Dreams from My Father

It’s impossible to read Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father without thinking about the fact of his presidency the entire way through. Everything takes on a different meaning knowing that that one big event is on the way, eventually. The uncertainties about his future he describes we now know are unwarranted — everything is going to work out. But other kinds of uncertainties — about his identity, about what it means to be biracial, about how to address racial conflict in America, about how to respond to white and black people both — these uncertainties take on a new meaning, since the person who felt so much doubt and experienced so much conflict is now president and in a position where he can’t speak about his feelings with the same honesty. I kept thinking as I read the book that I would really like to know what he is thinking and experiencing right now, but that’s one thing I can’t know. There is a degree of self-awareness and honesty in the book that no American president could get away with expressing while in office.

I came to like the personality that comes through in this book, and that has made me think about what kind of personality one needs to be president — because I tend to like self-aware, thoughtful people and it seems to me that having that kind of personality would make holding such an important political office a nightmare. When I think about some of the absurd, utterly irrational things people are saying about Obama (those in the “birther” movement, for example), I wonder how hard it would be to keep one’s cool, and when I think about the constant criticism and commentary and second-guessing he receives, I wonder how someone as prone to self-doubt as Obama seems to be can handle it all. I want someone whose mindset and thought processes I understand and relate to in the White House, and yet I wonder how such a person can survive.

I recognize that the book’s persona is a creation and is not Obama himself and also that he has changed since the 1995 publication date, but the book really does give the impression that there is an open, genuine person writing it, a person who has struggled and is now trying to write about those struggles honestly. Obama’s focus is his racial heritage and the problems he faced coming to terms with what it means to have a white mother and grandparents from Iowa and a black father from Kenya, and to have grown up in Hawaii where racial tensions existed, although on a fairly low level, and then to have spent time in California and New York before settling down in Chicago, where racial tensions are much more pervasive and his job is to try to do something about it.

The book is framed as a quest — Obama’s quest to find himself, ultimately, which means an attempt to come to terms with an absent father and to find a place or a way of being or a state of mind he can call home. Dreams from My Father has three sections, the first one describing his childhood up through his college years, the second part describing his years in Chicago as a community organizer, and the third part telling about his trip to Kenya to meet his father’s family. In each of these sections, he is searching for clues as to who he is and how he should behave. He tells of his introduction to racism, his uneasy response to the other black students around him, his rebellion and anger that stem from his self-doubts, and his search for an identity that will help him cope with so much uncertainty. When he gets to Chicago, he tells of the poverty and hopelessness he sees around him and of his struggles to figure out the best way to make some kind of lasting change — a monumental task. And when he gets to Kenya, he tells about his initial relief at being in a place where blackness is the norm and his disappointment that Kenya doesn’t have any simple answers to offer. He does find a resolution of sorts, but it’s a partial and complicated one.

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I want Obama to succeed as president to such an extent that I don’t like following and often don’t follow the news because I don’t want to hear about the possibility of failure. I’d prefer to be able to look back at this time with enough perspective to know how things will turn out rather than having to live through it. But since I can’t do that, I’ll just take comfort in the fact that we have a president who is smart and thoughtful and who writes well. Dreams from My Father is a well-crafted, engaging, engrossing, thought-provoking read.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

16 responses to “Dreams from My Father

  1. I also found the book and the personality behind it very engaging. And I also am so desperate for him to succeed that I can’t read any press – I just don’t want to know if he’s messing up (which isn’t possible, is it?). I think it’s entirely unfair to expect him to be a saviour, but I can’t help wanting that.


  2. I agree with your comments.

    One thing we can look forward to down the track is the memoirs of his presidential years. Now that will be an interesting read!

    Glad I came across your blog, I’ll be back often.


  3. I felt exactly the same after reading that book. He is a breath of fresh air – as you said, self-aware, thoughtful, full of sensible, human doubt. It will make him a better leader if he can only withstand the relentless heckling and lobbying from all the people who want things badly. I have everything crossed over here that he gets the opportunity to show people a different way of being in the public spotlight. It’s about time someone did, and he’s the best chance we’ve had in a long, long time.


  4. I can’t watch the news either, but not for fear of seeing him messing up. It’s more because I can’t stomach the irrationality of many of his critics. They drive me nuts. I’m with Litlove. Everything is crossed!



  5. I am so glad to hear he is a good writer and that the book is good. I don’t follow the news to closely either. I think his critics jump on everything they can to try and bring him down. I even heard complaints in the media about how long he was taking to decide about Afghanistan and that made me mad because really, two weeks isn’t long when you consider people’s lives are at stake. I feel better knowing he thought long and hard about it instead of blithely sending people off like a certain other president did.


