Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Viva la difference!


Today I finished Barack Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father.

Don't worry, I'm not gonna go all political on you. What struck me about this was two things: his struggle to "define" himself--to fit into some kind of demographic--and his eventual meeting with his Kenyan relatives, and that's what I want to write about. Not politics. This is just some thoughts about my feelings as I read this book.

As a white woman born in the 60's, it's very hard for me to imagine how hard it must have been for someone like him to find a place in this world. I think everyone has the desire to "fit in," to find a comfortable niche in which to reside, and with an African father, a white mother, an Indonesian stepfather, a childhood spent in Indonesia and later being raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii...what a mix of cultures and heritages! While I can't begin to understand what that must have been like, I think that every single one of us understands the desire to fit in, and at some point in our lives, we have felt ourselves to be the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

He also struggled with trying to break out of the constraints of the "you think you're better than us?" mentality. I believe that this attitude has nothing to do with race. I think we have all experienced that at some point in our lives, whether it's peer pressure in high school (the attitude that it's not cool to be smart or to be a bookworm), going with the flow at work (feeling that everyone else is behaving that way, so you'd better go along), or just generally thinking that we need to conform to certain inchoate ideals (defined by whom?) in order to be part of "The Group."

In the words of Mama Cass, I say, "Make your own kind of music, sing your own special song, even if nobody else sings along." We are all unique, we all have something to contribute, and our diversity is what makes life so utterly and completely interesting! Trying to pigeonhole people into our own preconceived notions of how things should be is not only unimaginative, it's downright inhumane.

When I lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota, one of the pathology residents at the hospital was a Sioux Indian, and he grew up on the reservation. We became friends, and Dr. G. told me that his family and friends were NOT proud of him, and in fact, they had the attitude that he thought he was better than them. He said it's a common mentality on the reservation, that people resent those who manage to better themselves and get an education. I can't begin to tell you how dismaying I found that to be, and how shocked I was to hear that. We should be enlightened enough--shouldn't we?--to encourage ANYONE who wants to get an education to do so. I know it's getting harder and tuition is going up, but to ridicule anyone for trying get an education or for having a degree is ludicrous, and it is not what humanity should be about. We should all, at every point in our lives and at every chance, take the opportunity to learn more, whether it's about classic literature, art, or our own local history. Formal classes aren't necessary. LEARNING is what drives us to reach for goals that we never thought would be attainable, forces us to embrace all of humanity as part of our world, and reminds us that there is much more to life than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

When I was in college, I remember having discussions with my Uncle Lin about educational opportunities for minorities, especially blacks. (My Dad still remembers these conversations, and often mentions how I made Uncle Lin think about what he was saying.) Uncle Lin (my Mom's oldest brother) was a wonderful guy, and he was no stranger to hard times--he grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, and they were dirt poor, often not having any food for lunch, often not able to go to school because they had to work in the fields. Uncle Lin would say that minorities had opportunities the same as everyone else, there were scholarships, there were school loans...I agreed, but I reminded him that in the big scheme of things, we weren't that many years away from the days of slavery, and there are issues there that we can't even begin to understand. I said I didn't think it would be all that easy to erase years of second class, inhumane treatment, and after all,Uncle Lin didn't go to college, either! Uncle Lin has been gone for many years now, but I think he liked my feistiness, and I really do think that our discussions made him think. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with calling people out on their misconceptions, and having a bit of a discussion. I can't say that I have quite as much of a fire in my belly as I did then, but I can still get a little "het up" about things!

The last third of Obama's book was about his first visit to Kenya, to meet his relatives. I did my best to put myself in his shoes. I know that I have distant cousins in Germany, but my ancestors came to the U.S. around 1790 or so--we've been here for a while. I could go to Germany and meet my cousins, but the immediacy of close family is not quite there. Obama's father was from Kenya, so he has many relatives still there: half-brothers and half-sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles...can you imagine meeting your big ol' bunch of relatives that you have never encountered before? Most of us are overwhelmed by the relatives we HAVE met, and to travel to a different continent and encounter an entirely different culture and meet dozens of people who say, "I'm your cousin, your aunt, your half-brother..." Well, I can't even begin to imagine it.

I'll wind this up, because my brain is starting to hurt. I guess I'll say that problems and issues in our country--and our world--are not black and white issues, and I mean that in many different ways. It's time to get past our divisions and focus on our common trait: our humanity. It's a big world, and we are all part of it.



buckoclown said...

Times and emotions have certainly changed over the years.  We have come a long way, and November will remind us if we have arrived, or if we still have a ways to go :o)

dbdacoba said...

Oh, Beth, thank you for this essay.  It strikes deep with me having been a misfit all my life.  There was something that could be described as a family, but only in name.  For example, I didn't even know I had an Aunt Mary until I read my father's obituary.  I liked classical music as a boy.  Kids at school didn't berlieve me.  They thought I was just showing off, trying to be superior.  The same thing with the literature I liked to read.  I was called a liar by my 6th Grade teacher for saying that I liked to watch the UN proceedings on TV.  My 5th Grade teacher scorned me for saying I wanted to go to the moon.  I guess I was intimidating people without knowing it.  Now I'm self-educated and away from the world.  If someone asks me if I'm a such and so, I answer "sometimes."

deshelestraci said...

Oh yeah.  Preach on.  I will have a similar post complete with personal antidotes either tomorrow or Friday!  Great minds think alike!

krmprm said...

Guess I'll have to read the book to find out how he reacted to meeting
his Kenya family.  Also interested in his youth, growing up in Hawaii
with mother's family.  Have only read quotes from it and those were
chosen for their questionable aspects.  We should try to get behind
the rhetoric and know the MAN before we vote in November.  Very
interesting entry, Beth, and timely.  Keep writing.  Hugs, Pat

rdautumnsage said...

I can relate on so many levels. Growing up and having a mother you made sure you KNEW what your heritage was yet not allowing you the freedom to be. I was often told not to let anyone know I was a halfbreed (her words) and wasn't allowed in the sun for long periods for fear my skin would darken. I grew up on the other side of Reservation life, what many refer to as the new age indian. These people pretty much deny heritage and history, whereis the reservation denies change and modern principles. Now I'm finding at soon to be 43 I can balance between both worlds. Add in growing up with a disability ....I definitely think you hit it on the nail. It's not a black and white thing we all experience some form of racial divide at some time in our lives. Well said hon! (Hugs)Indigo

markonit said...

... I haven't read the book, but I remember what was said about it on NPR ..!

... he had major challenges that makes him have more in common on the inside with people, than the differences on the outside ... perhaps that is why we aren't to worry about our clothes in the next world ...

bgilmore725 said...

I appreciate your response to Obama's book, as well as your own reflections about growing up and fitting in. I want to read this book, now that you've brought it up... especially regarding how his meeting his Kenya familyl went. Thanks for sharing this... well written, and well connected to your own life.. to our lives. You are so right about that: our humanity. Sometimes our world seems so big, and other times it seems so small. It's both at that same time. In any given moment, it seems unimaginably large... but looking at it from the perspective of time and the universe, it seems minute and inconsequential. Thanks for pointing this book out to me... it's now on my list of books to read this summer! and thank you for joining in the vigil for Barry. bea

lurkynat said...

good entry thoughtfully written and well executed!
happy 4th