Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father (review)

A review of Obama’s first memoir, Dreams from My Father

It is rare indeed for the general public to be able to glimpse inside the soul of a politician. What makes him tick? we wonder, when we know that we will never get a clear answer. Politicians by nature lock away their skeletons and throw away the key. They hide their private thoughts and experiences, reasoning in part that they are public servants now and their own life experiences are not relevant.

Life experiences are relevant, however, and they do matter to voters. Just ask George W. Bush, who narrowly won the 2000 Presidential election after a 1976 DUI arrest came to light just days before the election. The revelation had a chilling effect on evangelical voters, who stayed home in droves and helped set the stage for the legal battles that ultimately decided the election.

Barack Obama 'Dreams from My Father'

Barack Obama ‘Dreams from My Father’.

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of the blogosphere, politicians have become even more suspicious of revealing any embarrassing details from their private lives. As well they should be. It is only natural then that books “written” by politicians are so much filler. They are usually ghostwritten in some form or other and are carefully vetted for any damaging passages. Or else they are written after the politician has left office and has nothing to lose.

In this election cycle voters have been given the unique opportunity to learn about Presidential candidate Barack Obama through his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. The book, originally published in 1995, tells of Obama’s struggle to discover his racial and cultural identity, a divisive theme that most politicians wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. It was written when Obama’s only experience with politics was as a community organizer, before Obama was elected into the Illinois state legislature in 1996.

Divided into three roughly equal parts, Dreams from My Father is an engaging read that offers readers unblemished insight as to what type of person he is and what kind of President he would be.

Section One – ‘Origins’

The first section, ‘Origins,’ focuses on his relatively carefree life growing up in Hawaii with his white mother and doting grandparents, Toot and Gramps. As Obama tells it, Hawaii was a true melting pot of cultures and races, and he was relatively sheltered from the racial tension pervasive in most of the continental United States. We learn about a vastly different life he led living as a child in Indonesia for several years, which exposed him to Third World living conditions and poverty.

Back in Hawaii, a visit from Obama’s Kenyan father when he is 10 years old only serves to stir racial confusion and does not answer questions about his Kenyan heritage. The section ends with Obama trying to get a handle on his racial identity in high school and college. He is caught between two worlds, White and Black, and he is not sure he belongs in either of them. He seems to decide on an African-American identity when a romantic relationship with a white college student fails.

Section Two – ‘Chicago’

The second section, ‘Chicago,’ focuses on Obama’s life as a community organizer in Chicago. Initially, Obama seems to pursue his career with only marginal interest. He fails numerous times before he starts to have modest success. As a bi-racial outsider from Hawaii with a Muslim-sounding name, Obama has to convince locals that he does care about their problems. He finds it difficult to enlist churches in community projects because the ministers expect him to have some sort of religious compass.

Much of his work is devoted to improving project communities in such ways as bringing in job programs, removing asbestos from old buildings, and getting locals involved in reducing crime and street violence. Obama eventually starts to fit in, but he feels the pull of his Kenyan family and need to discover his ancestral past. He also has much bigger ambitions. He decides to leave Chicago after being accepted at Harvard.

Section Three – ‘Kenya’

Prior to starting at Harvard Obama makes his trek to Kenya to hopefully unravel the mysterious question marks in his family tree (third section ‘Kenya.’) Obama meets all of his extended family and sees much of Kenya in the process. He is overwhelmed by the number of relatives he has (in part due to polygamous marriages) but also by the sheer generosity of his family toward each other and toward their community. He learns what exactly happened to his father, the local prodigy who left to study at Harvard only to return and become a mean drunk and unemployable bureaucrat.

Then Obama travels to Kendu Bay, where Obama’s great-grandfather set down the family roots and built a homestead. Obama’s grandfather, Onyango, started in Kendu Bay, but later left due to familial strife. Onyango had left to work as a cook for the British. He returned to Kendu Bay wearing the white man’s clothes and having absorbed some of the trappings of British culture. Onyango’s father disowned him for this betrayal of his African heritage. This section asks many difficult questions about colonialism and the plight of modern day Africa. It does not offer many answers.

Analysis & Conclusions

In the early pages of the first section Obama heard of his father’s death. At the time he was a struggling college student in New York hearing about it from a long-lost relative. The final pages of the book finally answer the questions Obama has about his family heritage. There is no clear answer for Obama on what his racial identity or culture should be, but with answers about his family background he now has the tools now to figure it out for himself.

