Person and Place

The New York Times has an interesting exercise (its awkward editorial phrasing aside) in today's Op-Ed section. As they explain:
We are shaped by the places we have lived. And Barack Obama has lived in a lot of different places. His memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” recounts formative years spent in Indonesia; Honolulu; Los Angeles; New York City; Cambridge, Mass.; and Chicago. How might these places have helped to mold the man who will be the next president of the United States? What might he have taken away from, say, Jakarta in 1967? Or Columbia University? Six writers who lived where Mr. Obama lived —when he lived there — reflect on those questions.
Obama's life begins in Jakarta, where Edna Bayuni writes:
Mr. Obama’s family was not exactly poor, but they were not rich either. He lived on the outskirts of Jakarta, and not in the exclusive district where American expatriates mingled with Jakarta’s high society. Instead he lived in a neighborhood that was not particularly affluent but did have houses with gardens. Barry, as he was called by friends back then, went to Indonesian schools. He learned the local language and culture through playing and running in the streets with his Indonesian friends.
From Jakarta to Honolulu, where Lois-Ann Yanamaka reflects on how easily Hawaiian lends itself to rendering languages. It is a place - as opposed, perhaps, to California - that does not let newcomers claim a kind of birthright. Yet Obama, she says, found something (though her article's title, This Man is an Island, sounds an awkward echo of both Donne and Hemingway):
He wasn’t [local] until I saw that photograph of him body surfing a break-neck barrel from last August. He had that local-boy reach of the arm as he glided down a huge summer swell, the grace of his relaxed face, proud, turned into the tidal force of current, the way only a local boy can take a real wave and make it his very own ride, sleek and easy. A natural local boy.
Occidental - recently, I've read, trying to market itself as the college where Barry went - is the stage for the next piece. Margot Mifflin says that it was here that Barry - still Barry at this point - learned to be a globally literate soul:
The student body was international, although not nearly as racially diverse as it is now. But we were economically diverse, hailing from homes with swimming pools in wealthy Los Angeles suburbs like Brentwood, as well as from blue-collar towns in Connecticut and Massachusetts. We swam in Santa Monica, bowled in Eagle Rock, camped in Mexico, hiked in Joshua Tree National Park and skated at Venice Beach — something that Barry occasionally did with his friend Hasan Chandoo. We partied, but only after we studied. Our professors pushed us to apply for grants that took us around the globe, and worked community service into our course requirements. They wanted us to become citizens of the world.
From California, it was on to New York, where Kevin Baker imagines that Obama found a city of "vaulting ambition":
I’d like to think that New York taught Barack Obama how indomitable people can be, even in a city that has been written off, consigned to a dozen cinematic apocalypses. It was a poorer town then, a harder one, but still a place of vaulting ambition, of indelible beauty. We thought we could do anything. We felt such pride to be there.
As for Harvard Law, John Matteson thinks it humbled him:
Yet something tells me that Mr. Obama, too, confronted the largeness of the tasks he faced and the immensity of the expectations that called to him and, in those lonely, palpitating moments, discovered who he was. He appears to have learned that he, to a degree quite rare, possessed the confidence, the serenity and the supreme resiliency to accomplish goals to which he may have feared he was not equal.
Chicago, finally, becomes the United States of America collapsed into a single city (a beautiful line in the article quotes Nelson Algren: Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose; to which I'd only ask what does that leave Los Angeles?). Thus Aleksander Hemon writes:
Chicago is the only city in America I can imagine declaring independence one day and becoming a city-republic, only to be riven, no doubt, by a rich repertoire of internal conflict. Saul Bellow once wrote, about the experience of the city: “Chicago was nowhere. It had no setting. It was something released into American space.” This “something in American space” is held together by a common civic spirit that often feels temporary, negotiated and limited, but is nevertheless ceaselessly humming against all the individualistic noise. Chicago is the city that always works at being a city.
But that is exactly what makes Chicago a model American place. It is hard to keep it assembled, because it keeps changing, like America. This is a nation that never stops working at being a nation, its common purpose defined by constant flux, conflict and transformation — it is what it is because it never settles for what it appears to be.
Obama is, of course, already in D.C., having followed in Lincoln's steps. While nobody speaks for what Washington D.C. might be for the President-Elect, Frank Rich gestures in that direction. Rich grew up in D.C. in the 1960s, back when it was still run as the fiefdom of Southern Dixiecrats. Rich's own adolescence wasn't strongly marked by the experience of the 1960s, but it came with its own small elisions ("In my history class, the Civil War was downsized to a passing speed bump. In English, we read "Tom Sawyer," not "Huckleberry Finn.""). Rich ends by wondering at the strangeness of it all, the immensity of everything that has been set before Obama:
Those messes are enormous, bigger than Washington, bigger than race, bigger than anything most of us have ever seen. Nearly three months after Election Day, it remains astonishing that the American people have entrusted the job to a young black man who seemed to come out of nowhere looking for that kind of work just as we most needed him.

"In no other country on earth is my story even possible," Obama is fond of saying. That is true, and that is what the country celebrates this week. But it is all the tragic American stories that came before him, some of them still playing out in chilly streets just blocks from the White House, that throw both his remarkable triumph and the huge challenge ahead of him into such heart-stopping relief.
At one point last year I talked briefly in my Arabic class about how Obama was a projection of so many people's hopes and aspirations (including my own). I stand by that, and perhaps feel that all the more strongly. The whole trope, of writing a history and geography of Obama the person by asking other people to stand in for his life (the implicit argument, And I was there too), strikes me as unsettling. There seems to be such a broad current of figuring out how to fit this present moment within a larger narrative and a larger space: Call it a staging of Obama's inauguration.

What are we all to make of it? I don't truly know, but the geographer in me is smiling at the trope: To know someone truly, you just have to know where they've been. Obama's election might signal a post-race America, but it is an America that has not gone beyond place.


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