Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More Thoughts on Barak Obama

Text and photographs © 2008 by Julius Lester

I’ve been wondering why I do not think of Barak Obama as black. At the beginning of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, this was the criticism of him from many blacks – his roots were not in the American slave experience because his father was Kenyan and his mother was white. Thus, he had nothing in common with American blacks.

The failure of Jesse Jackson’s political campaigns of the 1980s was that Jackson was an exemplar of “identity politics” where one’s racial, ethnic, or gender identity was presented as and seen as the primary and overarching identity. Being black was at the center of Jackson’s identity which made him an ineffectual candidate for president.

For Obama, being black is only part of his identity and not even the core. Can it be that we are, at long last, moving into a post-racial era, an era when race, ethnicity, and gender are put in perspective as being a part of one’s identity but not the defining element of that identity? That would be absolutely extraordinary. Would it mean that racism, ethnic chauvinism and gender bias will have disappeared? No. The carnage that occurred in Rwanda between the Tutsis and Hutus, that taking place now in Kenya between the Luo and Kikuyu is ample evidence that having the same skin color is no guarantee against ethnic prejudices. (And white people have been killing white people for millennium). But in a post-racial era, it is more likely that the institutions of government and commerce will, over time, grow out of Pavlovian negative responses to someone of a different color, ethnicity, or gender preference.

When I look at Obama, I see that his skin color identifies him as black, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. What matters is what he says. What matters is that he is intent on healing the rancorous divisions in our country. What matters is that he gives me hope that the United States can become a nation that I am proud to be a part of. While I like being an American, I am seldom proud of our nation’s actions around the world, and I would like to be.

America is on the brink of historic changes, but not only because Barak Obama is black. The changes, if they unfold, will be in the story Americans tell themselves about what America is and who Americans are. The changes, if they unfold, will be a rewriting of the national story that will bring us closer to the reality of being one nation, with liberty and justice for all.

Apropos of nothing, Barak Obama is truly African-American, as is Charlize Theron. Since I wasn’t born in Africa, do not have immediate African ancestors, I have never been comfortable with being described as an African-American because I’m not. I’m an American, I’m black, and I’m Jewish, and that’s enough for anybody.


In the blog of November 26, 2006, I quoted from a book which said that
“Se virar [say-vee-rahr, Brazilian Portugeuse noun]

 -- Literally it means "to empty," but it is used to describe "When you try to do something but you don't have enough knowledge to complete the task." Would having such a verb in English make us more accepting of our inevitable ignorances, make it easier for us to say, "I don't know?”

João Faria, a Brazilian reader, wrote to say:

“Your blog is very nice, but I stumbled across this piece and, as Brazilian, I must tell you that "se virar" does not mean "to empty" in any possible context. The correct literal translation would be something like "turn oneself around".

Anyway, congratulations for your blog, your texts and beautiful photographs!!”

Thanks for the correction and the compliments.


Northampton, Massachusetts, Memorial Day Weekend, 2006

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books I Loved in 2007 - 3

Text and photograph © 2008 by Julius Lester

Jane Cabot Reid, Jung, my mother and I: the analytic diaries of Catharine Rush Cabot

One of the most important influences on my life has been the work of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. I encountered his work first in the 1960s in his autobiographical volume, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, probably the only book I’ve read more than once (except those I taught in my classes). In 1975 I had a major dream which led me to Jung’s more technical work; I also started Jungian dream therapy that year which continued through the remainder of the seventies and much of the eighties. Dream analysis and Jung’s theory of personality types played an indispensable role in my teaching career, in helping to raise five children, and in my marriages. I continue to pay close attention to my dreams and continue to read books on Jungian thought.

This is a large book and an odd one. Catharine Cabot was an American who spent her adult life living in Europe. She was analyzed by Jung for many years, and she kept a record of her sessions with Jung, writing down during the sessions everything he said.

Her daughter, Jane Cabot Reid, found these diaries after her mother’s death and has published them with her own commentary, and it is this which makes the book odd. It is useful to have the daughter fill in the narrative of what was going on in Switzerland and Europe at the time, as well as what was going on in her mother’s life. But when she analyzes what her mother says to Jung and then analyzes her mother, well, it’s just strange, especially the many times she indicates that when her mother said a particular thing to Jung, she was being insincere or just plain lying.

Nonetheless, the book’s value for me was hearing Jung’s voice so directly in sessions with a client. Here are just a few of the passages I underlined.

“Then Jung went on to say that people often say, ‘No one loves me.’ But we have to create that thing which loves us, and which we love. We are inclined to take love like a tree or a gold mine. We simply can’t go on taking for granted that love is something that we get from ‘somewhere.’ It has to be created because it does not exist, it must be made first.” p. 55 [Italics in original]

“Then he went on to say that one must do one’s job, even if it is a small one….There is a lot [of value] in doing one’s job and making those happy who love you. There is no need to be ambitious, and, as Nietzsche says, ‘Go beyond yourself,’ for one has enough to do just being oneself. To go beyond oneself is tiring. If one has accomplished ‘the being oneself’ then one can think of going beyond, but not before….A person must not try to be what he cannot be.” p. 110

“[Jung] said he had to teach people to be lazy. It is an art to be lazy.” p. 160

“He said that one must not be prejudiced. When one meets a new person, one must say, ‘God only know what this person means to me.’ One cannot limit, beforehand, by wrong judgment, what people will turn out to be. One must give everyone free access and have an attitude that welcomes people. One must not give the impression that one already knows all about them and their possibilities. One must give a salute to a strange vessel that might contain anything.” p. 302

“I then told him how she had said to me, ‘Doctor Jung hates me!’. [Jung] gave a great big laugh, and said, ‘Why, I haven’t got time to hate people.’ He added that he simply could not make that effort.’” p. 366


One of a series taken from the front step of our house.