Regardless of what you think of Barack Obama the politician, it is worth your time to read his autobiographical account exploring his ancestry and the inheritance that comes with it. In Dreams From My Father, Obama has woven a coming of age story that readers can relate to, that offers a unique perspective on the world vis-à-vis race and its impact, and that provides the foundation of a worldview he would eventually carry into public life.
I admit I read the book much later than the majority who consumed it as part of the political zeitgeist during the 2004 election season. Therefore, I am judging the book through the lens of the extended narrative. I know how things turned out, and about the heaps of both praise and scorn the author has received; although that is the fate of almost all leaders. Hence, I had the added difficulty of separating the man (and his personal story) from the office.
Overall I enjoyed the book and largely because I saw faint parallels to my own story. Not that I had such a childhood less ordinary. Not even close. However, while reflecting on the moments, decisions, and factors that comprise the course of my life to adulthood, I saw similar wrestling with big and thorny issues that are the undercurrents of personal and communal identities. I don’t believe I am alone in this sentiment. I believe part of its broad appeal is the connection to larger themes. In one way or another, we too have been there, even if only for a moment. We recognize it.
For me, the centrality of the father-son relationship added to the familiarity – and therefore relatability – of the book. Again, my reality, on the surface and deeper down, does not match the author’s. My dad was – and is – present in my life. We have what I believe is a strong relationship. I know a lot about him because I have had the opportunity to ask, and he to answer. I’m not wrestling with a ghost. That does not mean our relationship was always easy or idyllic. Just ask my dad. However, I connected with Obama’s story because I too navigated life while fretting over whether or not I measured up to the dreams my dad held for me; if he approved or was proud of me. Ask most men if they can relate, and I’ll bet they do overwhelmingly.
On a further personal note, I enjoyed the book because I’m familiar with the transition to manhood while living in the city of the broad shoulders. Chicago is that most unique of American cities and I, not entirely unlike the author, was molded by experiences in its corporate downtown, its ethnically mixed and often gritty neighborhoods, working with non-profits serving the underprivileged, and simply trying to find my place in the whirlwind.
One of the book’s most engaging aspects of Obama’s first book is his unique experience with race and his up-front examination of it, particularly in a country still bearing the scars and impact of slavery. It is a courageous undertaking because such an honest accounting might lead to giving up long-held views that provide identity and protection from the vulnerability of personal reckoning. As I followed the story, I felt Obama simultaneously inhabited and remained apart from the two worlds into which he was born. He was a citizen of both, but always appears somewhat removed from them. The author seems to always have an eye cast to the “other side,” wondering what it thinks. This persistent arm’s length from each world leads to perpetual analysis of them, but never simply “being” in either of them. On the other hand, the author does invite the reader to sit atop the fence of the racial divide for a different view; an opportunity not often given to those of us more ensconced on either side of it. Perhaps that’s was Obama’s experience and what he wished to convey. Unfortunately, it prevents the reader from getting to know the author more intimately than they otherwise might.
From a technical standpoint, the book is beautifully written. Obama may be known for his oratory, but his grasp of language and the ability make prose poetic are equally strong. The vignettes and arcs he recreates throughout the book are vivid and go beyond a simple recounting of events. There is an empathy to them. The people and places in which his narrative takes place are not just there for their own sake. They each connect to his own and would be equally compelling to hear or read. Never in the book did I ask the question, “so what?” or, “what’s the point?” However, at times, it could be written shorter. Obama has a propensity to use dollar words when dimes will do. In addition, his penchant for telling two or three stories to make the same point or highlight a theme becomes frustrating after a while. Still, they’re good stories told well. They invite reflection and provide a different perspective on important topics, which should be the aim of any good narrative.
I’m glad I took the time with this book when I did. The perpetual spotlight has lessened the veneer and put some rougher edges on the author’s normally-polished imaged. It is a forthright account of a difficult journey, the kind that requires courage and humility to reach its end. If you haven’t done so yet, read the book and take the journey with him.