"[I]n New York ... Barack Obama learns that his father--a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man--has been killed in a car accident. This sudden death inspires an emotional odyssey--first to a small town in Kansas, from which he retraces the migration of his mother's family to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, confronts the bitter truth of his father's life, and at last reconciles his divided inheritance"--Container.
We do get pictures his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, and his youthful years in Chicago. These are told with refreshing candor: no "I didn't inhale"-type evasions about having lived the typical and normal life of an American youth in the 70s and 80s, no real attempts to hide the aimless periods, the screw-ups of adolescence. During these episodes, there is a real glimpse into what went into forming the man we see today.
However, a major portion of the book is also simply recounting of events, with little or no sense of how they affected or shaped him other than his presence during their occurrence. We sit through extensive discussions of his organizing efforts in Chicago, plus his contact with many churches during that period, but are given no clue as to whether these experiences affected him: did he find himself becoming more religious spending this time with pastors he respected? Or, perhaps, less religious as he saw the political side of big-congregation churches? Did the failures of organizing lead him to believe that these are effective efforts, or did his decision to leave it and go to law school reflect discouragement? The last third of the book tells of his first visit to Kenya, his father's birthplace, and his encounters with his father's family. We get many anecdotes about meeting the various members but, in the context of this book, it was like me describing my family reunion to someone else—ultimately of little interest to outsiders.
Perhaps the most significant disconnect for me was the subtitle of this work. To be fair, trying to understand his relationship with the man he barely knew is an issue in this book. However, having been raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, and I do not think the book satisfies the natural curiousity of why these three people aren't an even bigger source of his dreams, and why a story of race is focused solely on the black side of his heritage.
All-in-all, it was a pleasant enough read, but not ultimately completely satisfying.
He was asked to write this memoir in the early nineties, after a rash of publicity over being the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Instead of publishing a "how I got here" explanation for his exceptionality -- which is what most famous people end up writing -- he wrote a personal memoir about identity. This memoir almost wholly skips all the conventionally "interesting" events, as well as all of his legal career path, favoring the "smaller," emotionally-significant, interpersonal events of his life: pivotal conversations and experiences that worked as catalysts toward his understandings about race, class, community, and self-identity.
(Did I say earlier that it felt freakishly intimate to be reading this, knowing that he's now President-Elect? Because yes.)
In one respect, this book is about a search for identity, with Obama exploring his "uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers." (p. 301) As part of this search, Obama gains an increasing awareness of race issues in American society:
- A friend of his grandfather's, as Obama was preparing to leave his home in Hawaii for college: "They'll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you're a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they'll yank your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you're a nigger just the same." (p. 97).
- Describing a campaign by the Nation of Islam to sell branded products: "The the POWER campaign sputtered said something about the difficulty that faced any black business -- the barriers to entry, the lack of finance, the leg up that your competitors possessed after having kept you out of the game for over three hundred years." (p. 201)
- On those in Chicago who had marched for civil rights and yet, "...at some point had realized that power was unyielding and principles unstable, and that even after laws were passed and lynchings ceased, the closest thing to freedom would still involve escape, emotional if not physical, away from ourselves, away from what we knew, flight into the outer reaches of the white man's empire -- or closer into its bosom." (p. 277)
And then, we gain insight into Obama's ideals and his motivation for studying law after his visit to Kenya:
"The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality ... But that's not all the law is. The law is also a memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience. ... I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in the Lower East Side sweatshops .... I hear the voices of people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country's borders ... all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life ... What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don't always satisfy me ... And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail." (p. 437-438).
Obama keeps the "plot" moving along. Although many of the characters are not fully developed. I had to keep reminding myself this is a memoir, not a novel. And since this book was written long before Obama's run for the U.S. Presidency, it has a certain authenticity. I found it an extremely well-written and interesting portrait of an emerging political leader. It also offers insight into issues of race in America, and African American culture, and is a worthwhile read for this reason alone.
This edition contains the text of the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that put him on the national map, but better yet, watch it online. In less than 18 minutes, you can see why people choose to be Democrats, how they see America, and what their agenda for its future looks like.
Having said that, if he hadn't been so articulate in expressing the different facets of his person, so unsentimental in his self-critique and if his story had been mundane, that would not have been enough. There is a lot in this work to digest and to reflect upon.
Obama's book could have used a little better editing, but ultimately it doesn't seem to matter very much as you'll get caught up in the story. I loved this book because of the sheer honest, straightforwardness of it, and it's one of my favorite reads this year, even though I don't think it's quite deserving of 5 star rating.
