Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Barak Obama

Barack Obama
An air of decency...
(Image from Wikipedia)

Just this past Sunday, I bought a copy of Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

I haven't read it yet -- hey, I've had it only two days! -- but it does look interesting, and he knows how to open a story:
A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn't work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.
For those with interest caught, you can read more in an excerpt at eReader.com. I will probably read the book slowly and comment occasionally over this summer since I'm too caught up in other, required reading and writing to get through Obama's story in one setting.

I say that he knows how to open a story because he begins with a line -- "A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news" -- that leaves us wondering: "What news?"

It's an old literary technique, but it usually works well at getting us to read a bit further, looking for that news.

Obama doesn't give us that news for another 7 paragraphs, and by that time, he's probably won most of us over to listening to his story. The fourth paragraph -- in which Obama likens his own solitude to that of an old man in the flat next to his own -- impressed me:
I remember there was an old man living next door who seemed to share my disposition. He lived alone, a gaunt, stooped figure who wore a heavy black overcoat and a misshapen fedora on those rare occasions when he left his apartment. Once in a while I'd run into him on his way back from the store, and I would offer to carry his groceries up the long flight of stairs. He would look at me and shrug, and we would begin our ascent, stopping at each landing so that he could catch his breath. When we finally arrived at his apartment, I'd carefully set the bags down on the floor and he would offer a courtly nod of acknowledgment before shuffling inside and closing the latch. Not a single word would pass between us, and not once did he ever thank me for my efforts.
By telling us a bit about the old man, this brief anecdote tells us some things about Obama. At the very least, we see that he's thoughtful, and in two ways -- in extending an act of kindness and in reflecting upon the old man, a reflection further expanded upon in the two paragraphs that follow:
The old man's silence impressed me; I thought him a kindred spirit. Later, my roommate would find him crumpled up on the third-floor landing, his eyes wide open, his limbs stiff and curled up like a baby's. A crowd gathered; a few of the women crossed themselves, and the smaller children whispered with excitement. Eventually the paramedics arrived to take away the body and the police let themselves into the old man's apartment. It was neat, almost empty -- a chair, a desk, the faded portrait of a woman with heavy eyebrows and a gentle smile set atop the mantelpiece. Somebody opened the refrigerator and found close to a thousand dollars in small bills rolled up inside wads of old newspaper and carefully arranged behind mayonnaise and pickle jars.

The loneliness of the scene affected me, and for the briefest moment I wished that I had learned the old man's name. Then, almost immediately, I regretted my desire, along with its companion grief. I felt as if an understanding had been broken between us -- as if, in that barren room, the old man was whispering an untold history, telling me things I preferred not to hear.
"What sort of things?" we wonder, and at this point ... comes that shadowed, foreshadowed news, leading to a story of self-discovery, it seems (but I haven't read far enough yet).

I've previously blogged about Obama because something about him fascinates me. Not the politics, for I don't know his politics very well, but something else.

Perhaps his air of decency? I'll keep you posted.



At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery,
The brother (Frank) met Sarah Obama, Barack's granny, while he was in Africa recently. A very nice unpretentious woman living in quite a humble tin roofed house. He tells me that is regarded as middle class because it is square and tin roofed rather than mud walled and thatched. A robust woman in her 80's she was working in the garden when he called. He interviewed her on behalf of the local Irish language radio station. She lives in a remote area near Lake Victoria accessible by 4 wheel drive. Knowing the ways of Africa i.e. The art of the judicious dash, he was able to get to her as she is well protected and anyone just turning up might be given a bum steer particularly since some Republican 'mzumas' turned up looking to dig some dirt (rumour). Find a picture on

By the by 'barak' is from 'baraka' arabic for 'blessed' or hallowed. A place struck by lightening has baraka. Let's hope it works for him. I caught him on the candidates debate on CNN and I liked his uncertainty.

At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael Reidy, thanks for that, also for the link. I take it that you and your brother speak Gaelic?

I had the name "Barack" figured out from my knowledge of Hebrew. Also, Ehud Barak -- similar-sounding Semitic name -- was elected prime minister of Israel in 1999, while I was living there. He was also a very bright fellow.

I've just checked my Hebrew lexicon (Brown-Driver-Briggs) and discovered that the Hebrew name "Barak" derives from the word for "lightning" and thus differs from the word "Barakh," which means "blessing." I take it, then, that the belief about lightning striking and bringing a blessing is based on the similar pronunciation of two different Arabic words.

Let's not forget Hamilcar Barca, father to Hannibal, whose surname meant "lightning."

Thanks for helping me extend my knowledge of Hebrew, among other things.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes we speak Irish. He lives in the heart of the Irish speaking area and I live on the outskirts near Galway.

Interesting about the Hebrew affinity. Can the semites learn to share more than word roots?

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, they can -- and do! They share hostility and a common border.

Not quite what you meant, I suppose...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:51 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey! I would like to use the picture you have at the beginning of this article for a button I'm making for the convention here in Denver.
Would you mind giving me permission or telling me where to go to get permission? Reply to mexenzoaiire@gmail.com if possible please


At 4:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daniel, if you follow the link given under the photo, you'll find the same image at Wikipedia, which states:

"This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. The description on its description page there is shown below. Commons is a freely licensed media file repository. You can help."

A link there leads to the same image at the US Senate. I guess that you'd need to check with the Senate for its policy.

Jeffery Hodges

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