My friend Bethany gave me Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance for Christmas. I was deeply grateful, and proceeded to demonstrate my gratitude by reading it over a 3-4 day period. The book was surprisingly long (over 400 pages) yet held my attention strongly throughout. Obama, writing ten years ago after being named the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, describes the development of his own unique racial identity as the son of an African man and American woman. He uses flowing, descriptive prose that is unsentimental yet thought-provoking, while avoiding many clichés.
Raised mostly by a middle class white family consisting of his mother and maternal grandparents, Obama may not have much in common with African Americans born into poverty or inner cities. His identity was shaped largely while his father was absent; sadly, this may be the one feature in which he has the most in common with young African Americans. Learning about his father’s true history, which differed substantially from the idealized version his mother and others painted for him while he was young, is the central theme of Dreams. In the spaces in between Obama talks about drugs, black nationalism, racism, education, America, idealism, community organizing, and Africa.
One of the most memorable passages to me came near the end, when Obama paraphrases a narrative of the past ten generations of his African family told to him by his paternal grandmother during a visit to his ancestral home in Kenya. This tale, encompassing everything from Luo tribal life prior to the arrival of the British through colonialism and the efforts and failures of his own grandfather and father, is one of the most poignant sketches I’ve read of the process of change in recent African history.
Perhaps one of the reasons the book appealed to me is that it is the story of a young, idealistic man finding his place in the world. While I don’t have the same inner need to define my racial identity, my own interest in race stems mostly from time I’ve spent in other countries, especially in Africa. I can honestly (and sadly?) say that I never really thought about race in America much until I had been to Ghana and South Africa, especially the latter. Being able to see the racial divides of other countries as an outsider helped to change my perception of the role of race and class in American society, bringing into focus important aspects of our respective and collective cultures that white boys like me tend to discount as irrelevant.Obama’s sense of community and the need for public service are traits I admire. He writes about America and community and service and the world in a way that brings out the best in the reader. I don’t think I’m the only one who has read Obama’s account and felt some level of connection to him for his ideals. Working as a community organizer for several years in gang-infested projects on the south side of
Chicago, Obama embodies the ideal of a socially-conscious grassroots organizer who actively works against deteriorating influences in our country’s inner cities. His efforts, regardless of their success, seem worthy of emulation. Call the idealism what you want—optimism (even the paranoid variety) or the audacity of hope—but to me it remains the most central, redeeming aspect of the American worldview.