Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

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Books and Mortar: Eso Won Books in Los Angeles

I dislike car culture so much, it’s rare for me to actually agree to drive to anything when visiting Los Angeles. Except maybe for Roy Choi’s Kogi tacos.

And to visit Eso Won Books, a unique and charming bookstore in the historical Leimert Park neighborhood. The store recently made a cameo in an episode of HBO’s Insecure, the L.A.-based series by creator and star Issa Rae, who comments, as her alter ego Issa Dee, “it’s like my favorite place, ever. They support a lot of up-and-coming black writers.”

At Eso Won I was greeted by the affable James Fugate, co-owner of the store with Tom Hamilton, who was behind the register. James had such a wide-ranging opinion of so many interesting reads, I ended up leaving with a pile of books—novels, nonfiction, children’s books—as did some of the family members who accompanied me. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called Eso Won his favorite bookstore in the world—it has something for everyone, including the writer who has done the sad bookstore signing where barely anyone shows up: In 1995 they hosted a young writer with a new memoir, and only about eight people showed; they ended up moving the chairs into a campfire type circle and had a nice intimate chat with the author … Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from my Father. Obama and Bill Clinton have since done signings at the store (held at an off-site location, since the store is fairly small), as well as Maya Angelou, Misty Copeland, and a variety of local figures.

“It was a good signing,” James remembers. “[Then] in 2006 Obama told Random House that with the Audacity of Hope book he would only do our store.” Although unfortunately, “It was a big event and our co-sponsors didn’t have us listed anywhere or even on stage. Even now the Museum that it was held at says they hosted Obama, but no mention of Eso Won.”

Yet they go on.

I asked them some questions about the store and

The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Are you the original owners?

James Fugate: We started in 1988, I was working as a bookstore manager for Compton College where I meant Tom Hamilton and third partner, and he’s moved to Maryland. Tom and Asamoa wanted to start a store and I met with them to talk about it.

They passed on starting a store, as I thought it would be very hard to generate business, but as the manager of the Compton College Bookstore I had developed a great selection of Black books as general reading material for the students and I was being asked to come to various community functions to sell books on the weekends. The bookstore was run by Barnes and Noble’s college division and I felt very uncomfortable coming to Black community functions and representing Barnes and Noble. So I came up with the idea of selling on my own with Tom and Asamoa on the weekends.

Tom and Asamoa had the seed money to start buying the books and I had the ordering knowledge to put the concept together.

TM: What does Eso Won mean?

JF: Eso Won means Water over Rocks. Asamoa and his wife had visited Aswan, Egypt, and the African name is said to be Eso Won. We had the saying for some time that as water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books.

TM: Who are your main clientele?

JF: Our customers come from Central L.A. for the most part, mainly where most Black people live. But we also draw from all over the city. We were able to benefit from many many L.A. Times stories, plus amazing book signings.

TM: What do you like most about being a bookseller? What’s the most surprising thing?

JF: For me the most surprising thing about being a bookstore is meeting customers who love your suggestions. I love talking about books that really move me and seeing people respond to those. Seeing people respond to emails for new books that we like is another plus. There’s a $200 signed Obama photo book coming this November and we’ve sold 20 just from our emails. It just blew me away.

TM: Who are your best/worst customers?

JF: The best customers are just the good people with pleasant attitudes. The worst are the many, many nutcases who come to our store and signings. Both Tom and I are just sick of them. I could write a book on the many incidents we’ve had over the year with customers and authors. I would write the book, but I need a co-writer. Trust me—we’ve had more than our share.

TM: What are some of your recommendations? 

JF: Chokehold by Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler may be the best book on race I’ve read since The Psychopathic Racial Personality. As a college student I struggled to understand hate. Blacks, Jews, Asians, Indians and Latinos all seemed to be feared by far too many white people. Psychopathic helped me understand why.

Chokehold is the first book I’ve read which gets racism today. Plus Paul has very workable ideas on solving issues related to mass incarceration and other issues.

TM: Are you yourself a writer?

JF: Tom, Sam (Tom’s son), and I are not writers at all. I would like to be, but writing is hard work.

I don’t have many favorites authors right now. Walter Mosley is one, but some of my favorite books are The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, Chester Himes—all of his books, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.; Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean is outstanding, a roadmap to the insanity of the right.

TM: I always ask the booksellers to recommend another bookstore. What’s yours?

JF: I love The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. Their motto is, “What are you waiting for? We won’t be here forever.” Just about any used store is a favorite.

TM: Any last thoughts?

JF: Last thing: Books have knowledge and reading books gives you knowledge and power.

