Dreams From My Father: Barack Obama

I finished reading Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama (not ghostwritten) and shall write a brief review.

The first thing to note was that the book was first published in 1994, well before Obama became a State Senator. He started to think about the book during his last year at Harvard Law School and set out to write “an intellectual journey” which would start with “the limits of civil rights litigation in bringing about racial equality, thoughts on the meaning of community and the restoration of public life though grassroots organizing, musings on affirmative action and Afrocentrism”. (xiii-xiv)

What emerged was different; he ends up recounted aspects of his life which shaped him. In all he appeared to be torn; on one hand he seems to want to believe in the basic goodness of people; on the other hand there are the cold hard facts.

Throughout the book, we see the contradictions: how does one love one’s self, take pride in one’s heritage without hating the oppressor, or those who merely live on that side of the street? How does one acknowledge the reality of racism without becoming completely cynical? How does one get along in a society dominated by “the other” without “selling out”, or keep the best in one’s culture without becoming defensive of the stuff in one’s culture that really needs to change?

As Obama puts it when describing his feelings when he saw an African American friend put in contact lenses to give herself blue eyes: “Could Ruby love herself without hating blue eyes?” (page 195)

The book is very well written and the diction varied. It is the kind of book that will drop a “shit” and a “nigger” here and have you reaching for your dictionary just a paragraph or two later! ๐Ÿ™‚

The book is divided into three parts: Origins (pages 3-129), Chicago (133-295) and Kenya (299-430).

In Origins, he starts out with being notified of the death of his father in Kenya; BHO is in New York at the time attending Columbia University. He then uses flashbacks to talk about his past; it is during this time that he recounts living in Indonesia and being horrified to find a magazine article about an African American who had received a chemical treatment to lighten his skin.

It is in this section where he recounts living in Hawaii with his white maternal grandparents, and hearing of his grandmother saying that she was afraid of a man who had “bothered her” (panhandling) at a bus stop; she had been bothered before, but his time it was a black man doing the bothering. (p. 88)

The drug and alcohol abuse is there as well. In short he discussed “is success, by this society’s standards, a “white” thing?” He also talks about his rebelliousness in high school and early college.

The next section, “Chicago”, deals with his post Columbia years. He takes a job as a community organizer and learns the ropes. Here he learns to listen to people, and grows to understand that, while all of us might face similar economic challenges, it is indeed different for African Americans. He discusses the self-hate, the anger, and how Black Nationalism has such a strong appeal to many, but that the over reliance on self reliance (e. g., the “shop only at Black businesses stuff”) is counterproductive.

Yes, he talks about going to the Trinity UCC church and meeting Jeremiah Wright.

The section ends in a brutally honest note: late at night he gets up to tell some youths (who are in a van) to take their loud music elsewhere. He then recounts how he realized that he feared being shot or beat up by kids who could have well been him a few years ago!

The last section talks about his trip to Kenya to see his relatives. He is on some sort of pilgrimage to learn more about his father and origins. He finds out that his dad, like his grandfather, made quite a few “compromises” along the way; he realizes that what he really had from his father was some idealized story that simply was untrue; too simplistic.

During this section he deals with some sensitive topics; for example, why are so many of the sub-Saharan African countries doing so poorly? What lingering effects did white colonialism have on the population? What was it like to be in a country where, for the most part, one didn’t have to “act white” or where one could, say, have an honest discussion about crime and corruption without race always coming into it?

How does one keep the best in one’s culture without becoming irrational about hanging on to the stuff that needs to go? (e. g., sexism, female circumcision).

In all, I found the book to be brutally honest and thought provoking.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t many who misunderstand the book; for example some have tried to say that he, in places, tries to take too much credit for certain events. There are others who slam the book for being too much about race, when in fact, the book was commissioned to be about that!

In short, it is refreshing to read a book written by a candidate that is so capable a writer and that was written without a campaign purpose in mind.

I recommend it highly.


April 7, 2008 - Posted by | books, obama, politics/social


  1. […] blueollie published an entertaining and interesting post on Dreams From My Father: Barack ObamaSee below for a small excerpt of the post: […]

    Pingback by Dreams From My Father: Barack Obama | April 7, 2008 | Reply

  2. “How does one keep the best in oneโ€™s culture without becoming irrational about hanging on to the stuff that needs to go? (e. g., sexism, female circumcision).”

    Sorry, I KNOW you won’t want this topic here, but you bracketted “sexism” and “female circumcision” together without even noticing you were doing it.

    One of the most striking examples of sexism remaining in the western world today is the fierce condemnation of female circumcision and the enthusiastic endorsement of male circumcision. Yes, female genital cutting under primitive tribal conditions is often horrific and leaves terrible results, while male genital cutting is usually done surgically, aseptically and with anaesthetic – or out of earshot of the parents (usually – in Eastern Cape province, nearly 40 youths died of tribal circumcision each of the years 2000-5). But as human rights abuses they are both the same. Both are genital reduction surgeries done without the consent of the victim, and both are justified by their perpertrators and then their victims for an astonishing variety of irrational or disproved reasons – which replies to this message will now trot out, but only in the case of the male variety. To forestall the first of them, research suggests female genital cutting reduces the transmission of HIV – do you want to go there?

    Comment by Hugh7 | April 7, 2008 | Reply

  3. Hugh7: I bracketed those two topics together because BHO mentioned them in DFMF. As far as the sexism he talked about: he referred to accepted wife beating, the “giving away” of women (e. g., their families marring them to men without their consent, etc. )

    He didn’t mention male circumcision.

    Re: male circumcision: Frankly, I have questions about how desirable it is, even done under modern medical conditions and, had I had a son instead of a daughter, would have sought out the latest medical advice on it.

    So, you do raise a valid topic, though it really didn’t have anything to do with this book, and so I didn’t mention it here.

    I do know that Warren Farrell talks about such topics in the book “Myth of Male Power”.

    Back to DFMF
    And, if I recall directly, BHO didn’t address the unequal treatment of men in the Kenyan culture, though he did mention the price that men had to pay to make ends meet while straddling their own culture with making a living by working with the occupying powers (in this case, the British), and noted the similarities between African men and African American men.

    I can’t speak for BHO, but it is my conjecture that male circumcision, though perhaps of doubtful value or even if it is harmful, has much less of a negative impact on men than female circumcision on women.

    BHO did wrestle with the the question if it would really be considered progress if female circumcision continued, but was passed to the modern hospitals; he quotes an Kenyan professor talking about that on page 434.

    Comment by ollie | April 8, 2008 | Reply

  4. […] Obama’s book: Dreams From My Father. I reviewed this book here. This New York Review of Books article compares Obama’s book to James Baldwin’s book […]

    Pingback by Football Afternoon Part II. « blueollie | October 4, 2008 | Reply

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