Stumbling upon some blogs, I found a very interesting excerpt from Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams of my father which I think is worth sharing. I haven’t read the book, which was written almost 15 years ago, but according to the back cover description it’s about Obama’s emotional journey after his father dies in a car accident. That takes him from Kansas and Hawaii to Kenya trying to retrace his African side by finding out more about his father, and his life away from him that he never knew.
This excerpt is a reflection about his passage through Europe on his way to Kenya, during which he remembers a Senegalese man he crossed paths with in Spain:
By the end of the first week or so, I realized that I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wan’t mine. I felt as if I were living out someone else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass. I began to suspect that my European stop was just one more means of delay, one more attempt to coming to terms with the Old Man. Stripped of language, stripped of work and routine – stripped even of the racial obsessions to which I’d become so accustomed and which I had taken (perversely) as a sign of my own maturation -I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only great emptiness there.
Would this trip to Kenya finally fill that emptiness? The folks back in Chicago thought so. It’ll be just like Roots, Will said at my going-away party. A pilgrimage, Asante had called it. For them, as for me, Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land full of ancient traditions and sweeping vistas, noble struggles and talking drums. With the benefit of distance, we engaged Africa in a selective embrace – the same sort of embrace I’d once offered the Old Man. What would happen once I relinquished that distance? It was nice to believe that the truth would somehow set me free. But what if that was wrong? What if the truth only disappointed, and my father’s death meant nothing, and his leaving me behind meant nothing, and the only tie that bound me to him, or to Africa, was a name, a blood type, or white people’s scorn?
I switched off the overhead light and closed my eyes, letting my man drift back to an Afrian I’d met while traveling through Spain, another man no the run. I had been waiting for a night bus in a roadside tavern about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona. A few old men sat at tables and drank wine from short, cloudy glasses. There was a pool table off to one side, and for some reason I had racked up the balls and started to play [...]
As I was finishing up the table, a man in a thin wool sweater had appeared out of nowhere and asked if he could buy me some coffee. He spoke no English, and his Spanish wasn’t much bettr than mine, but he had the winning smile and the urgency of someone in need of company. Standing at the bar, he told me he was from Senegal, and was crisscrossing Spain for seasonal work. He showed me a battered photograph he kep in his wallet of a young girl with round, smooth cheeks. His wife, he said; he had to leave her behind. They would be reunited as soon as he saved the money. He would write and send for her.
We ended up riding to Barcelona together, neither of us talking much, him turning to me every so often to try to explain the jokes on the Spanish program being shown on a TV-video contraption hooked up above the driver’s seat. Shortly before dawn, we were deposited in front of an old bus depont, and my friend gestured me over to a short, thick palm that grew beside the road. From his knap-sack he pulled out a toothbrush, a comb, and a bottle of water that he handed to me with great ceremony. And together we washed ourselves under the morning mist, before hoisting our bags over our shoulders and heading toward town.
What was his name? I couldn’t remember now; just another hungry man far away from home, one of the many children of former colonies – Algerians, West Indians, Pakistanis – now breaching the barricades of their former masters, mounting their own ragged, haphazard invasion. And yet, as we walked toward the Ramblas, I had felt as if I knew him as well as any man; that, coming from opposite ends of the earth, we were somehow making the same journey. When we finally parted company, I had remained in the street for a long, long time, watching his slender, bandy-legged image shrink into the distance, one part of me wishing then that I could go with him into a life of open roads and blue mornings; another part realizing that such a wish was also a romance, an idea, as partial as my image of the Old Man or my image of Africa.