"Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance "
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 29, 2007)
Like most other Americans, I first heard of Barack Obama, the charismatic senator from Illinois, at the 2004 Democratic Convention. His famous “Red State, Blue State” speech, almost Kennedy-esque in tone made me sit up and take notice.
By now of course, the story of presidential candidate Barack Obama—that of a “skinny kid with a funny name” is a well-known one. Barack Obama is the son of a white woman, with roots in Kansas, and a Kenyan father who was drawn to America for higher studies. When Barack was only two, the senior Obama left the family behind in America and returned to Kenya. Barack’s mother, Ann, remarried an Indonesian and followed her new husband, Lolo, to that country taking Barack with her.
In his memoir, Dreams From my Father, Obama describes his early childhood in Indonesia growing up with a mother who was as lost in the country as he was. Stepfather Lolo was a steady and guiding presence in those years. The sheer will of his mother Ann, set a solid grounding for young Barack. Convinced that Barack needed more education than what a primary school in Indonesia could provide, Ann sent off for an American correspondence course. Obama remembers waking up at 4:00 a.m. every morning for lessons. His mother, Obama recalls, almost never listened to his complaints. “This is no picnic for me either, buster,” she would retort when he whined about the early morning drills.
Believing that true success for her kid resided only in America, Ann sent Barack back to Hawaii to be raised by his grandparents—Toot and Gramps, and Obama writes colorfully about his adolescent years spent under their care.
While Dreams From my Father traces Obama’s path through many exotic and foreign locales, the most touching chapters are set in the inner city neighborhoods of Chicago—a location that is sadly about as foreign to many Americans as the countries Obama describes. Barack joined Chicago as a community organizer and tried his best to galvanize the communities into instruments for change. Successes were few and far between. Obama describes the huge inner city projects—Altgeld Gardens and others—with heartbreaking clarity. In one of many memorable scenes, he interacts with two women who kept an album full of clippings from Better Homes and Gardens. “They pointed to the bright white kitchens and hardwood floors, and told me they would have such a home one day,” Obama recalls. Eventually Obama left to study law at Harvard but returned to set up practice in Chicago—the one city that gave him a sense of community that he sorely lacked growing up.
Just before he joined law school, Obama traveled to Kenya for the first time to find out more about a father that remained an enigmatic presence in his life. “At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man,” Obama writes. Here too Obama’s journey to discover his roots is described beautifully. “No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand,“ Obama writes.
Barack Obama’s ample intelligence and grace shine through in his moving memoir. Dreams From My Father is an extremely inspiring read. During a recent interview with Jon Stewart, Obama said he understood that people wanted to “check him out, look under the hood, kick the tires” make sure he’s sincere and honest. This memoir certainly gives the reader a precise look into the special mix of circumstances that shaped the young politician.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama eloquently traces the convoluted map of his colorful heritage—dollops of Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, and Kenya all thrown in—and mixed well. In reading his memoir, one comes to realize that Obama defines the face of modern America. As he himself pointed out at the 2004 Democratic Convention, it’s the very principle that our country is built on: E pluribus, Unum. Out of many, one.
Even better, Dreams From My Father indisputably shows that this all-American is also an incredibly wise and intelligent one. Perhaps, true to his name, he really is “Barack”—blessed.
- Amazon readers rating: from 138 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Dreams from My Father at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995)
- The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006)
- Barack Obama in His Own Words (2007)
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- Official website for Barack Obama
- Wikipedia page on Barack Obama
- The New Yorker profile on Barack Obama
- The New Yorker essay on the political candidacy of Barack Obama
- The Atlantic.com essay on "Why Obama Matters"
- Wikipedia page on Dreams from My Father
- BookBlog on Dreams from My Father
- The New York Times review of The Audacity of Hope
- Another New York Times review of The Audacity of Hope
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About the Author:
Barack Obama was born in 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii to Barack Obama, Sr.(from Kenya) and Ann Dunham. Obama grew up in culturally diverse surroundings. He lived most his childhood in Hawaii, spent his early elementary schools years in Jakarta, Indonesia and then returned to Hawaii from 5th grade on. Obama graduated from Columbia University in 1983, and moved to Chicago in 1985 to work for a church-based group seeking to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods plagued with crime and high unemployment. In 1991, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School where he was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review.
He is the junior United States senator from Illinois and a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 Presidential elections. The U.S. Senate Historical Office lists him as the fifth African American Senator in U.S. history and the only African American currently serving in the U.S. senate.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, married in 1992 and live on Chicago's South Side where they attend Trinity United Church of Christ. Barack and Michelle have two daughters, Malia, 9 and Sasha, 6.