Not too long into the new year of 2009, I decided to finally delve into a book that has become quite popular these days, even an international best-seller. It was the self-authored volume by Barack Obama entitled Dreams From My Father.
I have personally never been one to read autobiographies, and especially of U.S. Presidents. Some years back, I do remember reading the first few chapters of a book about George W. Bush. Though I learned a few things, I quickly became disinterested in the book.
But, knowing the highly debated figure that Barack Obama has been, some upholding him as a sort-of Messiah while others degrading him to the point of being an anti-christ figure, I thought I would look to learn a little about the man from his own words. And, so, I thought his own autobiography would be one of the better places to start. Interesting to note, the book was written in the early 1990’s following his graduation from Harvard Law School. Therefore, the book only covers the first 25 years of his life.
Most are probably aware that Barack Obama was born in that final and 50th state accepted into the union of the United States, Hawaii that is. He is the son of a white, Kansas-native, Ann Dunham. Yet, more are aware of his African roots, which come through his black-African father, Barack Obama, Sr., who originated from Kenya.
Growing up, Barack Obama lived on and off with his mother, but was mainly raised by his grandparents, both of them going by the affectionate names of Gramps and Toot. But, interestingly enough, the story is actually centred around the fatherless nature of his life. The book constitutes Obama’s search for his own identity as a half-white, half-black adolescent growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But even more, the title of the book, Dreams From My Father, points to the fact that Barack knows that his identity is somehow wrapped up in the person of his father.
At a very young age, Obama’s mother remarried an Indonesian man by the name of Lolo, a student she had met at the University of Hawaii. This led to Barack and his mother, Ann, relocating their lives to the Pacific islands of Indonesia for a few years. It was through this marriage that he would have the pleasure of a new half-sister, Maya.
Those three to four years in Indonesia were, no doubt, formative in the life of Barack, but to have to grow up so fast was probably asking a little too much from such a young boy. In the end, Barack and his mother returned to America and, soon after that, Ann and Lolo would get a divorce.
Chapter 3 records the only time Barack Obama would ever get to meet his father. He was 10 years old and the time with his father would prove to be short – a mere four weeks, no more, no less. Of course, a 10-year old has no idea of the significance of such an opportunity, nor would he have known it would be the last time he would see his true birth father. And, it is those next 15+ years (which the book covers) which he would spend trying to find out who his father truly was.
Barack would go on to study for two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles before transferring to Columbia University in the New York City area to finish out his B.A. in political science. Following a couple more years in New York City, Barack headed to Chicago where he would work as director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP). His role was to mainly help the disadvantaged in the Chicago area, looking to initiate development projects and bring in resources to those of the inner-city. No doubt this was a difficult task to bear, one that would produce little fruit and much frustration at times.
One of the best chapters proves to be chapter 11 where Barack’s African half-sister, Auma, comes for a 10-day visit in Chicago. For me, it was quite a moving chapter as Barack recounts one of their major conversations with his sister concerning their father, a conversation that would run deep into the night. Something to note here is that Obama always refers to his father by the title ‘the Old Man’. This probably comes out of the lack of personally knowing his father.
In the conversation, Auma enlightens Barack about the identity, personality and character of their father. Barack Obama, Sr., was a brilliant man graduating from the University of Hawaii and, then, taking up graduate studies at Harvard University. Yet, Obama Sr. had his problems as well – a temper, controlling, oft-drunk, somewhat abusive, and this all led to his ultimate failure as a Kenyan bureaucrat.
No doubt the painful stories, which Auma unfolded, tore at the heart of Barack. Though he had tried to uphold his father as this great and noble hero, the reality was that Obama, Sr., had plenty of ‘demons’ that chipped away at his charismatic persona. And such an exchange between brother and sister actually shed some light on that four-week visit from Barack’s father back when at age 10. But the conversation, distressing as it was, helped to bring some closure in Barack’s life concerning his father. These are some of the words he penned:
‘The night wore on; I tired to regain my balance, sensing that there was little satisfaction to be had from my newfound liberation. What stood in the way of my succumbing to the same defeat that had brought down the Old Man? Who might protect me from doubt or warn me against all the traps that seem laid in a black man’s soul? The fantasy of my father had at least kept me from despair. Now he was dead, truly. He could no longer tell me how to live.’
Though Barack Obama worked with many churches through his role as director of DCP in Chicago, thus shedding some small light into his thoughts on religious life, chapter 14 seemed to give the greatest insight into such an area. No, there is no new birth conversion, or at least no profession of such. But the setting of this section is Trinity United Church of Christ in the Chicago area, which was led by the well-know Jeremiah Wright.
Most know that Obama has been influenced by both Islam and Christianity, his father being born into a Muslim family and his connection with Trinity United Church of Christ. And many a Christians frequently quote Obama in attempt to prove he has universalist affinities. I’m not here to argue if he is a Christian, Muslim or universalist. I only point out the chapter as interesting in regards to Obama’s interaction with religious life.
The book ends with Barack Obama’s visit to his father’s homeland, Kenya. Ever since he received the phone call informing him that his father had passed away, Barack had a desire stirring in him to visit Kenya, all so he could get to know those people whom he never had a chance to be acquainted with, as well as say good-bye to his father.
The journey was all summed in the last chapter of the book as his grandmother, Zeituni, shared an extensive story in answer to Barack’s questions about the roots and background of the Obama family. The story is a settling of sorts for Barack and could probably be seen as the final step of closure needed in a life that had been haunted by his father’s ghost. In all, these words encapsulate the ending of this portion of his life:
‘For a long time I sat between the two graves [of his grandfather and father] and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized 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 witnessed in Chicago – all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brother’s questions. Their struggle, my birthright.’
And the book concludes soon after these words above.
I’m not here to argue whether or not Barack Obama is best suited as the 44th President of the United States. Again, I’m not here to tell you whether he knows God or not. And I’m definitely not here to pick apart his particular policies and promises. I simply wanted to tell you of this book, summarise it for you, and, then, you can decide if it might be worthy picking up yourself.
It is true that there is somewhat of a no-holds barred nature to the book, with certain words and details not withheld in describing certain events and situations. Yet I am also aware that the picture painted leaves out some of the warts and blemishes, as I am sure all autobiographies would. But, overall, it gives really good insight into the background and early years of the man known as Barack Obama. And, we would do well to reminder that this book is not the full story of his life, since he has lived another 20+ years since the work was finished, and there has been no revised edition to date.
In the end, I do believe the book gives some solid insight into his life. One walks away with a little more understanding of a man who struggled growing up as half-white and half-black, not truly knowing his father, and having lived a life that spans right across the globe (don’t forget Indonesia). These words truly speak of Obama’s desire to understand the dreams of his father. I suppose I will learn a little more when I have time to pick up The Audacity of Hope.