Is Gallmann's Memoir the Source for Obama's?

Sometime in 1994, as I have argued on these pages and in my book, Deconstructing Obama, one-time terrorist Bill Ayers took over the memoir that his struggling protégé, Barack Obama, proved unable to complete.  Although my evidence was textual or circumstantial, celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen had sources within the Chicago community that confirmed the collaboration.

Noting that a "hopelessly blocked" Obama had already taped interviews with many of his relatives, both African and American, Andersen elaborates, "These oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes were given to Ayers."  The result was the much-acclaimed Dreams from My Father.  In that the audience for Andersen's favorable book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, skewed left, he had no reason to fabricate unflattering details.

Ayers knew Obama's terrain well, in some ways better than Obama himself.  "I also thought I was black," writes Ayers only half-jokingly in his own 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days.  He read all the authors Obama did -- James Baldwin, Leroi Jones, Richard Wright, Malcolm X.  Tellingly, like Obama, he began his career as a self-described "community organizer," Ayers in inner-city Cleveland. 

Like Obama, too, Ayers spent many years in both New York and Chicago, and, fortuitously, he and his family spent their spring 1993 vacation in Hawaii.  A careful craftsman, Ayers has a novelist's eye for detail.  He used his own experiences to good effect in helping Obama create what Time Magazine would call "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

What Ayers did not know was Kenya, the setting for the last third of Dreams.  There was no Google in 1994 and little else of use on the still embryonic Internet.  Obama did not know Kenya much better.  He visited for a few weeks in 1987 or 1988 -- he can never get the date quite straight -- and again briefly with Michelle in 1992. 

Lacking an authoritative source, Ayers may well have turned for useful local color to the memoirs of longtime Kenya resident Kuki Gallmannn.  So theorizes Shawn Glasco, the tireless researcher that I refer to in Deconstructing Obama as "Mr. Southwest."

In June 2010, while searching for nonfiction books about Kenya at the public library, Glasco spotted Gallmann's 1991 memoir, I Dreamed of Africa, which was later made into a film of the same name starring Kim Basinger.  The similarity between Gallmann's title and Obama's caught his eye.

At the library, Glasco randomly opened Gallmann's book and was struck by the similarity in word choice and writing styles between her work and Dreams.  He suspects that the Gallmann memoir may have inspired the "dreams" trope that Ayers likely invented to provide structure to Obama's memoir.

In 1994, Gallmann's memoir, African Nights, was published.  Glasco believes that Ayers mined both books.  A meticulous researcher, Glasco has completed his review of African Nights, the results of which follow.  Glasco worked from hard copies.  Had he digital copies available, the results would have been more impressive still.  Glasco has also been in touch with Gallmann to verify details.

Presuming that Glasco is right, Ayers is not a plagiarist.  He is careful, in fact, to avoid the kind of piracy that got author Alex Haley in trouble.  For Roots -- his presumably factual, Pulitzer Prize-winning family history -- Haley plundered a novel titled The African, written by Harold Courlander.  

In 1978, Courlander sued Haley in U.S. District Court for copyright infringement.  Midway through the trial, the judge counseled the dissembling Haley to settle with Courlander or face a perjury charge.  Haley did just that to the tune of $650,000, or more than $2 million by today's standards.  The publishing world chose not to notice.  Haley was too sacred a cow and Roots too valuable a property.

Although not illegal, what Obama apparently allowed Ayers to do violates any number of ethical standards, and the fault here lies with Obama.  Dreams was alleged to have been his own memoir, faithfully told.  Using a ghostwriter is fair enough.  Letting the ghostwriter mine someone else's experiences and call them your own is not.

Gallmann, for instance, tells the reader of a certain acquaintance.  "He was a little man with a perennial grin" and a "readiness to obey or volunteer for any work."  His "sentences often became tangled in a painful stutter."  Obama meets a man just like this: "He was a short, gentle man with a bit of a stutter; he did odd jobs." 

In assessing sentences like this, the reader has to ask: did Obama really know such a man, or is the character on loan from Gallmann?  The reader has every reason to be suspicious.  In Dreams, Ayers often attributes his own thoughts and experiences to Obama.  Even Obama-friendly biographer David Remnick concedes that Dreams is a "mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, recreation, invention, and artful shaping."  The same could be said for James Frey's bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, whose many inventions, once revealed, made Frey a national pariah.

As will become obvious, Dreams and African Nights share any number of distinctive words and phrases, many of which are commonly in use in East Africa: Baobab [a tree], bhang [cannabis], boma [an enclosure], samosa [a fried snack], shamba [a farm field], liana [a vine], tilapia [a fish], kanga [a sheet of fabric], shuka [decorative sashes].  It is possible that Obama remembered these phrases from his few weeks in country, but it is not at all likely.

On the fashion front, both books have young women "wrapped" in their kangas and "dressed" in "rags."  The women in both books wear shukas, head shawls, head scarves, and goatskins, and they balance baskets on heads graced with "laughing smiles."

On the animal front, men in both books spearfish in "ink-black" waters and hunt by torchlight.  Elephants are "fanning" themselves, birds "trill," insects "buzz," weaver birds "nest," and monkeys "mesmerize."  The books share a veritable Noah's ark of additional fauna: crickets, crocodiles, starlings, dragonflies, tilapia, cattle, lions, sand crabs, vultures, hyenas, "herds of gazelle," and leopards that can hold small animals "in their jaws."

On the flora front, the shared references are just as compelling: roadside palms, yellow grass, red bougainvillaea, pink bougainvillaea, fig trees, shady mango trees, thornbrush, banana leaves, Baobab trees, liana vines, tomatoes.  The landscape, occasionally "barren," is rich in "undulating hills" whose "grazing lands" are dotted with the occasional "watering hole."  

The "mud and dung" houses feature "thatched roofs" "verandas," and "vegetable gardens."  People seem to be carrying "straw mats" everywhere.  The stars "glint" and people "waltz" underneath them.  Eyes "glimmer" in the light of "campfires."  Children sing in "high-pitched" rhythms, and girls endure "barbaric" circumcisions.  Obama, like Gallmannn, travels to the Great Rift Valley and stands at its edge.  Both visit the small trading town of Narok.

Karl Rove tells of running into "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln" soon after the latter's second book, Audacity of Hope, was published.  "Hey, I understand you got me in your book," said Rove.  "I don't think so," Obama replied.  Rove continued, "I think you got me in your book saying, 'we're a Christian nation.'"  Said Obama, "Where'd I say that?"  Rove showed him.

I suspect if someone asked Obama what a shamba was or a shuka, the inquirer would get an equally dumb answer.

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