Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, Three Rivers Press, 2004, $13.95.
Reviewed by Lynn McKeown
Barack Obama was recently sworn in as U.S. Senator from the state of Illinois. He is only the third African-American elected to what has been called "the most exclusive club in the world." The circumstances leading to that election were somewhat unusual, involving a combination of Obamas undeniable talent, the strength of the Democratic Party in Illinois (especially Chicago), and several faux pas on the part of Illinois Republicans especially the ill-starred candidacy of Alan Keyes, Obamas opponent in the general election. Obama had gained much national attention with an intelligent and stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Barack Obamas book "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance" was published in 1995 and was reprinted last year with a new preface by the author, as Obama, formerly a senator in the Illinois State Legislature, entered the race for the U.S. Senate. The book is an autobiography but not the usual campaign puff-piece. It was written just after Obama had graduated from Harvard Law School and before he had entered the political arena. It is not a political tract but rather a reflection on youth and coming of age from the standpoint of a most unusual background.
Barack Obama was born in 1961, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, the two having met when they were both college students in Hawaii. His parents were separated and eventually divorced when Barack was still very young, and the older Obama was killed in a car accident not long afterward. Young Barack grew up with few memories of his father and a need to know more about his paternal inheritance.
Later, in the international journey that makes up this book, Obamas mother remarried and the family went to live in his new step-fathers country, Indonesia. The first part of the book details the young Baracks experiences first in Hawaii, then in Indonesia (an impoverished country but one that seems to have been enjoyable for a boy growing up), then back in Hawaii, where he went to live with his grandparents in order to get the better education offered in the U.S.
Much of the book tells a story of problems faced by an African-American especially one who often felt an outsider in both worlds, black and white. Yet the tone of this memoir is seldom bitter. Obama seems to have been fortunate in having a highly intelligent, loving mother and maternal grandparents, all of whom encouraged him to develop his potential. He tells his story with much humor, a questioning intelligence and much sharp observation.
Later, after college (Columbia University in New York City), Obama went to Chicagos south side to become an "organizer," an activity which presented challenges. His description of the problems faced by African-Americans and his own sometimes ineffectual efforts to help are told without polemics but with clear-eyed, sometimes humorous, sometimes rueful directness. Two things are made clear that there were (and still are, no doubt) serious social problems in Americas inner cities, especially with black youth but also that there are resources of strength in African-American families and tradition, if they can be tapped.
The last part of the book details a journey the author took to find his roots to learn more about the father he had hardly known by visiting members of his extended family, including a number of step-brothers and sisters, in Kenya. In doing so he finds out much, some not attractive but much admirable, about that family and a father who had made a journey to the white, western world but then returned to the troubled world of modern Africa. (The older Obama, in spite of much talent, had run afoul of the in-fighting in the new Kenyan government, apparently offending its leader, Jomo Kenyatta.) But the author, in his voyage of discovery, finds much support and much to love in his African family.
It occurred to this reader that Obama refutes the old fear that mixture of races would produce unfortunate results. In this case, the authors mixed racial background or something in his background and character has produced an unusually intelligent, thoughtful man who tells a story that reveals much, some distressing, some hopeful, about changes occurring in modern America and the modern world.
That modern world has produced a "dangerous power," Obama says in his last chapter, and people have to learn "that this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasnt new, that wasnt black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead a faith in other people."
It was recently reported that Senator Obama has signed a contract with a publisher for a childrens book and two future books for adults. He is a compassionate, sometimes humorous, thoughtful writer, and one can only hope the future books will be as worth-while as "Dreams from My Father." Barack Obama has received a lot of hype lately, probably a bit too much. But he is a man with intelligence and ideals who also has both feet on the ground. Were fortunate we have such a man in the U.S. Senate.