Our First Jadak President: David Maraniss’ Barack Obama

Early in Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss defines an African word, jadak, that will weave its way through his biography of our 44th president. “Pronounced juh-DAK,” Maraniss writes, “it meant ‘foreigner,’ ‘immigrant,’ ‘alien,’ and was delivered and received as an insult.” The word is first applied to the president’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, whose family only went back four generations in Luoland, a region of western Kenya bordering Lake Victoria, and thus were still considered outsiders.

This outsider status applies to nearly every major figure in the biography, including Hussein Obama’s grandson, Barack Hussein Obama II. As Maraniss details in this exhaustive, and at times exhausting, biography, Obama has been an outsider – a jadak – in every world he has ever entered. With his dark skin and kinky hair, he looks black to most Americans, but having been raised in Hawaii by his white grandparents, he wasn’t fully accepted by the black community until well into adulthood. In college, some of his closest friends were Pakistani and Indian, and until he met his wife, Michelle, he mostly dated white women. Even after he took a job as a community organizer on Chicago’s desperately poor, black South Side, he lived and socialized during his non-work hours in the racially diverse Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago.

There is no precedent for a figure like Barack Obama in mainstream American politics. While we have had presidents who raised themselves up from poverty and more than a few raised amid great inherited wealth, for more than two centuries our leaders have been primarily card-carrying members of the white, Protestant, upper-middle class. Then, in 2008, we elected a half-white, half-Kenyan president, who was born in Hawaii a year after it was made a state, and spent years of his childhood in Indonesia.

These facts may help explain the right wing’s obsessive belief in the myth of Obama’s foreign birth. The birthers, as they are called, cannot be dissuaded by the undeniable fact of Obama’s American birth certificate because they aren’t really talking about facts. Nor are they being racist, at least not in the classic American sense. After all, black people have been a part of this country’s fabric since the first African slaves stepped off a Dutch ship in 1619. But Obama isn’t that kind of black. None of his forebears were American slaves. He is a wholly new kind of American president, part white, part African, who wears sarongs and is fluent in Hawaiian pidgin. He is, in a word, a jadak.

Until now, those who have written about Obama, including Obama himself in his memoirs Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, have viewed the president primarily through the narrow prism of race. Dreams from My Father, written in the early 1990s before Obama embarked on his political career, is a tale of the author’s search for an authentic self, which he quite plainly discovers on the black streets of South Side Chicago and in the African villages of his Kenyan father.

Obama’s best known previous biographer, New Yorker editor David Remnick, also places him firmly within the African-American tradition, titling his 2010 biography The Bridge to signify Obama’s place as a human bridge between the Civil Rights generation of black leaders and a presumably post-racial American society to come. Remnick’s book, which is excellent, is nevertheless a product of the euphoric early days of the Obama presidency when Americans of all races cried along with Jesse Jackson at the thought that we as a nation had finally overcome our racial differences. Three and a half years into the Obama presidency, after the bruising partisan battles over health care and the budget deficit and the public outrage over the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, few Americans still believe Obama can heal our differences, much less lead us into anything approaching a post-racial future.

Thus, Barack Obama: The Story is perfectly poised for its political moment. Where Remnick seemed to place the president many Americans thought they had elected as the latest in a line of charismatic black leaders who inspire through eloquent speeches and moral integrity, Maraniss captures the president Americans have actually come to know: the inveterate outsider capable of seeing all sides of any question, but emotionally aloof, cool in all senses of the word, almost to a fault.

In Maraniss’ telling, the teenage Obama yearned for the stable identity being a member of the black community could have offered him, but in fact was a product of a mélange of cultures, white and Asian, Polynesian and American, Kenyan and Kansan. Barack Obama, Sr., a Kenyan foreign exchange student, sired the president during a brief affair with seventeen-year-old University of Hawaii freshman, Stanley Ann Dunham, and then promptly left for graduate school at Harvard a few months after his son’s birth. He only reappeared in young Barack’s life once, when he visited Hawaii for a month during his son’s fifth grade year, by which time the elder Obama was a broken man, an alcoholic who had already burned through three marriages and drank himself out of the kinds of leadership positions his intelligence and education entitled him to.

Without a father, Obama lived a lonely and peripatetic childhood, bouncing between Jakarta, where his mother moved to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, and Honolulu, where he lived with his grandparents after that marriage broke up and his mother remained in Indonesia. In Hawaii, where Obama attended the academically rigorous Punahou School along with the island’s mostly white elite, he joined the self-styled Choom Gang (“Choom is a verb,” Maraniss explains, “meaning ‘to smoke marijuana.’”) and spent his teen years getting high and trying to make the school’s varsity basketball team.