  6. My reactions is much like yours even though I haven’t read the book: I want him to succeed; he is a different sort of presidential animal and I hope he’ll survive with everything intact. And I’m also curious about what his memoir will say in years to come. I avoid the news because it isn’t news, it’s fear mongering. Here in Ontario we have an hour long daily current affairs program, “The Agenda” on public tv (TVO) that is thoughtful, but on too early and too late for me. If only I could remember to tape it!


  7. I listened to the audiobook of this. Obama reads it himself, which is perhaps the most amazing audio I’ve ever heard. His voice is wonderful anyway, but it was like he was just sharing his own story without any judgement. Loved it. Also the audio version has his speech from the 2004 Democratic convention at the end. Mindblowing that I watched him deliver that speech on TV, and immediately called my parents and told them about him and how we’d better keep an eye on him, cause he was something special.


  8. My feelings exactly. Living in DC, it is amazing to see the difference he makes in how business is done. The conciliatory nature. Although not quite at a post-racial moment in this city, we can model that desire to give voice. To all. Hope.


  9. >Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I want Obama to succeed as president to such an extent that I don’t like following and often don’t follow the news because I don’t want to hear about the possibility of failure.

    I totally agree. I’m so proud that Obama, a thinking man, is our president. Loved your review.

    I think the title is significant–I always assumed it was Dreams of My Father, but from My Father is different.


  10. You’re spending a lot of time thinking about what it takes to be President… perhaps you should run next time. 🙂


  11. Loved this book, although largely skipped the Kenyan section since I had to finish it in time to pass it on. I also hate hearing criticism of Obama as president. Still think he’s the best thing that’s happened to the US and the international scene in a long while.


  12. Charlotte — I know, it IS unfair to expect him to be perfect, and yet it feels impossible not to expect it. So yes, the best solution is just to avoid the news, or at least remember that we have no idea how things will work out, no matter what those people say.

    Steve — thank you! Yes, I do hope we get presidential memoirs, and that they are good ones. I don’t know if complete honesty (or as much as possible) would be too much to expect there, but perhaps not?

    Litlove — yes, everything crossed here too. A breath of fresh air is exactly it — such an amazing change from the previous administration. And I think you are right that the ability to question and doubt can be an asset — one our previous president was sorely lacking, I’m afraid.

    Lezlie — yeah, I agree completely; the irrationality that’s out there is really hard to take, what little I hear of it. I’m afraid if I watched that sort of thing regularly, I would lose it. It’s much better not to!

    Stefanie — yeah, very true. Imagine that — taking time to think through military policy carefully! My God. I don’t want to have to hear all the craziness.

    Lilian — you are right that it’s not news and is fear-mongering instead. Even more reason to ignore it. The truth is, though, I’d want to avoid even more sensible news programs, just because I can’t stand the thought of Obama making serious mistakes. It’s not something to be proud of, definitely. It sounds like “The Agenda” is something we need more of.

    Rachel — oh, I’d forgotten that he read the book himself, although I’d heard that a long time ago. What a great way to experience the book! I’m almost wishing I hadn’t read it on paper and could listen to it instead. If I come across it, I might just listen to parts of it, especially the first section, which I thought was the best. I’ll bet listening to it was a great experience.

    Frances — oh, how interesting that you can see the change in culture from the front lines, so to speak. I’m so glad the change is obvious!

    JanetGS — Thank you! Yes, the title is interesting, more interesting with “from” rather than “of.” He’s talking about dreams that he (and everyone, in a way) have inherited from previous generations, and it’s very moving.

    Bikkuri — um, no 🙂 Part of my interest in Obama is that while I’m not like him, really, I see enough of myself in him to make him seem familiar, and that makes me wonder how he can stand to be president, because I certainly couldn’t!

    Pete — oh, I think you are right. As for the Kenyan section, I think it’s the weakest, so it’s not so bad that you had to skip parts of it. The first section is really the best.


  13. I really need to read this book. I work with someone whose political views diverge from my own and it can be painful to hear my coworker criticize him (and to hold my own tongue, which I always do). He seems such a thoughtful, intelligent, even tempered individual I feel like he really only can improve things, but it is hard to hear the constant jabs at him in the news. He was handed such an awful mess that it seems unfair to expect the country to be set back on it’s feet in only four years (though I guess that’s really what we are all hoping).


  14. nishka

    I am a ghostwriter and had to read this book this year for a client who wanted a book for college students on Obama. I loved it…. the thoughts seemed to stem from a thinker and you don’t get the feeling that he is always trying to portray himself in a great light. It seemed as ‘honest’ as possible.


  15. Auntie Kate

    President Obama will succeed. ” You can please some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.” Whether or not he succeeds depends on your viewpoint as much as anything else. I happen to have confidence in smart, sensitive, thoughtful people; what he does is my definition of success.


  16. Excellent review of this book! I found it compelling and honest, and reviewed it on my blog (Feb. 2009).


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