.” He also makes a metaphorical reference to “a tranquil sea.”
More intriguing is Obama’s use of the word “ragged” as an adjective as in the highly poetic “ragged air” or “ragged laughter.”
Both books use “storms” and “horizons” both as metaphor and as reality. Ayers writes poetically of an “unbounded horizon,” and Obama writes of “boundless prairie storms” and poetic horizons – “violet horizon,” “eastern horizon,” “western horizon.”
Ayers often speaks of “currents” and “pockets of calm,” as does Obama, who uses both as nouns as in “a menacing calm” or “against the current” or “into the current.”
The metaphorical use of the word “tangled” might also derive from one’s nautical adventures. Ayers writes of his “tangled love affairs” and Obama of his “tangled arguments.”
In “Dreams,” we read of the “whole panorama of life out there” and in “Fugitive Days,” “the whole weird panorama.” Ayers writes of still another panorama, this one “an immense panorama of waste and cruelty.”
Obama employs the word “cruel” and its derivatives no fewer than 14 times in “Dreams.”
On at least 12 occasions, Obama speaks of “despair,” as in the “ocean of despair.” Ayers speaks of a “deepening despair,” a constant theme for him as well.
Obama’s “knotted, howling assertion of self” sounds like something from the pages of Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.”
My own semi-memoir, “Sucker Punch,” offers a useful control. It makes no reference at all, metaphorical or otherwise, to ships, seas, oceans, calms, storms, wind, waves, horizons, panoramas, or to things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, or murky.
None. And yet I have spent a good chunk of every summer of my life at the ocean.
If there is any one paragraph in “Dreams” that has convinced me of Ayers’ involvement, it is this one, in which Obama describes the black nationalist message:
“A steady attack on the white race … served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.”
As a writer, especially in the pre-Google era of “Dreams,” I would never have used a metaphor as specific as “ballast” unless I knew exactly what I was talking about.
Seaman Ayers most surely did.