In the end I suppose that's what all the stories of my father were really about. They said less about the man himself than about the changes that had taken place in the people around him, the halting process by which my grandparents' racial attitudes had changed. The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy's election and the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps ennoble. A useful fiction, one that haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere childhood.
Dreams From My Father
A Story of Race and Inheritance
Hardcover: Published by Random House on September 16, 1997, 472 pages (ISBN: 0517194112)
Softcover: Published by Three Rivers on August 10, 2004, 480 pages (ISBN: 1400082773)
Dreams From My Father is a memoir by Barack Obama, the political "it" man in the United States Democratic Party at the moment. Written in 1994 and 1995, the book largely chronicles the experiences Obama had trying to bridge the racial gap between his Caucasian American mother and his Kenyan father, and through this journey, paints a profound picture of the trials of trying to bridge racism for both races. In doing this, Obama is struggling to figure out how to be true to himself, and what exactly that means.
The book is divided into three distinct parts, covering his childhood, his experience as a community organizer in Chicago, and his trip to Kenya shortly before entering Harvard Law School. Although there are threads that run through all three sections, in large part they seem to be separate books.
Barack was born to a Kenyan man and a woman from Kansas when they were both studying at the University of Hawaii. Barack's cross-racial birth caused both families to come to terms (to a degree) with the situation, and this section mostly focuses on how his mother's parents dealt with the situation. Why? Barack's father returned to Kenya shortly after his birth and thus Barack was only able to meet his father once, when he came to visit him and his mother in Hawaii during Barack's adolescence.
For an extended period, Barack and his mother lived in Indonesia, the home nation of the man she fell in love with after Barack's father left her. This period was Barack's formative period, and it is interesting that he was able to witness the social unfairness in Indonesian society abstractly during this key time in his life. He wasn't a part of Indonesian society, but he could see the unfairness of how Lolo (his mother's husband) was treated during this time for reasons completely beyond his control, and how Lolo's response to this treatment not only affected Lolo's life, but his mother's life and his life.
After several years, Obama returned to the States to attend secondary school and college. As with many of us, Obama was very mixed up during this stage in his life and there was a great deal of discovery about racism. What I felt was poignant about this part is how Obama pointed out how both African-Americans and Caucasians were each racist against the other side, making it clear that it is not a one-way street.
After college and the experiences that were brought to him via college, Obama decided to spend some years being a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois.
The middle third of the book focuses on Barack's work in Chicago. His job is to organize various communities to stand up for their rights, and during this experience he has a number of successes and failures.
Much of this section focuses on segregation. Although not forced, he makes a number of observations about the segregation by choice that goes on in the United States, in which poor neighborhoods remain poor and how whites move out of neighborhoods rapidly after African-Americans start moving in. There are a number of ways to look at these issues, and Barack provides several different perspectives on why this happens, mostly boiling things down to a simple matter of safety in familiarity.
There's also a great deal of near-worship of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor who was in charge of the city at this time, and some analysis of how Washington's election affected the city on all levels. I got the feeling in this section that Barack, intentionally or not, was showing that he learned some valuable lessons from Washington's election and thus would be able to apply these lessons himself later on in his career; I think Barack was already aiming quite high when he wrote this book, either consciously or not.
Eventually, Barack decides to move on from community organizing and is accepted to Harvard Law School, but before he starts law school, he decides to visit his family in Kenya, a place he has never visited.
The third portion of the book takes place in Kenya, where Obama visits his father's family. It is seven years after the passing of his father, so he doesn't get to meet with his father during this trip. Instead, he learns about him through the rather large Obama family that still lives there.
This is perhaps the most poignant part of the book, even if it is a bit confusing with the huge number of relatives that Obama encounters. You can almost see a circle becoming complete in this section, as Obama learns that in a lot of ways, Kenyan life is quite similar to American life.
The book ends with Obama visiting his father's grave and assembling all the pieces of his life to this point, and the moment reduces him to tears. It is a very appropriate place to stop the book.
I feel that as Obama's career advances, this book will wind up being more of an asset than a liability to his career, although he does expose some personal demons here. The reason I feel this way is his candor in the book; he admits the mistakes he's made and frames them within the context of his life at the time as a mixed-up early twentysomething who is extremely confused about his own identity, something that many people can identify with regardless of their personal context.
Perhaps the biggest bombshell is his admission of cocaine use during his college years. He doesn't dwell on it, but he does admit to using it on occasion, along with some use of marijuana. Having followed his political career thus far, whenever it has become an issue, he's been very successful in playing it down and putting it in the context of his youthful indiscretions, which is exactly where it fits.
However, in the long haul, this book becomes a benefit to Obama's career. He clearly has a deep understanding of the racial dichotomy that exists in the United States and elsewhere, and he has had the opportunity to see it from both sides of the chasm. It will take a leader with that kind of vision to bring together that which separates us, and I believe that Obama's experiences and background put him into a position to be that visionary leader.
This book is one of the better ones I've ever read on racial issues, and one that finds a place on my shelf along with Roots, Life on the Color Line, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Dreams From My Father is particularly noteworthy because in many places it shows multiple facets to its arguments, showing clearly how differing perspectives can bring about differing conclusions.
If you are a follower of Obama's career or simply want to read a very well written perspective on the world racial dichotomy and how we can bridge it, this book is fantastic.