October 11, 2008
It’s been a while since we’ve seen an American presidential candidate whose own writing could stand comparison with one of America’s greatest authors, but this moving and illuminating essay in the New York Review of Books puts Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father side by side with James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and so doing finds the two books complementing and reinforcing each other:
Although Obama mentions in passing in Dreams from My Father that he had read Baldwin when he was a young community activist in Chicago, there is no hint in the book that he modeled his own story in any way on Baldwin’s work. In both of their versions of who they became in America and how, there are considerable similarities and shared key moments not because Obama was using Baldwin as a template or an example, but because the same hurdles and similar circumstances and the same moments of truth actually occurred almost naturally for both of them.
Baldwin and Obama, although in different ways, experienced the church and intense religious feeling as key elements in their lives. They both traveled and discovered while abroad, almost as a shock, an essential American identity for themselves while in the company of non-Americans who were black. They both came to see, in a time of bitter political division, some shared values with the other side. They both used eloquence with an exquisite, religious fervor.
As Northerners, they both were shocked by the South. They both had to face up to the anger, the rage, which lay within them, and everyone like them, as a way of taking the poison out of themselves. It is almost as though, in their search for power — Baldwin becoming the finest American prose stylist of his generation, Obama the first black nominee for president of the United States — they would both have to gain wisdom, both bitter and sweet, at the same fount, since no other fount was available. Their story is in some ways the same story because it could hardly have been otherwise.
Obama and Baldwin may have spent their lives neutralizing the poisons that racism has brewed within them, but Obama’s opponent in the presidential race is frankly trying to exploit those same poisons and make them even more virulent. Read the NYRB essay and you’ll gain an understanding of why Obama seems to grow in stature and character each day while John McCain dwindles with each shabby lie and gross smear issuing from his campaign. The Republicans have spent decades manipulating racial hatred, but they have no experience in dealing with someone who has worked his way up in the face of those hatreds and learned how to neutralize them. Obama’s life has been leading up to this in ways few race-baiting wingers can even begin to understand.
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PUBLISHING NOTES: Looks like conservative hack Hugh Hewitt got a little ahead of himself with the title of his proposed book on the McCain-Palin campaign. And see how an online hissy-fit at wingerblog Red State resulted in a brief annoyance for a book publicist, and increased sales for a computer handbook.
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Jessica Valenti, executive editor of the excellent blog Feministing, is this close to submitting the manuscript for her next book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, but the fact that the book isn’t even out yet hasn’t stopped wingerbloggers from attacking it. One poor clown claims to have checked the book out already, even though the book won’t exist in published form for another several months. While we wait for The Purity Myth to hit the shelves, let’s catch up on Valenti’s other books: He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, and Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. In a similar vein, the history of the religious right’s distortion of sex education and exploitation of sexual fears is examined in Dagmar Herzog’s new book Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics.
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David Swanson wants to tell you about a book you might want to read after the presidential election.