Saturday, July 18, 2009

Some of Obama's pre-Presidential reflections on rural America

I have been reading President Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, first published in 1995 not long after Obama finished Harvard Law School. It is a stunning, marvelous book in several regards, and I have especially enjoyed his reflections on his childhood and youth, his early grappling with race and his family's roots. Among other passages, I was taken with his descriptions of the Kansas towns from which his maternal grandparents came. Here it is:
They had grown up less than twenty miles away from each other--my grandmother in Augusta, my grandfather in El Dorado, towns too small to warrant boldface on a road map--and the childhoods they liked to recall for my benefit portrayed small-town, Depression-era America in all its innocent glory; Fourth of July parades and the pictures shows on the side of a barn; fireflies in a jar and the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes, sweet as apples; dust storms and hail storms and classrooms filled with farm boys who got sewn into their woolen underwear at the beginning of winter and stank like pigs as the months wore on.

Even the trauma of bank failures and farm foreclosures seemed romantic when spun through the loom of my grandparents' memories, a time when hardship, the great leveler that had brought people closer together, was shared by all. So you had to listen carefully to recognize the subtle hierarchies and unspoken codes that had policed their early lives, the distinctions of people who don't have a lot and live in the middle of nowhere. It had to do with something called respectability--there were respectable people and not-so-respectable people--and although you didn't have to be rich to be respectable, you sure had to work harder at it if you weren't.
This respectable/not-so-respectable dichotomy resonates with me in relation to my own upbringing in rural Arkansas. In a persistent poverty county where no one had very much in terms of material goods, this distinction was the stuff on which social hierarchies rested, though I suppose I reflect on it more as a continuum than a dichotomy.

Also interesting to me is Obama's awareness that he is "seeing" these places through the lens of his grandparents' memories and presentation to him. But this is no different than the self-awareness and maturity that Obama exhibits through the entire book, which I have found remarkable given that he wrote this book in his early 30s.

For the record, Augusta, Kansas, had a 2000 population of 8,423, and El Dorado, Kansas (the county seat of Butler County), had a 2000 population of 12,057. Both towns are located in micropolitan Butler County. I'll have to do some digging around to find out what their populations were when Obama's grandparents were growing up there.

As I wrote earlier, Obama's maternal great-great-great-great-great grandmother was once a resident of my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, which is just about as rural as it gets.

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