Barack Obama, Dreams from my father
I must be about the last person on earth to read Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from my father. However, that’s not going to stop me adding my voice to the accolades heaped on the book! When it was originally published in 1995, it was subtitled “A story of race and inheritance”. This does not appear on the cover or title page of my 2009 reprint of the 2004 edition. Why is that? Maybe they just thought they’d keep it simple?
Anyhow, this aside, there’s a lot that can be said about this book – and in fact a lot has been said. I don’t really want to go over that ground again. Yes, it has a three part structure (Origins, Chicago and Kenya). Yes, it’s beautifully written with some lovely reflective prose. Yes, it contains the germ of his philosophies about race and politics. But, what did I get out of it?
Well the main thing is that it’s one of the most authentic explorations of identity crisis that I have ever read. Here is a man born of a mixed race marriage, who was brought up by the “dominant” race’s family without any real contact with the minority race family but who, by the time he reaches adolescence, finds that those around him identify him with that minority race. Consequently, much of the book is spent on his working out how to live (and grow) as a black man in a white society. He is very honest in chronicling his path from rather wild, disaffected youth to thoughtful more together young man. He starts to make this transition when, in his early 20s, he leaves the high corporate life in New York for the life of a poor community organiser in the Southside of Chicago. And here I must admit I could NOT get that Jim Croce song out of my head:
Well the south side of chicago
Is the baddest part of town…
Some readers, I know, found the Chicago section slow-going, and I suppose I did too but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it engrossing because it is in this section that he really explores the many faces of race relations and starts to work through his own views and values. After all, it is here that he gets first-hand experience of what it is like to be poor, powerless and black and it is here that he not only starts to develop his philosophy but also hone his organisational skills. He’s pretty modest about it but it is clear that he is an empathetic person who engenders confidence in people. The other interesting thing about this identity crisis aspect of the book is that while, unlike many of the people he worked with/for he had not “grown up black”, he is one of the rare Americans to actually have direct African roots, something he explores in the third part of the book. All this actually makes him a bit of an insider/outsider in both white and black society. The resolution, when it comes at the end, is emotional and yet rather ordinary. He writes:
I felt the circle finally close. I realised that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America – the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d felt in Chicago – all of it was connected with a small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the colour of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle my birthright.
The other thing I got out of it was the exploration – mostly just subtly alongside other discussions – of the concepts of truth and authenticity. An historian he talks to in Nairobi towards the end of the book says, when discussing the historical challenges facing, say, post-colonial Africans, that “truth is usually the best corrective” and elaborates on this by suggesting that possibly “the worse thing that colonialism did was cloud our view of the past”. There’s much to think about in that statement! On a more personal level she says that what she wants for her daughter is less to be “authentically African” and more to be “authentically herself”. I can’t think of a better point on which to finish this little review of mine!