As a whole, Dreams from My Father holds together amazingly well and has a tight structure. The book does make use of composite characters, which Obama acknowledges in the introduction. That is entirely understandable. All of our lives are much too complicated to put into a book if we tell the story from A to Z, without any shortcuts. Apart from that, Obama is wonderfully descriptive. Here is one example, describing a safari (p. 351)–

“And there, on the other side of the rise, I saw as beautiful a land as I’d ever seen. It swept out forever, flat plains undulating into gentle hills, dun-colored and as supple as a lion’s back, creased by long gallery forests and dotted with thorn trees. To our left, a huge herd of zebra, ridiculously symmetrical in their stripes, harvested the wheat-colored grass; to our right, a troop of gazelle leaped into bush. And in the center, thousands of wildebeest, with mournful heads and humped shoulders that seemed too much for their slender legs to carry. Francis began to inch the van through the herd, and the animals parted before us, then merged in our wake like a school of fish, their hoofs beating against the earth like a wave against the shore.”

Where Dreams from My Father really succeeds is as an honest examination of race and culture in the United States. As an outsider from both Black and White communities, Obama manages to straddle the line and address grievances from both sides of the aisle. Read the first section with an open heart and mind, and you will be able to empathize with your fellow Americans regardless of racial background.

Obama walks the line between Black and White, and in the end everything becomes a groggy shade of gray. Older Americans may have a difficult time absorbing Obama’s fearless attempt to bridge the racial divide; younger Americans may not even sense there is a divide. I feel this book would be the most compelling for Americans in the 25-50 age range.

Apart from pretty writing and an insight into racial identity in the United States, what does Obama’s book tell us about the type of President he might be? Well, relatively little in terms of policy. The Chicago section offers fascinating insight into the career of a community organizer. It is clear Obama excelled in this type of work and took it very seriously.

I think we can expect Obama to have more of a pulse on issues affecting urban areas, including maintaining affordable housing, prison reform, traffic congestion, infrastructure improvements, and social welfare programs. Not that as President he would necessarily be involved in policy in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, but he would be more attuned to the needs of large cities.

One passage that called to me is actually contained in the preface to the 2004 edition, which technically is not part of the original book.

“Domestically, our cultural debates—around guns and abortion and rap lyrics—seemed so fierce precisely because Bill Clinton’s Third Way, a scaled-back welfare state without grand ambition but without sharp edges, seemed to describe a broad, underlying consensus on bread-and-butter issues, a consensus to which even George W. Bush’s first campaign, with its ‘compassionate conservatism,’ would have to give a nod.”

Obama offers in this one sentence an excellent description of the political climate under Bill Clinton and presumably an indication of what his own presidency would aspire to. If George W. Bush ever wrote a book (I’m not holding my breath) he would never describe the United States as a “welfare state.” He probably has never heard the term before. And I’m not sure if he can even say the word “welfare” without wincing.

Dreams from My Father also gives some insight into Obama’s religious awakening. He describes how he got involved in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. does not appear nearly as much the bogeyman as he is presented on cable news these days. The few pages dedicated to Obama’s church may provide some wary voters with the insight to determine if Obama’s church membership is an important factor for them or not.

What the Obama book really reveals, though, is his character. Here is a man from a broken home, from two entirely different cultural backgrounds, who embraces every challenge and obstacle in his path and conquers them one by one. He always takes the path less traveled, yet he rises up and succeeds in every endeavor he sets his heart on. He is a man of principle. He is a man who would rather toil in anonymity helping to improve the lives of the urban poor in Chicago than take a cushy lawyer job.

A cynic would argue that Obama would not be in the place he is in now if it weren’t for his race. There is a limited amount of truth in this. After all, George W. Bush would certainly not be President if it weren’t for his family’s generational political dynasty. Likewise, Obama may have benefited from Affirmative Action programs and the circumstances of his own unique cultural background.

His background may have opened up doors for him that would eventually lead to his being accepted at Harvard. Perhaps if Obama were born white to a two-parent household he would now be an amateur surfer in Hawaii, or a small businessman, or a city bus driver. Then again, maybe he would still be successful in politics, perhaps as Governor of Hawaii.

In the end, all we can do is play the hand we’re dealt the best way we know how. It just so happens that Obama has had the strength and personal convictions to put him within reach of the most powerful political position in the world.

(This review was written in June of 2008 for the blog Hand Grenades and Olympic Flames. Obama went on to win the 2008 presidential election, becoming the 44th President of the United States. He was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009 and served two terms in office).

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