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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA ON 'BLACK ORPHEUS'

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We found this passage from President Barack Obama's memoir "Dreams From My Father" fascinating. The sitting president of the United States critically analyzing the black cinematic image? We think that's a first. We think that is pretty awesome.

Black Orpheus (1959), Directed by: Marcel Camus

Black Orpheus (1959), Directed by: Marcel Camus

Here is the excerpt:

One evening, while thumbing through The Village Voice, my mother’s eyes lit on an advertisement for a movie, Black Orpheus, that was showing downtown. My mother insisted that we go see it that night; she said that it was the first foreign film she had ever seen. 

“I was only sixteen then,” she told us as we entered the elevator. “I’d just been accepted to the University of Chicago. Gramps hadn’t told me yet that he wouldn’t let me go-and I was there for the summer, working as an au pair. It was the first time that I’d ever been really on my own. Gosh, I felt like such an adult. And when I saw this film, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” 

We took a cab to the revival theater where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different. 

I turned away, embarrassed for her, irritated with the people around me. Sitting there in the dark, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had a few years earlier with a friend of my mother’s, an Englishman who had worked for an international aid organization throughout Africa and Asia. He had told me that of all the different peoples he had met in his travels, the Dik of Sudan were the strangest. 

 “Usually, after a month or two, you make contact,” he had said. “Even where you don’t speak the language, there’s a smile or a joke, you know-some semblance of recognition. But at the end of a year with the Dik, they remained utterly alien to me. They laughed at the things that drove me to despair. What I thought was funny seemed to leave them stone cold.” 

I had spared him the information that the Dik were Nilotes, distant cousins of mine. I had tried to imagine this pale Englishman in a parched desert somewhere, his back turned away from a circle of naked tribesmen, his eyes searching an empty sky, bitter in his solitude. And the same thought had occurred to me then that I carried with me now as I left the movie theater with my mother and sister: The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart. 

“Kind of corny, huh,” Maya said as my mother went to the bathroom. 

 “What?” 

“The movie. It was kind of corny. Just Mom’s style.” 

 

For the next several days, I tried to avoid situations where my mother and I might be forced to talk. Then, a few days before they were about to leave, I stopped by while Maya was taking a nap. My mother noticed a letter addressed to my father in my hand. I asked her if she had an international postage stamp.

“You guys arranging a visit?”

I told her briefly of my plans as she dug out a stamp from the bottom of her purse. Actually she came up with two stamps; they had melted together in the summer heat. She gave me a sheepish grin and put water on to boil so we could steam them apart.

“Well, I think it’ll be wonderful for you two to finally get to know each other,” she said from the kitchen. “He was probably a bit tough for a ten-year-old to take, but now that you’re older…”

I shrugged. “Who knows?”

She stuck her head out of the kitchen. “I hope you don’t feel resentful towards him.”

“Why would I?”

“I don’t know.” She returned to the living room and we sat there for a while, listening to the sounds of traffic below.

The teapot whistled, and I stamped my envelope. Then, without any prompting, my mother began to retell an old story, in a distant voice, as if she were telling it to herself.

“It wasn’t your father’s fault that he left, you know. I divorced him. When the two of us got married, your grandparents weren’t happy with the idea. But they said okay-they probably couldn’t have stopped us anyway, and they eventually came around to the idea that it was the right thing to do. Then Barack’s father-your grandfather Hussein wrote Gramps this long, nasty letter saying that he didn’t approve of the marriage. He didn’t want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman, he said. Well, you can imagine how Gramps reacted to that. And then there was a problem with your father’s first wife…he had told me they were separated, but it was a village wedding, so there was no legal document that could show a divorce….”

Her chin had begun to tremble, and she bit down on her lip, steadying herself. She said, “Your father wrote back, saying he was going ahead with it. Then you were born, and we agreed that the three of us would return to Kenya after he finished his studies. But your grandfather Hussein was still writing to your father, threatening to have his student visa revoked. By this time Toot had become hysterical-she had read about the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya a few years earlier, which the Western press really played up-and she was sure that I would have my head chopped off and you would be taken away. “Even then, it might have worked out. When your father graduated from UH, he received two scholarship offers. One was to the New School, here in New York. The other one was to Harvard. The New School agreed to pay for everything-room and board, a job on campus, enough to support all three of us. Harvard just agreed to pay tuition. But Barack was such a stubborn bastard, he had to go to Harvard. How can I refuse the best education? he told me. That’s all he could think about, proving that he was the best….”

She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that. Later, when he came to visit us in Hawaii that time, he wanted us to come live with him. But I was still married to Lolo then, and his third wife had just left him, and I just didn’t think…” She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later-an hour!-he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’ ” 

My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up-their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was something that I suspect most Americans will never hear from the lips of those of another race, and so cannot be expected to believe might exist between black and white: the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.