"Home Squared": Barack Obama's Transnational Self-Reliance

By Banita, Georgiana | Biography, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

"Home Squared": Barack Obama's Transnational Self-Reliance


Banita, Georgiana, Biography


I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can buildup.

--Martin Luther King, Jr.

While most discussions of Barack Obama's historic rise to the US presidency have addressed the issues of race that percolated beneath the surface of an ostensibly post-racial campaign, (1) few interpretations of Obama's transnational heritage and global appeal have been proffered. Significantly, critics who have looked into Obama's global background and impact have placed this question in the context of his autobiographical writings. (2) His bestselling memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995)--which documents his childhood, youth, and family history, concluding with Obama's first journey to Kenya in 1987--and his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) are routinely categorized as personal memoir and political manifesto, respectively. Yet, the global context and political subtext of both narratives set the two books apart from conventional types of ethnic and immigrant life writing. Specifically, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope focus less on the concept of exile and its attendant liberating quests than on a kind of identity that both overwrites and compounds the author's transnational consciousness, which evolves, paradoxically, along a circular and homogenizing trajectory. Obama's journeys originate in and ultimately fold back into his identity as an American with a remarkably stable sense of self, despite the global tensions threatening to destabilize it. My contention here is that Obama's autobiographical narratives instantiate much more problematical genres, written as they were at times when the author was straddling various zones in his personal and political evolution, as well as giving voice to divergent strands of his heritage and to the communities he has come to inhabit or represent. (3) Obama's writings stage less a dynamic transformation of the self than an interior sublimation, sparked not by the horizontal pull of remote regions leaving their imprint on Obama's psychic makeup and cultural inheritance, but by the vertical pressures of a layered identity.

In contrast to the reassuring promises he voiced in Berlin in 2008 about how the cultural walls still hampering globalization "cannot stand" and need to be torn down (Obama, Inspire 113), Obama's self-fashioning has so far resulted in a surprisingly immutable and profoundly territorial persona. What emerges from Obama's autobiographical writings, I would argue, is a form of self-reliance in Emerson's understanding of the term, as a fidelity to one's innate sensibilities (one's Reason), which limits the influence of the external world (perceived through one's Understanding). This includes the ability "to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men" (259). In Obama's case, self-reliance is manifested in a discourse of transnational empathy, which, however, remains perfectly consonant with the image of the United States as a redeemer nation, and more generally with the precepts of American exceptionalism. The ideology of American foreign policy has absorbed this idiom in a way that has become increasingly unpalatable since the role of the United States as "the indispensable nation"--in Madeleine Albright's phrase--entered a waning phase. "When American power was ascendant," Andrew Bacevich writes, "the United States could pretend to interpret history's purpose or God's will. Today, it can no longer afford to indulge in such conceits" (121). In his political rhetoric, however, Obama indulges in precisely such conceits, placing the United States at the heart of a heroic global narrative whose essential validity is never questioned. In a statement meant to burnish his foreign policy credentials at the outset of his presidential run, Obama proclaimed that "the mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity" ("Renewing"). …

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