My search for facelessness was not as long nor as painstaking as Obama's search for his father's dreams. I have the Kindle edition of "Dreams," and I did a word search. I found 2 other appearances of "faceless." Here is the first one, from his college days as Occidental.
There were enough of us [black students] on campus to constitute a tribe, and when it came to hanging out many of us chose to function like a tribe, staying close together, traveling in packs....By the way, in the section about Coretta, his reaction to his own behavior is to avoid other people. (He describes this passively: "I was left mostly alone.") He goes home after school, does his homework, and watches a lot of television while eating "the latest snack food" with "Gramps." Obama describes himself as "[n]ested in the soft, forgiving bosom of America’s consumer culture" where he "felt safe. " It was "as if I had dropped into a long hibernation."
I had stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us weren’t interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time; that if we preferred to keep to ourselves it was mainly because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about it, easier than spending all your time mad or trying to guess whatever it was that white folks were thinking about you.
Back to the college scene:
So why couldn’t I let it go?Note the potential sarcasm in the use of the word "individuals." Individuality is the opposite of facelessness.
I don’t know. I didn’t have the luxury, I suppose, the certainty of the tribe.... I hadn’t grown up in Compton, or Watts. I had nothing to escape from except my own inner doubt. I was more like the black students who had grown up in the suburbs, kids whose parents had already paid the price of escape. You could spot them right away by the way they talked, the people they sat with in the cafeteria.
When pressed, they would sputter and explain that they refused to be categorized. They weren’t defined by the color of their skin, they would tell you. They were individuals.
That’s how Joyce liked to talk.Uh-oh. Here she comes. It's Joyce. Is she real? Is she concocted? Is she composite and compressed?
She was a good-looking woman, Joyce was, with her green eyes and honey skin and pouty lips. We lived in the same dorm my freshman year, and all the brothers were after her. One day I asked her if she was going to the Black Students’ Association meeting. She looked at me funny, then started shaking her head like a baby who doesn’t want what it sees on the spoon.Do you believe there was really a Joyce who talked like this — so disgustingly disgusted? It doesn't matter. She's a literary device. She's a stereotype — the stereotype of the person who thinks she's an individual.
“I’m not black,” Joyce said. “I’m multiracial.”
Then she started telling me about her father, who happened to be Italian and was the sweetest man in the world; and her mother, who happened to be part African and part French and part Native American and part something else. “Why should I have to choose between them?” she asked me. Her voice cracked, and I thought she was going to cry. “It’s not white people who are making me choose. Maybe it used to be that way, but now they’re willing to treat me like a person. No—it’s black people who always have to make everything racial. They’re the ones making me choose. They’re the ones who are telling me that I can’t be who I am….” They, they, they.Have reporters located this "Joyce" person who embodied exactly what he needed a character to embody at this point in the memoir? Or is she really Barack Obama, in the guise of a beautiful lady after whom all the "brothers" lusted?
That was the problem with people like Joyce. They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people. It wasn’t a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around.
Only white culture could be neutral and objective. Only white culture could be nonracial, willing to adopt the occasional exotic into its ranks.I wonder if that last sentence expresses what he thinks of himself now, about Americans having voted him into the presidency: He's the occasional exotic the white culture adopted.
Only white culture had individuals. And we, the half-breeds...Half-breed! That's all I ever heard!
... and the college-degreed, take a survey of the situation and think to ourselves, Why should we get lumped in with the losers if we don’t have to? We become only so grateful to lose ourselves in the crowd, America’s happy, faceless marketplace...The marketplace, where you can hibernate in the forgiving bosom of America’s consumer culture. Notice the flip: If you think of yourself as an individual, paradoxically, you'll melt into the crowd. You'll be faceless.
... and we’re never so outraged as when a cabbie drives past us or the woman in the elevator clutches her purse, not so much because we’re bothered by the fact that such indignities are what less fortunate coloreds have to put up with every single day of their lives—although that’s what we tell ourselves—but because we’re wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and speak impeccable English and yet have somehow been mistaken for an ordinary nigger.This is a vicious rejection of the desire to be seen as an individual. He equates it to the subordination of black people. Individuality is a con. If you fall for it, you might imagine yourself to be happy and special, but you are really faceless. You've been duped by — by whom? — the "marketplace"? The "consumer culture"? But Obama's truth is: To have identity, you must identify with your identity group.
Don’t you know who I am? I’m an individual!
The final use of the word "faceless," comes up in Chicago as he interacts with a character — composite? — he calls Ruby. She was a woman in the community he was trying to "organize." As he describes it, she has a lack of self-esteem borne of racial subordination.
If the language, the humor, the stories of ordinary people were the stuff out of which families, communities, economies would have to be built, then I couldn’t separate that strength from the hurt and distortions that lingered inside us. And it was the implications of that fact, I realized, that had most disturbed me when I looked into Ruby’s eyes.Ruby has eyes and therefore a face, but she exists in the book to embody a component of a larger entity that needs to "be built." That's what community organizing is: Getting individuals to find identity as a component of the whole. They are "the stuff out of which" things are "built."
The stories that I had been hearing from the leadership, all the records of courage and sacrifice and of great odds, hadn’t simply arisen from struggles with pestilence or drought, or even mere poverty. They had arisen out of a very particular experience with hate. That hate hadn’t gone away; it formed a counternarrative buried deep within each person and at the center of which stood white people—some cruel, some ignorant, sometimes a single face, sometimes just a faceless image of a system claiming power over our lives. I had to ask myself whether the bonds of community could be restored without collectively exorcising that ghostly figure that haunted black dreams. Could Ruby love herself without hating blue eyes?He "looked into Ruby’s eyes" and he was "disturbed," because he saw "buried" inside her a "ghostly" white person. Looking back out of Ruby's eyes were the blue eyes of that white person, who sometimes had no face at all... and maybe wasn't even a person, but "a system." For the Rubys of Chicago to suffice as the raw material — "the stuff" — out of which the larger entity could "be built," that blue-eyed/faceless white person/system would need to be exorcised.
Notice the connection between facelessness and ghostliness. In yesterday's post — about the incident with the faceless white kids in the playground — I said "It's like he's sleepwalking in ghost world, where human beings are apparitions." And now, I'm seeing that he goes on to say: "For the rest of the afternoon, I was haunted by the look on Coretta’s face...." Faces haunt him.
In the Ruby incident, he speaks of a ghost haunting dreams, and "dreams" is the key word in the book: He's searching for dreams from his father. The good dreams, the dreams he seeks, are the dreams of the black side of his genetic heritage. He would like to exorcise the white component, which is oppressing him, or maybe not really him, but all those other black people with whom he needs to ally — alliance, as opposed to the fraud of being an individual — so he can build something, build something out of the people who have been turned into good building blocks by having the whiteness within extracted.
By conceptualizing a white person buried inside the subordinated black person — Ruby — Obama has found a way to think of all black people as needing the process that he — the half-black person — felt he needed.
Who are these people — Coretta, Joyce, and Ruby? Are they all really Barack, projected onto a female alter ego? He's created faces of females — each time in a context of faceless ghost characters. Who are they... and who is this mysterious man who revealed himself in this haunted-dreams book that we all feel we've almost read, but never very closely? He went on to become that face...
... the face that drew us in.