Divided Inheritance

Barack Obama - "Dreams from My Father" and James McBride - "The Color of Water"

Term Paper 2007 22 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Memoirs and Autobiographies

3. Historical Context of the two Memoirs

4. Comparing “Dreams from My Father” and “The Color of Water”
4.1 Father-Son / Mother-Son Relationship
4.2 Mixed Race
4.3 Struggling with Identity

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Besides the novel and the autobiography, the memoir has become very popular, especially in the United States. What makes a memoir special? What are the key aspects the writer of a memoir has to observe? And what is it that differentiates the memoir from a simple novel or an autobiography?

In our seminar “Contemporary American Novels”, we dealt with some recent outcomes that talk about different subjects – growing up with a divided inheritance, dealing with a rape and overcoming the death of a beloved person.

In this term paper, I will take a closer look at the first subject, namely growing up with a divided inheritance, and memoir we read – “The Color of Water” by James McBride. To analyse several different issues that are raised in this book, I will compare it to another memoir, which also deals with the subject of growing up as a part of two different cultures. “Dreams from My Father” was written by the senator-elect from Illinois Barack Obama in the year 1995 and describes his life as the son of a white mother and a black father – just as James McBride.

Firstly, I will discuss the theoretical conditions of the memoir as a genre on the basis of the three questions given above. Afterwards, I will go over to the two memoirs that shall be analysed. Since both authors grew up in almost the same time of racial discrimination a short introduction on the historical background of the two memoirs will be given. This is followed by a detailed analysis on different issues that are treated in the two memoirs: The relationship between Barack and his father compared to the relationship of James and his mother, as well as how the subjects of race and identity as they are experienced by the two authors.

I will conclude this thesis in the final chapter.

2. Memoirs and Autobiographies

The memoir as a genre has become very popular in the last thirty years including narratives on the Holocaust, crime and punishment, sexual violence, and race and identity. The term “memoir” has been recently used for describing any book dealing with personal experiences of the writer and his personal development. What then is the difference between a memoir and the autobiography, and why does the memoir enjoy such a great popularity? To investigate these questions, I will outline the historic development of the genre in the following.

The first and most important autobiography was written by Benjamin Franklin and published in 1791.[1] It contains both facts and experiences and focuses on the whole life of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, highly pictured with well documented historical background. Other than the classic autobiography, the writer of a memoir only covers certain aspects and happenings that seem important for him, and which he wants to let the reader know about. While the classic autobiography serves as a reproduction of a life, the memoir rather puts together the important parts. But above all, a memoir includes all the happenings in a life of a person that the person remembers. For the writer of a memoir, this implies to actually “become the editor of his own life”[2], which means, that he has to select the memories he wants to include in his future output in view of the things he thinks of being important for his life, but also in regard to what the reader actually wants to know and read about his life. Accordingly, the memoir needs one or more themes which hold the memoir itself as a story of one’s life together.[3]

The memoir as a genre not only offers unknown writers the possibility to tell stories and the memories of their lives, but also gives the ones who write about an extreme situation in their life the chance to use the process of writing it down and publishing it as a therapeutic action. On the one hand, they relieve their minds and reflect their own lives by telling their story to others. On the other hand, by doing this, they can help others who find themselves in the same situation and have to deal with the same happenings.[4] This way, the memoir does not only fit better into the context of everyone’s lives but is also more accessible to the people than a classic autobiography for its higher potential of identification.[5]

However, the notion of truth has been a topic to be discussed quite often when it comes to the genre of the memoir. As readers, we can assume that an autobiography or a biography which tells chronically the life of a person is based on facts and therefore promises authenticity. Meanwhile, the memoir does not claim to consist only of true facts as it is a collection of memoirs describing a special event in somebody’s life. Some memoirs, which are based on historical events such as the Holocaust in Nazi-Germany can be verified because of their relation to “proved” historical happenings.[6] Other memoirs do not have any historical background which can be verified. Furthermore, reflecting one’s own life and writing those memories down is always a process of substituting the things one can remember with a new truth.[7] This leads to a different view on the truth as well as to a new definition of the term “truth” in a memoir: Through the reflection of certain situations or the lack of detailed memories on special happenings, the truth of the actions described in a memoir almost vanishes. Many writers add up information or re-create dialogues as they do not exactly remember everything that has been said.[8] James McBride, the author of one of the memoirs to be analyzed in the following, states that 80% of the happenings in his mother’s life are “exactly what she said”[9], but that he had to arrange the rest of it by editing the information or receiving it from elsewhere by interviewing people who knew her. The reader can assume that this is how Barack Obama did it as well when writing his memoir, though there has been no respond to any enquiry concerning that issue.

