Obama portrayed black people as having an inner white person, and he wondered "whether the bonds of community could be restored without collectively exorcising that ghostly figure that haunted black dreams." So that inner white person wasn't real. It was a ghost — a ghost that haunted dreams. The book is "Dreams From My Father," so it's quite significant to find the notion of dreams haunted by white people, and white people conceptualized as ghosts.
So I have selected "ghost" as my word for this second post in the series. I consult my Kindle text and discover there are 8 ghosts in "Dreams From My Father." The inner white-person ghost that distorts the identity of black people like Ruby is Ghost #4. I'll tell you about the other 7 ghosts, but first I want to remind you of another memoir in a genre we might call: minority identity in the midst of white people. That book is "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," by Maxine Hong Kingston, which that came out in 1975. I'm rather sure Obama knew this book, because Kingston moved to Hawaii in 1967, where Obama lived from 1961-1962, 1963-1967, and 1971-1979. According to the short bio in the Kindle version of "The Woman Warrior," Kingston has been awarded "rare title of 'Living Treasure of Hawai’i.'"
What were these "ghosts" Kingston wrote about in her memoir? They were the people who were not of her race (which was Chinese). Born in 1940, one year after her mother moved to America, Kingston described her perception of Americans with the ghost metaphor:
But America has been full of machines and ghosts—Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts....If Obama had over-indulged his propensity to call white people ghosts, he might have seemed too much like Maxine Hong Kingston, and he could not have conveyed the thoughtful, hopeful vibe about race that worked so well for him in the 2008 election season. "Ghost" appears in "The Woman Warrior" far more than 100 times. (A Kindle search maxes out at 100.) There are only 8 "ghosts" in "Dreams From My Father." We have seen #4. Let's encounter the rest.
Ghost #1 is Obama himself, in the introduction, imagining how others see him as "the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds":
[S]ome people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose—the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife’s six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates, so that you need not guess at what troubles me, it’s on the nightly news for all to see, and that if we could acknowledge at least that much then the tragic cycle begins to break down … well, I suspect that I sound incurably naive, wedded to lost hopes, like those Communists who peddle their newspapers on the fringes of various college towns. Or worse, I sound like I’m trying to hide from myself.Is the ghost the white component that he perceives in himself? He doesn't say that. He imagines other people thinking about him. Are those imagined other people seeing his white half as a ghost? He doesn't say that. The ghost is "the tragic mulatto," both black and white, but he disowns that "image." It's in the heads of "people who don’t know me well, black or white," but it's an image that forms — he thinks — when they find out that his mother is white, which is something he admits withholding from people. He withholds — avoids "advertis[ing]" — because he suspects that he is seeking to ingratiate himself with whites. When they find out about the white mother, they see him as a ghost trapped between 2 worlds, but he wants them to know that the tragedy belongs to all Americans — or, that is, he thinks about rambling and ranting about how the tragedy belongs to all Americans and then he brings himself up short with the notion that he sounds like a college-town Communist.
Ghost #2 appears as an adjective — "ghostly" — used to describe the skin of a black man who used skin lightener, whom Obama claims to have seen in a photograph in Life magazine (though I've read that there really was no such photograph in Life). Obama's mother has taken the young boy to the library, where he's come across a collection of old Life magazines.
Eventually I came across a photograph of an older man in dark glasses and a raincoat walking down an empty road. I couldn’t guess what this picture was about; there seemed nothing unusual about the subject. On the next page was another photograph, this one a close-up of the same man’s hands. They had a strange, unnatural pallor, as if blood had been drawn from the flesh. Turning back to the first picture, I now saw that the man’s crinkly hair, his heavy lips and broad, fleshy nose, all had this same uneven, ghostly hue.
