On the eve of his presidency’s end, Sneha Reddy reviews Barack Hussein Obama‘s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, a memoir before his Senate career began. In a wide-ranging, poignant appraisal, Sneha notes aspects of his early years, President Obama‘s distinct grace, articulate powers of oration, and the personal accounts of the 44th President, before his meteoric ascension.
Dreams from my father is the personal story of a ‘black man with a funny name’, written by thirty-four-year-old Barack H. Obama, two years before his election to the Illinois Senate, in 1995. Dreams is a memoir—a record of Obama’s childhood, his college life, the years spent in Chicago as an organiser—ending around the time of his marriage to Michelle L. Robinson. True to its title, it is ‘a story of race and inheritance’ that stretches across continents, carrying within it countless tales of the many people around Obama. My guess is that Obama wanted to write this story because he recognised that his journey, which we see today as remarkably unique in the history of American politics, was indeed a shared one—set in a complex context that is the American society. And through this book, Obama wished to speak to Americans, Kenyans, Indonesians, Indians and the rest alike, to remind us that ‘we’re all part of one tribe…the human tribe’. His writing is simple but he engages like a poet. In an updated 2004 preface to the book, Obama confessed to ‘wincing ever so often at a poorly chosen word, a mangled sentence, an expression of emotion that seems indulgent or overly practiced’. Nevertheless, his observations are keen and recollections are evocative.
A lot may be new to a reader unfamiliar with the terrain that Obama referenced in the nineteen chapters that make up this book: Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya and in the US—California, Chicago’s South Side and New York’s Harlem. Everywhere, however, young Barry accompanies the readers, revealing something about himself through his moments of brilliance, of impatience, as well as, of self-doubt. In the first two parts of the book, readers are taken from the warm beaches of Hawaii to the cold winds of Chicago’s winter, along with Toots, Gramps, Lolo, Maya and his mother, Ann who make up his maternal family. Writing about his high school years, Obama recalled looking for answers in the works of Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright and DuBois, but feeling disappointed when he found ‘the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect… Only Malcolm X’s autobiography’, he wrote, ‘seemed to offer something different’.
At University, as questions of race became more pronounced, he remembered finding the term ‘white folks’ uncomfortable. To him, ‘it felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase’. Feeling overwhelmed, he remarked, ‘I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications’ but in those years, he also ‘learned not to care’, noting that ‘pot had helped’. He wrote of smoking cigarettes and wearing leather jackets and of nights in the university dorms discussing neo-colonialism, Frantz Fanon, eurocentrism, and patriarchy with his friends. He wrote of the evenings when they set the stereos ‘so loud that the walls began to shake’ but how it felt like they were ‘resisting the bourgeois society’s stifling constraints’. Years later, following his time in New York, Obama would decide: ‘my identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there’. The book further describes in detail, his time as an organiser in Chicago which he realised was ‘America’s most segregated city’.
The third part of the book is an account of his first trip to Kenya, rich in detail and thoroughly personal. While still aboard the flight to Nairobi to meet the paternal side of his family, Obama wrote of his ‘uneasy status’: ‘a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers’. His arrival, however, soon filled his mind with other thoughts. He noted, ‘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’. On that same trip, Obama encountered an old woman in the city marketplace who told his sister, Auma, that he looked like an American. To this, he responded: “Tell her I’m Luo”, referring to his father’s tribe while beating his chest. As years passed, ‘the puzzle of being a black man’, that came from being born to a Kansas mother and Kenyan father, began to appear to Obama as one that he could now possibly solve.
Obama cautiously added that his memoir is not ‘representative of the black American experience’ but confided that through his story, he wished to embrace his ‘black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa, and affirm a common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for, all [the] various struggles’. His 2006 book, Audacity of Hope, which is about his political ideas and beliefs, picks up the threads left by Dreams. It is in this first book, however, that one discovers the young Obama as well as his ‘very bad poetry’ in college. And, it is in these pages that one learns of the first time he met his father and of the day he married Michelle, danced with his friends and felt most lucky. I had not planned to read Obama’s memoir until I picked it up in a book sale at the Main Library in Saint Andrews last week and found it to be an excellent antidote to the current affairs of our times.
Writing in the last week of the Obama presidency:
The first time I had heard about Barack Obama was in the summer of 2008 when I was visiting New York for a high school conference. Election fervour had engulfed the city. Everybody appeared to be supporting what looked like a fun party where everybody felt included. I, too, wore a badge on my bag which read ‘Hope’ as I walked the streets of this excited country that was anticipating change. Fast forward to 2010: the Obamas were visiting Mumbai and they gave a talk in Xavier’s where I studied. I found that my peers, most thrilled to meet him, asked him tough questions on the sticky points of his foreign policy. In the years that followed, expressing disappointment in the Obama administration was met with wide acceptance in the collegiate debating circles. To appear to be his supporter in such times was certainly unwelcome. Since 2016, however, the tone changed once again. This time, despite the elusiveness of peace in so many parts of the world, Obama’s popularity has continued to see an unprecedented rise. Nostalgia for the Obama era is clearly here to stay. At this point, having witnessed his strengths and limitations as President as well as reading this book, so full of ideas for community development and organisation and ‘real change’, it seems obvious to me that the presidency was only a part and that he will most certainly go much further.