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Book Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Posted by anandrr on January 20, 2009

I am famously skeptical of The Messiah. But I can be cynical and skeptical all I want about Obama’s true colors, or whether he really represents a break from the past, but I have to give him this: he displays amazing temperament, and he can write and speak like a champion. And no matter what I think of him, it is still quite an accomplishment for a black man to become President of the US, even in 2008. Most of all, his is an intriguing tale, product of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia (away from his father at all times), a sudden turn from this apparently idyllic boyhood to an adulthood immersed in the south side of Chicago as a community organizer and finally this rapid rise through the ranks from mere state senator to President in the blink of an eye.

When I was done with Maximum City, I was looking for a quick read that would be an easy transit stop on my way to something more hefty, and decided I would honour our new found leader of the free world by reading one of his two tomes. I thought, and Jon at Bookmarks magazine agreed, that Dreams From My Father might be less I-am-running-for-president-so-listen-to-what-I-have-to-say than The Audacity of Hope, so Dreams it was.

Dreams is a good book. It came out of a book deal that Obama landed when he was appointed the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review thus turning him in to the subject of fawning news stories. The book spans Obama’s life from his childhood until the time he went to law school, but it is a story of a young Obama “finding himself.” That is of course an overused phrase, most people looking to find themselves are probably just looking for an opportunity to get high, but Obama truly does find himself, and in so doing understands race relations in the US from a unique perspective. Obama has much to find. The son of a white mother and growing up in an entirely white family in Hawaii, he is never seen as legitimately black while his skin color ensures that he will never be seen as anything else. His father appears to have abandoned his family soon after Obama’s birth leaving him father-less for most of his life.

Obama’s journey takes him to Indonesia, California, Wall Street and Chicago. It is in the south side that Obama finds himself for the first time. For the first time after all the way stations, he is in a place where his skin color is taken for granted and few people know of his exotic background so it allows him to be himself. When he gets to Chicago, it is a heady time. Harold Washington has just been elected mayor and black people feel like the outlook is finally beginning to change for them. (BTW, if you have not listened to This American Life on Washington’s election and tenure, it is well worth a listen. It is quite amazing how racist Chicago was, even as recently as the 80s. And if that was Chicago in the 80s, how about many other parts of the country today?) Of course, it is a chimera, nothing really changes. Being a community organizer brings Obama into people’s homes and families where he learns this first hand. And it’s only getting worse: single parent families were already the norm, racism already pervaded every aspect of black people’s existence, now drugs are beginning to invade the inner city, the kids are “changing,” and most of all jobs are still scarce. More troubling, everybody who is interested in helping them isn’t really interested in helping them but only in helping themselves. Politicians who will participate if it helps them rise higher, school officials if their families get jobs as a result and so on. (Of course, this is all wrapped now with a very post-modern bow. Obama himself could well have been in it for the law school essay/political gain. As Ryan Lizza meticulously laid out in the New Yorker, Obama has always been in the business of “using” people, experiences and contacts to rise rapidly in politics).

The other constant in the African-American experience would appear to be abandonment. Obama himself deals with it in his childhood. His fellow black people face it at every step of their lives. Abandoned by their fathers, by the state, by society, and finally left in perpetual hopelessness.

A couple years later, after Obama has been accepted at Harvard Law School, he visits Kenya for the first time. This is the second time he finds himself. For the first time he meets relatives who “look like him,” and he meets his father’s side of the family. This is an especially moving part of the book, as Obama learns about his family, the Kenyan way of life, and most importantly the sacrifices made by his father and grandfather that set the stage for his comfortable existence in the US. Obama goes from being not just a black man in a white country but also the son of an immigrant.

The book is useful in understanding Obama. He comes across as thoughtful, curious and empathetic. His desire for “change” is obvious from the start. And there are portents of the future. Obama is not a radical by any means, he seeks consensus and works from within the system to bring change. He is also opportunistic, when Washington comes to his neighbourhood to inaugurate a job center, this is not just the culmination of a successful initiative but a chance to get him to commit to something more. Of course, the writing is good. For a person whose daily job does not involve writing, Obama writes really well. In parts it feels a little stunted and trite, but on the whole, I wish more politicians wrote this well. Finally, he covers his “conversion” from what can best be described as don’t-care-ism to Wright-led belief in God. One understands why Obama gravitated to Wright (as apparently do many other black yuppies etc), but for a man of his foresight it is a little incredible that he stuck with it rather than move on to a less “controversial church” when he had decided to take his politics national.

To return to where I started, I picked the book hoping for it to be less politician-preparing-for-a-run-y. I’m not so sure now. There’s one tell: in the book Obama “recounts” many conversations (as best as you can recount conversations that happened over the last twenty-five or so years). People speaking to Obama sometimes curse, use the n-word and so on. Obama never does. I’m thinking he knew that the words he was writing might just come back to haunt him.

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama”

  1. […] Book Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama […]

  2. dellie said

    this is amazing book

  3. Jay said

    Good Review

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