In the summer of 2004, we had just returned to the U.S. after 4 years in England. Those years had been a time of change and turmoil in my home country. We were eager to reconnect with, and understand, the political landscape and the people who would shape the future. At the Democratic National Convention in August, a "young" (my age) politician named Barack Obama gave an inspired keynote address that left me both awestruck and hopeful. When I came across Obama's book at a library book sale recently, I thought it was time to learn more about the man behind the powerful rhetoric. First published in 1992, Dreams from my Father describes Obama's childhood, his early career as a community organizer, and his first visit to Kenya, his father's homeland.
In one respect, this book is about a search for identity, with Obama exploring his "uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers." (p. 301) As part of this search, Obama gains an increasing awareness of race issues in American society:
- A friend of his grandfather's, as Obama was preparing to leave his home in Hawaii for college: "They'll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you're a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they'll yank your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you're a nigger just the same." (p. 97).
- Describing a campaign by the Nation of Islam to sell branded products: "The the POWER campaign sputtered said something about the difficulty that faced any black business -- the barriers to entry, the lack of finance, the leg up that your competitors possessed after having kept you out of the game for over three hundred years." (p. 201)
- On those in Chicago who had marched for civil rights and yet, "...at some point had realized that power was unyielding and principles unstable, and that even after laws were passed and lynchings ceased, the closest thing to freedom would still involve escape, emotional if not physical, away from ourselves, away from what we knew, flight into the outer reaches of the white man's empire -- or closer into its bosom." (p. 277)
"The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality ... But that's not all the law is. The law is also a memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience. ... I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in the Lower East Side sweatshops .... I hear the voices of people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country's borders ... all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life ... What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don't always satisfy me ... And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail." (p. 437-438).
Obama keeps the "plot" moving along. Although many of the characters are not fully developed. I had to keep reminding myself this is a memoir, not a novel. And since this book was written long before Obama's run for the U.S. Presidency, it has a certain authenticity. I found it an extremely well-written and interesting portrait of an emerging political leader. It also offers insight into issues of race in America, and African American culture, and is a worthwhile read for this reason alone.
My original review can be found here