He must be terribly sick, I thought. A radiation victim, maybe, or an albino — albino—I had seen one of those on the street a few days before, and my mother had explained about such things. Except when I read the words that went with the picture, that wasn’t it at all. The man had received a chemical treatment, the article explained, to lighten his complexion. He had paid for it with his own money. He expressed some regret about trying to pass himself off as a white man, was sorry about how badly things had turned out. But the results were irreversible. There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.
I felt my face and neck get hot. My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page. Did my mother know about this?"Ghostly" describes the color achieved by a black man who tried to become white. It's an unpleasant look, the result of delusion and oppression. It's the bad dream of becoming white. A black man imagined he could "pass" as white and that would make him happy, but it didn't work, and he feels regret. He feels regret and Obama feels sick, and Obama wonders whether his white mother understands. She brought him to the safe environs of the library, but he found a clue of the suffering that's out there in the world.
I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show them what I had learned, to demand some explanation or assurance. But something held me back. As in a dream, I had no voice for my newfound fear. By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines were back in their proper place. The room, the air, was quiet as before.It seems that he withdrew into whiteness, to walk home quietly with his white mother, into his white life. But the fear was implanted, that his outward life of whiteness was a sickly, ghostly pallor. Understood this way, Ghost #2 is also Obama, as he identifies with the deluded black man who attempted to recolor his skin.
Ghost #3 is Obama's father, as Obama, the young man, experiences disillusionment:
All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I had later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader—my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn’t seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father’s body shrinking, their father’s best hopes dashed, their father’s face lined with grief and regret....The idealized man, the father, didn't really exist. He was nothing more than a ghost. Obama finds that liberating — to be free of the role model. The emerald curtain is pulled aside. There is no great and powerful Oz. The king is overthrown... and the rabble in his head — the revolutionaries — run riot. But then: "The night wore on," and the feeling of liberation faded. He fretted: "Who might protect me from doubt or warn me against all the traps that seem laid in a black man’s soul?" So Ghost #3 is not a white person. It is the absence of a father, the father image he had clung to, now dissipated.
Now, as I sat in the glow of a single light bulb, rocking slightly on a hard-backed chair, that image had suddenly vanished. Replaced by … what? A bitter drunk? An abusive husband? A defeated, lonely bureaucrat? To think that all my life I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost! For a moment I felt giddy; if Auma hadn’t been in the room, I would have probably laughed out loud. The king is overthrown, I thought. The emerald curtain is pulled aside. The rabble of my head is free to run riot; I can do what I damn well please.
Ghost #5 appears in Kenya, where Obama has traveled to encounter his extended family. Obama is walking in the city with his half-sister Auma:
Auma and I happened to run into an acquaintance of the Old Man’s outside Barclay’s Bank. I could tell that Auma didn’t remember his name, so I held out my hand and introduced myself. The man smiled and said, “My, my—you have grown so tall. How’s your mother? And your brother Mark—has he graduated from university yet?”
At first I was confused. Did I know this person? And then Auma explained in a low voice that no, I was a different brother, Barack, who grew up in America, the child of a different mother. David had passed away. And then the awkwardness on all sides—the man nodding his head (“I’m sorry, I didn’t know”) but taking another look at me, as if to make sure what he’d heard was true; Auma trying to appear as if the situation, while sad, was somehow the normal stuff of tragedy; me standing to the side, wondering how to feel after having been mistaken for a ghost.Ghost #5 is David... or Obama himself, appearing to be David, the half-brother he never knew and never could know, the lost family connection.
Ghost #6 rises up in a dream he has in Africa:
I finally fell asleep, and dreamed I was walking along a village road. Children, dressed only in strings of beads, played in front of the round huts, and several old men waved to me as I passed. But as I went farther along, I began to notice that people were looking behind me fearfully, rushing into their huts as I passed. I heard the growl of a leopard and started to run into the forest, tripping over roots and stumps and vines, until at last I couldn’t run any longer and fell to my knees in the middle of a bright clearing. Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask. The lifeless eyes bored into me, and I heard a thunderous voice saying only that it was time, and my entire body began to shake violently with the sound, as if I were breaking apart ….