This book deserves its good reputation and would be well worth reading even if Obama had remained an obscure figure. Here Obama tells his own life story with a remarkable lack of self-pity or bluster. Born in Hawaii to an American woman and a man from Kenya, Obama spent years trying to piece together the pieces of his identity. He wasn't fully American -- is any black man allowed to be fully American? -- and yet he knew very little about his family back in Kenya. He grew up, went to college, became a neighborhood organizer in Chicago for reasons he didn't fully understand...and, finally, ventured to Kenya, where he finally came to terms with his father, his heritage.
I can't tell you how pleasurable it is to discover a politician who can not only speak a coherent sentence, but write a beautiful book. Dreams From My Father becomes most moving when Obama is in Africa and allows the voices of his family to dominate the tale. This is a very modest move -- one not often encountered in an autobiography! -- and serves to prove Obama's point, that he found peace and a solid identity by joining with others, with a community.
If you suspect that Obama is nothing but a pretty bag of empty talk, read this book.
This books greatest advantage is it was written long before Obama had any thought of being elected as president of the United States. Consequently he gives us the kind of reflective account that reveals the true man, without showing signs of editing by political advisers.
Not that this book was written without any focus on future career. The book is reflective, but it is heavily influenced by issues of race and what it means to be a black man in modern America. The reader is left with an impression of a vision that is not spelled out in so many words, but hinted at. You feel that Obama has a hope for a new kind of conversation between races in America - but the book merely brings tensions and issues and hostory to the surface, without being in any way didactic.
Ultimately though this is a personal story of Obama's own self discovery as he comes to terms with who his father was - the absent father he never knew. As he describes the family grave in Kenya, you have to wonder - was there ever a president of the United States befoe whose father's grave was so unaddorned (I suspect this has changed by now, of course - but nevertheless, the point is that you just feel so connected to Obama here).
Elected the first black president of the United States, Obama's place in history is assured - whatever happens now. This book will be an invaluable aid to historians of the future - a real and personal first hand account in the words of the man that history will remember.
Reading the book, and particularly his searching for faith in the churches of Chicago, I felt that maybe he has not yet found what he is looking for. The section closed on an emotional note, describing the sermon on "The Audacity of Hope" - a title he took for his next book. But nowhere did there seem to be any mention of the Christian gospel and how he responded to that personally. That is not a criticism of the book though - it is just something revealing in the work.
All in all this was an excellent book. Off my usual subject matter but well worth reading.
I would recommend this book highly--to anyone interested in the state of race relations in America or in the search for identity that young people face in cities of America, as well as anyone who is attempting to understand children of a cross-racial or cross-cultural marriage. The insight here is worth taking time over and has nothing to do with political parties. For colleges who are participating in summer reading programs, I'd say this is the ideal book to hand to a teenager just about to start college. Especially in the beginning, it reads nearly like a novel, and you might be drawn in despite yourself.
Strongly strongly recommended.
I thought his perspective on race was unique. He was separate of it in a way, considering he spent time out of the country, as well as growing up in Hawaii. When he goes to Occidental College, race plays a larger role, but his perspective is mature and calm, a serene approach considering this country’s history.
If he wasn’t Barack Obama, the book still would be a clear-eyed view on race. If it wasn’t about race, it would be a probing examination of growing up in a multi-cultural world in many countries. He is certainly a worldly man. A stark contrast to past presidents, although when he wrote this book, he was only a state senator from Illinois. It was re-published after his powerful speech after the 2004 Democratic National Convention (which is included in the volume.) That speech is a short summary of this book. The book discusses his upbringing in Hawaii, Indonesia, his college life in LA, and making his way in the world from New York to Chicago.
It is easy to see how he has been a beacon of hope. His perspective on life comes so naturally, so convincing, and so wise. Even though the end part in Kenya is important to his development, it seemed to lose steam in comparison to his writing earlier in the book. The examination of his Kenyan heritage as well as his father’s legacy is interesting. The point at which he realizes that his father wasn’t as far or as important as he gave him credit is a journey many children make, plays a large role in the book. The further realization to see a father as a person is equally powerful. I was more fascinated with his background and his perspective. A very engaging read.
Favorite Lines (asked why he was reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, as many feel the book is racist)
“The book teaches me things, about white people. The book isn’t really about Africa, or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European, the American, a particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there. The way Conrad sees it, Africa is the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages and any contact with them breeds infection… In what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to find out what makes white people so afraid, their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate."
“And that’s important to you?” Regina asked.
“My life depends on it."