Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama, was originally published in 1995, when the author was campaigning for a position in the Illinois Senate. It was republished in 2004, when Senator Obama had won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. The copy I borrowed from the library is the 2004 edition.
“I originally intended a very different book,” is the first sentence of the introduction. Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He was approached by publishers to write about this experience. He took on the task with “a frightening confidence”, naively believing that he had something original to say about the state of race relations.
As he considered his book, he thought about his family and his personal experiences, and decided to include those in his essay. As he began to write, those thoughts about his family took over, and the book became more personal.
“Whatever the label that attaches to this book – autobiography, memoir, family history, or something else – what I’ve tried to do is write an honest account of a particular province of my life.”
Part One begins with a phone call from Nairobi, Kenya. Barack “Barry” Obama was 21 years old, and living in New York City. The call was from his Aunt Jane. She was calling to inform him that his father – a man he didn’t know – had been killed in a car accident.
Through the anecdotes of his maternal grandparents, Barry learned of his parents’ life together. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and his father, Barack Obama (Sr.), were married in 1960, when their marriage was still a felony in the majority of the states in the USA. His father left when Barry was still a toddler.
Barry would see his father once more, briefly, in Hawaii, when Barry was a child.
This part of the book covers the early influences in Barry Obama’s life: the stories told to him of his African father, his growing up with his Indonesian step-father, his grandparents, his mother, and his sister Maya.
He writes of his childhood in Djakarta and Honolulu.
Barry learned about power and privilege in Djakarta, and it influenced the course of his life. His mother taught him to value education, tolerance, and justice. His mother, a white woman, taught her son to be proud of being black.
Barack Obama writes with frankness about the low point in his life, when questions of race and bigotry weighed him down. Desperation lead him to alcohol and other drugs. His school grades suffered. His mother saved him, gave him encouragement, and he went to college in Los Angeles.
“Strange how a single conversation can change you.” That conversation, over coffee, with a fellow Occidental College student named Regina, about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about his African name, and her life in Chicago, would eventually lead Barry Obama to a life of activism. It would take him a long time to realize the conversation’s importance, however.
Part One ends with Barry deciding he preferred to be called Barack, transferring to Columbia University, and moving to New York City, where he learned of his father’s death.
Part Two begins with Barack Obama deciding to become a community organizer. It wasn’t easy to find work in that field. He went into a successful corporate career for a while. Then he resigned. Then a job offer from a community organizing group moved him to Chicago.
Barack’s new career didn’t start off well. He met resistance from elected officials, church leaders, black people, white people, the rich, the unemployed, and the Chicago winter. But he listened, learned, and persisted, and gradually achieved some success.
Barack’s sister Auma came from Germany to visit him in Chicago, and he learned of their father’s unfortunate life in Kenya. The Old Man was someone Auma barely knew.
Barack became acquainted with his brother Roy, during a too-brief visit to Washington D.C. Roy knew The Old Man all too well.
The book traces the triumphs, defeats, and unfinished business of Barack Obama’s community work.
Part Two ends with Barack Obama finding a church to join, where he learned the importance of the word Hope, and him receiving an acceptance letter from Harvard Law School.
Part Three covers Barack Obama’s first visit to Kenya.
With Auma as his guide and translator, Barack met family members for the first time – aunts, cousins, and brothers. He toured the country, learning of Kenya, its people and its history. He learned of his family’s history. And he learned about The Old Man – the father he never knew.
He heard the story of his parents’ brief marriage from the other side of the family.
The book ends with an epilogue, six years after that first trip to Kenya. Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School. He returned to Kenya one more time, with his fiancée, a “daughter of the South Side”, a woman named Michelle. The epilogue ends with the wedding of Barack and Michelle Obama.
When I started reading Dreams from My Father, I was, at first, frustrated by the lack of times lines in the story. (When did this happen? How long did they live there? And so on.) Then I remembered the introduction, and realized that whatever this book is, it is not an autobiography. It is, instead, an examination of the multitude of influences that shape a life. It is an amazing book.
Barack Obama writes with a clarity that is insightful and intelligent. He displays a constant quest for knowledge and understanding. He is always questioning and always examining. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is full of wonderful passages on just about every one of its 442 pages.
- A book written by someone you admire