I jerked up in a sweat, hitting my head against the wall lamp that stuck out above the bunk. In the darkness, my heart slowly evened itself, but I couldn’t get back to sleep again.This ghost seems to embody all of his fears, but perhaps represents his father. We get the description of body heat and visceral disorder as in the library scene, and a lighting fixture plays a supporting role, as in the "emerald curtain" scene. This dream — a literal dream in a book called "Dreams" — seems to express his difficulty finding his place in Africa.
Ghost #7 is a simile used by Obama's great uncle, in this scene that takes place in Kenya:
His hair was snow-white, his skin like parchment. He was motionless, his eyes closed, his fleshless arms propped on the armrests of his chair. I thought perhaps he was asleep, but when Billy stepped forward the old man’s head tilted in our direction, and I saw a mirror image of the face I’d seen yesterday in Alego, in the faded photograph on Granny’s wall. Billy explained who was there, and the old man nodded and began to speak in a low, quaking voice that seemed to rise out of a chamber beneath the floor. “He says that he is glad you have come,” Roy translated. “He was your grandfather’s brother. He wishes you well.” I said that I was happy to see him, and the old man nodded again.
“He says that many young men have been lost to … the white man’s country. He says his own son is in America and has not come home for many years. Such men are like ghosts, he says. When they die, no one will be there to mourn them. No ancestors will be there to welcome them. So … he says it is good that you have returned.” The old man raised his hand and I shook it gently. As we got up to leave, the old man said something else, and Roy nodded his head before closing the door behind us. “He says that if you hear of his son,” Roy explained, “you should tell him that he should come home.”Here, the ghost is — as the old man tells it — the black man lost to the white man’s country. Obama's great uncle is speaking specifically about his own son, a man who was born in Africa, who needs to come home and to stay connected to his family so he will be mourned when he dies. Despite the reference to death, the condition of being a ghost occurs during life, wandering about in "the white man's country." Does that make Obama a ghost too, since he lives in America, where he was born, and which must be his home? Obama lacks even the definition of being the African man who has on his our relocated to the white man's country and who could come home to the embrace of the African ancestors. He's gone there, to Africa, but is it home for him? Is America not his country?
What happens next in that scene is that everyone drinks a lot of moonshine, and...
Old faces and young faces all glow like jack-o’-lanterns in the shifting lamplight, laughing and shouting, slumped in dark corners or gesticulating wildly for cigarettes or another drink, anger or joy pitching up to a crest, then just as quickly ebbing away, words of Luo and Swahili and English running together in unrecognizable swirls, the voices wheedling for money or shirts or the bottle, the voices laughing and sobbing, the outstretched hands, the faltering angry voices of my own sodden youth, of Harlem and the South Side; the voices of my father.That's a long sentence! What's going on there? Unrecognizable swirls. Everyone but the brooding Obama seems to dissolve into drunken chaos. No more ghosts, but the people look like jack-o’-lanterns — they become surreal and ghoulish. And yet, he identifies with them, in an alienated way: They are "my own sodden youth."
The final ghost, Ghost #8, is another simile. We're still in Kenya:
On the last weekend of my stay, Auma and I took the train to the coast and stayed at an old beachfront hotel in Mombasa that had once been a favorite of the Old Man’s. It was a modest, clean place, in August filled mostly with German tourists and American sailors on shore leave. We didn’t do much, just read and swam and walked along the beach, watching pale crabs scurry like ghosts into their sandy holes.Pale crabs, like ghosts, scurry into holes in the beach. Here's a picture of a Mombasa sand crab. Is there any symbolism here? Maybe Obama just walked on the beach one time with Auma. But it's his father's place, and it's a place that sounds as though it's full of white people — Germans and Americans — who presumably went swimming and sunning on that beach. But Auma and Obama looked at the white crabs, who were like ghosts, and they didn't even see the white people, who were, then — one could say — even more ghostly than the ghosts.