Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is a well written essay about a singular search for identity across cities and continents, region and race. The autobiography focuses on Obama’s need for redemption driven by an uncompromising desire to know his biological father. Barack, the father, was a Kenyan native whose absence informed Obama’s dreams and whose marriage to his white mother, Ann, determined his daily reality.
It is a compelling story about the meaning of family, nuclear and extended, and a young man’s pursuit of an authentic self in the complex nexus of race, class, and gender as historically represented in America. The book, written in lively prose, takes the reader on a journey from Obama’s origins in Hawaii, to Indonesia, Occidental College in Los, Angeles, Columbia University in New York, and to Chicago where he begins his public service career while learning a few painful lessons about politics. In Chicago, Obama evolves into a mature, self-conscious politician.
These years, it seems, prepare Obama to accept his bi-racial self and to receive his inheritance in Africa where his father and grandfather have been buried. In Kenya, Obama discovers his unfamiliar family and the spirits of his ancestors bundled in a series of letters and memories as shared by his African Granny. In the end, Obama finds a way to “affirm [his] common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for all our various struggles” (Obama, 2004, xvi). Both text and subtext are about “a boys search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a Black American” (Obama, 2004, xvi).
Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Tale of Redemption In recalling the deadly attack on September 11, 2001, Barack Obama confesses that for him “history returned that day with a vengeance” (Obama, 2001, x). Referencing William Falkner, Obama speaks of the past as never “dead or buried—it isn’t even past” because the collective past touches the individual in the present (Obama, 2001, x). His life, as presented in Dreams From My Father, is a reflexive and self-conscious memoir which facilitates Obama’s locating of a past that he did not know, one that he could not understand, and a history wanting in authenticity.
From his earliest years, Obama’s thoughts and dreams had been interpreted through the prism of an absentee father whom he would never know. The book is organized into three sections consisting of nineteen chapters. Written in lively and description detail, it is a circuitous narrative with a clear beginning and end. In Part One, “Origins,” Obama provides a window into his formative years in Indonesia with Lolo, his mother’s second husband, with whom he learned how to fight, to “stay low [and] don’t give them a target” (p. 36).
But it was at the Panahou Academy in Hawaii where issues of belonging or not, found its way into the innocence of his childhood. Obama confesses that during this time, his “sense that [he] did not belong continued to grow” (p. 60). As a teenager, Obama would escape by experimenting with various drugs. He would also, on occasion seek the advice of his grandfather’s friend, Frank, an eighty year old poet living in Waikiki. For example, when Frank learned that Obama was planning to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles, he made clear that Obama should understand that he would be “trained” and not educated there.
He urged Obama to go to Occidental but to “keep [his] eyes open [and] stay awake” concerned that the experience would further separate him from his past (p. 97). Classmates at Occidental often took him to task for what appeared to have been self-indulgent and narcissistic tendencies. For example, Regina, another student involved in a campus protest, made it clear that Obama’s speech “was not about him” (p. 109). Her diatribe is worth noting: Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It’s not just about you. Its never just about you. It’s about people who need your help. Children who are depending on you.
They’re not interested in your irony or your sophistication or your ego getting bruised. And neither am I. (p. 109) The confused Obama later decided to participate in an exchange program that allowed him to take classes at Columbia University in New York. Upon arriving in Manhattan, he experienced the fear and humiliation of homelessness until “redeemed” by Sadik, a friend with whom he later shared an apartment. It was while at Columbia, however, that Obama began to take his studies seriously and to explore his role as a reformer and a person who could create change. For these reasons, it appears, he decided to “[stop] getting high” (p. 120).
In Part Two, “Chicago,” we find Obama on the ground rallying for the poor, homeless, and unemployed. For example, critical to Obama’s success and instrumental to his moving to Chicago had been Marty Kaufman, a man of Jewish descent who had established the Calumet Community Religious Conference. This organization, encompassing twenty suburban churches and later joined by the Developing Communities Project affiliated with the city, brought blacks and whites together to discuss the “shame of unemployment, their fear of losing a house or of being cheated out of a pension – the common sense of having been betrayed” (p. 150).
These organizations were a real time response to the alarming rate of unemployment due to layoffs and company closings on the Southside of Chicago. At the same time, Smitty’s Barbershop, a spot near Hyde Park where the men talked of “sports and women and yesterday’s headlines, conversation at once intimate and anonymous, among men who agreed to leave their troubles outside,” provided a space for Obama to test his rhetoric and his ability to assimilate without detection of his white heritage (p. 146).
Obama’s encounters with Mary, a white single mother whose two children had been fathered by an absentee black man; his collaboration with organizers such as Angela, Shirley, Mona, and Will; as well as his ascendancy to the Presidency of the Harvard Law Review were an attempt to run from the past while constructing a future (pgs. 167-175). In spite of his successes, Obama remained distracted by an unexplained emptiness. In Part Three, “Kenya,” we find Obama acknowledging and acting on his need to connect with his past by traveling first to Europe and then Africa in search of his heritage.
After Granny’s detailed story about the struggles of both his grandfather and father, Barack discovers a series of letters that answer many of his questions. At this point, the circle closes, the black hole is filled, and Obama realizes that he has been haunted by his father’s silence and shaped by his absence. Somewhere near their Kenyan graves, Obama purged himself of the past and departed his ancestral home a different person, a man who could face the truth of his past and future without fear of rejection. A memoir by definition is cathartic.
Obama’s Dreams From My Father is worthy of analysis because rarely do we see so much of the realization of the American dream encompassed in the life of one person. The past returned with a vengeance while in Kenya where Obama and all of his fathers received the “promise of redemption” (p. 135). Relying on oral histories for the most part, Barack Obama’s story of race and inheritance may be one of the most honest and accurate autobiographical works in recent memory.
Obama, Barack. (2004). Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Crown Publishers.