Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama (1995) is an interesting book largely because of who it was written by rather than what it says. The great thing about the book is that it was written before Obama’s career had taken off. The book is an auto-biography of Obama until he reached Harvard Law School. It didn’t interest me as much as The Audacity of Hope but it’s still worth reading and is certainly an interesting and well written book.
Obama writes about himself, his family and in particular how he has been shaped by being his father’s son. The book starts with Obama looking back at himself as 21 year old in New York. He transitions to a discussion of his mother’s family and how her parents moved around, encountering racism in the US and winding up in Hawaii where their daughter, met, married and had a child with an African student named Barack Obama. The book then moves to Indonesia where Obama and his mother moved when she married an Indonesian. There Obama had real contact with a third world country, something not many Americans and no recent president have had. He then moved back to Hawaii for high school and then book then turns to how Obama became aware of being an ‘African American’.It was there that he met his father for the last time in 1971.
He goes on to write about going to college in Los Angeles and then New York. In LA he had his first acquaintance with black politics and he got to know student activists. He then moved to New York where he completed his degree and also got to learn more about himself and politics. These chapters look at how he related to those pushing black empowerment. It also says quite a lot about how Obama related to them. It’s clearly a curious relationship. While he doesn’t explicitly refer to it, being the son of an African and growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia is a far cry from growing up as a black man in a depressed part of an American city.
Obama then became a community organiser in Chicago, working on the South Side. He writes about how hard it was, how the whole setup was broken and how the organisers didn’t stand much chance. He also writes about the ominous rise of crime and drugs while he was there. He doesn’t preach, he just writes about how things were. The book is certainly more interesting because of it.
The final part of the book deals with his visit to Kenya to visit his family there. While in Kenya Obama finds out his family history. He meets his various siblings and sees how their lives have turned out. Again, he is a very rare American, or even first world citizen. He has been to Africa not as a tourist but as someone who sees the people there. he writes about his family and his father and grand-father. It is here that he finds the Dreams from my Father that is the title of the book. He draws a narrative through his family to him, seeing him as the product of dreams from parent to child.
The book shows clear literary talent. It’s far, far more interesting than the political books that I’ve read of late, by Wayne Swan, Lindsay Tanner and Tony Abbott. But in a way Obama has a great advantage over these figures. He has a unique, interesting experience to describe. Tony Abbott and Lindsay Tanner can both write reasonably well, but they don’t have the life experience to draw on. They also chose to write political books, which is legitimate. But Obama’s political book is also better. He describes more of the nitty-gritty of being a politician and doesn’t spend much of his time attacking ‘the others’. It’s a wise lesson for a politician to learn.