To reach authenticity in a book that is based on memories, the author needs to follow a certain basic rules, which include, for example, the reporting in chronological order of the events, so that the experiences described “feel” really true to the reader.[10] This can be done, for example, by including background information on names of people and cities or even aspects of the landscape or the town the narrator lives in.[11]

Nevertheless, the notion of truth is rather fluid in memoirs. The aspect of lying and editing is always included even though the writer’s ethics should be against any form of lying or making up things. However, memoirs, although only based on the writer’s memories which might not exactly describe the true events that have happened, still enjoy a wide range of readers because of topics that concern everyone’s life. Due to the memoir’s “accessibility”[12], the easy identification of the reader with the characters and experiences described, the memoir as a genre has gained and still enjoys a great popularity.

3. Historical Context of the two Memoirs

The focus in this chapter lies on the one hand on Hawaii where Barack Obama grew up and Chicago, where he worked, and on the other hand on the introduction into the historical happenings in and around New York, because this is where James McBride lived with his family when he was young, and where his mother lived with her African American husband before James was born. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s created the basis for how life in the United States is today for most African Americans. Despite several anti-discrimination laws in the 1950s, they faced many disadvantages – not only politically, but also economically and above all socially.[13] There were not only segregated schools until 1954[14] and segregated public transport, but inequalities concerning education itself, incomes and even possibilities to make a career like any other American citizen. In large cities such as Chicago, black citizens who tried to move into an all-white area were harassed and threatened psychologically and physiologically.[15]

During 1963 and the two following years, the black community in the United States gained much more importance, freedom and rights than ever before in such a short period of time. The peaceful movement started off in Alabama – a state with one of the highest rates of African American citizens – and carried on to one of the greatest protest marches in the American history. Not only black, but also white people claimed the human equality and for everybody’s equal rights irrespective of the skin colour. A year later, African Americans were guaranteed equality concerning education and the equal access to public buildings in the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, African Americans were also allowed to vote and participate in the following elections in 1966.[16]

In many states, desegregation of schools or universities didn’t take place until the mid-fifties. Being independent from the United States at that time until 1959[17], Hawaii did not divide between skin colours and cultures, above all because Hawaii was a country with a high emigrational background, mixed marriages and therefore also children belonging to several different cultures. This facilitated the meeting and the relationship of Barack Obama’s father, who had come from Kenya to the United States, and his mother.

Located in the north of the Central Park is the New York district of Harlem, a place where in the middle of the 20th century almost 75% of the cities African American inhabitants lived. In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem developed into the centre of African American musician and artist culture, called the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement.[18] Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Harlem Renaissance praised the Afro-American culture, literature and art itself by encouraging African Americans to commemorate their in heritage in everything they were doing. By publishing pictures of the stereotyped African American in newspapers, the Harlem Renaissance inspired the black citizens to stand up for their culture and against the conventional thinking and racism.[19] The Harlem Renaissance ended after the Great Depression in the 1930s. People struggled with the bad economy, unemployment and poverty. Several riots arose for racist and economical reasons of which the district could not recover even after a significant participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Until the 1990s, Harlem continued being a residence for not well educated workers, lower-class families and cohabits of many different ethnic groups.[20]


[1] See http://www.earlyamerica.com/lives/franklin/ (07/27/2007).

[2] Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987, p. 24.

[3] Cf. Barrington, Judith. Erinnerungen und Autobiographien schreiben. Berlin: Autorenhaus Verlag, 2004, p. 19.

[4] Cf. Barrington, p. 86.

[5] Cf. Jolly, Margareta (ed.). Encyclopedia of life writing. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001, p. 595.

[6] Cf. Steiner, Wendy. Rethinking Postmodernism. In: Bercovitch, Sacvan (ed.). The Cambridge history of American literature, Volume 7, Prose Writing 1940-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 434.

[7] Cf. Zinsser, p.24.

[8] Cf. Barrington, p. 61.

[9] See http://www.sunysb.edu/writrhet/communitytext/mcbrideinterview.html (07/30/2007).

[10] Cf. Zinsser, p. 24.

[11] Cf. Barrington, p. 115.

[12] Jolly, p. 595.

[13] Cf. Ogbar, Jeffrey Ogbonna Green. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, p. 18.

[14] Rosenberg, Jonathan. How far the promised land?: World Affairs and the American Civil Rights movement from the First World War to Vietnam. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 200.

[15] Cf. Ogbar, p. 19.

[16] Cf. Rosenberg, p. 219.

[17] See www.hawaiihistory.com (07/24/2007).

[18] Rosenberg, p. 88.

[19] Cf. Nadell, Martha Jane. Enter the New Negroes. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England, 2004, p.13.

[20] See http://www.east-harlem.com/cb11_197A_demographic.htm (07/26/2007).


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University of Paderborn
Divided Inheritance Contemporary American Memoirs Barack Obama



Title: Divided Inheritance