Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Three Rivers Press, 457 pages
I’ve written about Barack Obama a couple times on this blog. In “Narrative Nation” I explored the meta-meaning of his presidential campaign; in “Behind the Barn” I told how my wife’s family’s barn in northwestern Ohio became one of only about three “Obama Barns” in the entire state.
Now I’ve finally read Obama’s first book, his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and am impressed with him as a writer, not just as in “he’s a good writer,” but as in he’s a writer. Or was, before his political day jobs took him away. I feel like I know him much better, a man with gifts and burdens, someone who had to forge his own identity far more consciously than most people do. His exploration of this identity, half white and half black genetically—but only black in the white world’s eyes, especially when he moved to the American mainland for college—is central. And though I’d assumed he hadn’t faced prejudice while growing up in diverse Indonesia and Hawaii, I was wrong.
My favorite part is the first third in which he recreates his childhood and college years. The conflict here, his doubts, confusion, anger, is personal. His depiction of his white grandfather—ribald, whiskey drinking, garrulous—is just great, an earthy portrait, far from that of the sober Kansan I’d expected.
Confident as a boy—his mother, grandparents, and even his absent, charismatic father all believed in his destiny—Obama suffered a dissolute, cynical period in college. (He did every drug but heroin, where he drew the line, despite a buddy’s urgings.) He allowed the white world that had rejected him to co-opt the values he’d been raised with. He lost hope, rejected those values, and tried to become a bad ass. It took him time to regain his footing:
I rose from my couch and opened my front door, the pent-up smoke trailing me out of the room like a spirit. Up above, the moon had slipped out of sight, only its glow still visible along the rim of high clouds. The sky had begun to lighten; the air tasted of dew.
Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.
Except now I was hearing the same thing from black people I respected, people with more excuses for bitterness than I might ever claim for myself. Who told you that being honest was a white thing? they asked me. Who sold you this bill of goods, that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful or diligent of kind, or that morality had a color? You’ve lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself—about who you are and who you might become—have grown stunted and narrow and small.
I sat down on the doorstep and rubbed the knot on the back of my neck. How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear. The same fear that had caused me to push Coretta way back in grammar school. The same fear that had caused me to ridicule Tim in front of Marcus and Reggie. The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.
Obama tries to keep himself in the story in the next section, which depicts his years of political organizing in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the narrative turns less personal, slightly less vivid—the conflict is more societal—and more compelling in biographical and historical terms. His daily life, other than at work, isn’t clear. But his finally joining a church, the one whose erudite but angry pastor later would be used against him, was a significant and interesting thread and it climaxes this section. Finally he bends the narrative into a satisfying arc by bringing his story to Kenya, where he meets his father’s family, some of whom adore him and some of whom are touchy, easily slighted, offended by this handsome American’s long absence from Africa.
Obama’s election in law school as head of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American to hold that post, got him the memoir contract. Publishers saw the historic significance of his selection and gambled on him. This paid, obviously. Dreams from My Father appeared about the time he was elected to the senate.
Of course it’s impossible to read the book now except as a portrait of the politician as a young man. His story was worth telling, and he possessed the talent to tell it beautifully, but it was published (and probably in large part written) because Obama was marked for greatness in public life. He knew it—anyone with eyes to see knew it. This might seem to diminish the book slightly, qua memoir, but it’s also the truth that it was the story he owned, was his to tell.