US president-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Tuesday, sheds light on how he made sense of his mixed ethnic and cultural heritage in this compelling and entertaining memoir published by Three Rivers Press in 1995, which at the time of its release received little attention.
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance was reissued nine years later after Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois, delivered a keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The book became a best-seller in the US as Obama became a rising political star, and as recently as last week was ranked No. 2 on the New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction paperbacks.
Born to a white American mother, Ann Dunham, and black Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr, the young Obama was subject to a wide range of cultural influences, from Kansas, through his mother’s side, Indonesia, where he lived with his stepfather, Hawaii, where he was born and educated, and Kenya, through his father who died in 1983 and who Obama met only once when he was 10 years old.
Obama begins his memoir aged 6 when he was living with his mother and stepfather in Jakarta. He returned to Hawaii in 1971 and was cared for by his maternal grandparents. There, he became aware of racial prejudice from white students at Honolulu’s Punahou School and began his odyssey of self-discovery, which during his time at university included the use of alcohol and illegal drugs.
After college, Obama settled in Chicago, filled with the desire to engender social change. While working as a tenant’s rights organizer at Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project in Chicago’s South Side, Obama gained firsthand experience of the plight and needs of the city’s poor, black residents, the influence of community churches, the deficiencies of the public school system, and the complexity of social relations in the neighborhood.
Throughout the book, Obama compares and contrasts the socio-economic dynamics he saw at play in Chicago’s South Side with those he found in Hawaii, Indonesia and Africa, and analyzes racial issues as he tackles Altgeld residents’ sense of inertia.
Though candid in sharing the frustration, anger and desperation he felt while working as a community organizer, Obama shows a great depth of courage and fearlessness, which is reflected in the book’s overall message of hope for the future.
Obama’s honesty in sharing his vulnerabilities, the painful path of coming to terms with conflicts of identity, and the loss of his father, is appealing.
After acceptance to Harvard Law School, Obama took several months off to visit Kenya for the first time. On the trip he met his large extended family and discovered a sense of belonging, but also experienced bittersweet feelings when viewing family photos.
“They were happy scenes, all of them, and all strangely familiar, as if I were glimpsing some alternative universe that had played itself behind my back,” he writes. “They were reflections, I realized, of my own long held fantasies, fantasies that I’d kept secret even from myself. The fantasy of the Old Man’s [Obama Sr] having taken my mother and me back with him to Kenya. The wish that my mother and father, sisters and brothers, were all under one roof. Here it was, I thought, what might have been. And the recognition of how wrong it had all turned out, the harsh evidence of life as it had really been lived, made me so sad that after only a few minutes, I had to look away.”