“…the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address
Since I knew I would be starting my Obama year soon, I couldn’t imagine a better way to jump in than by listening to the audio book of Dreams From My Father, the autobiographical writings of of Barack Obama read by the the President himself. Still full of my conservative predispositions I gritted my teeth and pressed play on my ailing MP3 player fully expecting not to enjoy what I was about to hear. As turns out, I was wrong. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.
You see, there was a time (a.k.a a couple months ago) when thirty seconds of the President’s voice coming out of my radio was enough to make me want to switch the station. It set my teeth on edge listening to “that liberal” talk and I just assumed that whatever he said would be lies and spin. I assume others felt the same way when hearing George W. Bush’s voice just a few years ago.
Having decided, however, that I was going to give whatever he said a fair hearing and being committed to finding the good wherever it was, I was surprised to find that after a few chapters I actually found myself looking forward to my commute and the chance to hear more of the President’s story. This is, perhaps, less of a testament to my own will power and more of an indication of exactly what powerful things stories can be.
Stories contextualize. Stories visualize. Stories humanize.
It turns out that there was much more that Obama and I held in common than I had known. He grew up on an island. So did I. He spent time abroad absorbing a completely different cultural context. So did I. Suddenly as I listened I wasn’t hearing “that Democrat” anymore, I was hearing the story of a boy who they used to call “Barry” who had hardworking Midwestern grandparents and a dad from Kenya. He was a child who grew up seeing poverty and struggling with his identity in a world that can be a very cruel and unjust place to live. So was I.
Of course, switching sides of the aisle shouldn’t make us naïve. Personal histories are a tricky thing and we all tend to filter our memories through the events that happen later in our lives. The important bit here, though, is that this is the narrative that Barack Obama uses as his personal starting point. This is the story as he recalls it and it’s an amazing tale that gives me a new way of looking at a man who I once only saw as the collection of his policies instead of seeing that underneath the office stands a person.
Suddenly, I discovered to my surprise that I actually liked this guy. Imagine that.
It might have seemed strange if people I passed on the street had known that the white guy in old pickup truck with an NRA sticker on the rear window was thoroughly engrossed in listening to Barack Obama’s personal story. It would have seemed stranger if they had known that only a year ago I never would have bothered. Perhaps there is no better image that sums up this entire project than that.
Has a story every changed your opinion about somebody?