Still, for all the work Maraniss does to place Obama in America’s cultural tapestry, his book is a chore to read. Maraniss, author of an excellent biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, is a first-rate reporter, but here he seems incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Barack Obama: The Story spends its first 160 pages telling the stories of Obama’s ancestors in Kansas and in Kenya before the future president is even born. Even after Obama appears, Maraniss keeps getting sidetracked by digressions into the later careers of Obama’s relatives and laboriously detailed descriptions of people Obama knew and places he lived. Take this description of a dormitory, the Haines Hall Annex, where Obama lived while he attended Occidental College in California:
Seventy feet from back to front, with six rooms down the left, four down the right. Three students to a room, rectangles that were more deep than wide, but designed for two, and without partitions, making for a more barrackslike atmosphere. Beige and blue-gray checkered linoleum floors. Three desks, Smith Corona and IBM Selectric typewriters from home, carbon paper, and Wite-Out; three beds, some rooms with bunks, others with twins.
It is a weird fact, but true, that I attended Occidental College two years after Obama was there (like the president, I found the place way too full of sheltered suburban white kids and finished my education in New York). I lived in Haines Hall, and spent hours in the Annex, and I can attest that Maraniss’ description of Occidental, both physically and culturally, is dead on. But, really, who cares what color the tiles were? What more do I understand about Obama’s life if I know that for a year in college he had to live in a triple?

In some ways worse than this obvious padding, which one can simply skip, is the skewed time frame of the book, which begins decades before Obama’s birth and ends just as he is about to begin at Harvard Law School. Maraniss digs up a few worthwhile nuggets in the previously untilled soil of Obama’s family history, but not near enough to justify the seven long chapters he spends excavating them. More importantly, by skipping Obama’s rise in Chicago politics, which Remnick covers in fascinating detail in The Bridge, Maraniss misses a key element of the political phenomenon that is Barack Obama.

What is most interesting, and most admirable, about our current president is not the hand he was dealt at birth, but how he played that hand. Obama not only raised himself; he invented himself. He took this mishmash of cultural influences, this big bag of differentiated Othernesses, and through deep reading and thought, along with some daring grassroots work in one of  America’s most impoverished ghettos, he created himself as something Americans could understand: a moderate black politician with crossover appeal to white voters.

In this way, Obama is a kind of Elvis Presley of politics. Elvis changed American popular culture by being a handsome white guy who sounded black. Obama has tried to change American political culture by being a handsome white guy who looks black. Of course, it is far more complicated than that. Obama is white by virtue of his white mother and his upbringing by his white grandparents. He is also Kenyan, through his sad, smart, destructive father, and Asian by virtue of his years in Indonesia and his chosen circle of college friends. He has a laid-back Western outlook, thanks to his formative years in Hawaii and California, and East Coast intellectual rigor, due to his years at Columbia University and Harvard Law. The one thing he isn’t is a black guy from Chicago, and yet when he appeared before the cheering, sobbing crowd in Lincoln Park to celebrate his victory over John McCain, that’s exactly who we thought we had elected.

“No life could have been more the product of randomness than his,” Maraniss writes on the final page of Barack Obama: The Story, and at the moment in Obama’s life where Maraniss leaves him this could fairly be said. The circumstances of his birth were a fluke of the Cold War politics that brought his father to an American university, and the youthful naivete that led his seventeen-year-old mother to sleep with him without birth control. Obama’s youth was a jumble of hastily improvised cultural influences. But what Obama made of all that wasn’t random. At some point between the time he left Hawaii as a mixed up half-white kid who looked black and the night twenty-five years later when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention that launched his national career, he positioned himself both as an inheritor of a recognizable political and cultural tradition and also as an avatar of new, blended America – a nation of jadaks.

Some day, perhaps, a biographer – perhaps even Obama himself – will explain how he pulled off this complex, history-making transformation. For now we can only watch… and wonder.

Obama’s Brother Publishes a Novel

For the President’s brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President’s father. You’d be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama’s half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo’s life in Kenya and China–where he currently lives and works as a consultant–and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President’s father. But it wasn’t released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company.

Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother’s coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was “proud of his brother.” When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President’s family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he “had a limited interest in their father” and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage.”

A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama’s paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel’s release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.”

Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama’s historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.

Books and Politics

Hillary Clinton may have bested Barack Obama at the voting box in New Hampshire, but Obama remains a big winner at bookstores, according to a recent report:According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 per cent of industry sales, [Clinton’s] Living History averaged around 1,000 sales a week in December and early January, compared with more than 7,000 a week for [Obama’s] Audacity of Hope and more than 2,000 for Dreams From My Father.Elsewhere, it turns out that recently assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto submitted her memoir to HarperCollins just days before her death. As the world watches Pakistan, the publisher is rushing to get the book out, according to Reuters:”No one could have known that these would be Benazir Bhutto’s final words, and somehow that makes them carry even more weight, especially at a time like this,” said Tim Duggan, the editor at HarperCollins who acquired the rights to the book.

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