Book Review of Barack Obama: Dreams From My Father

book - barack obama dreams from my fatherA Guest Post written by Mary Le Bon

Dreams From My Father gives an honest, self-deprecating account of Barack Obama’s search for identity in the first part of his life. He was commissioned to write this book, after becoming the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. This led him on a journey of exploration, seeking out his ancestral roots and working through the confusion of his own childhood memories.  

Obama’s relationship with his father, whom he only met once when he was ten years old, is an important theme of the book. He carries in his head an image of his father, both as inspiration and a scourge. It is only when his sister comes to visit, describing the reality of their father’s life in Kenya, that Barack’s image of his father is shattered, his world turned upside down.

The narrative begins with the sudden death of his father, then Obama’s own memories of growing up in Hawaii. As a teenager, he struggled to reconcile his upbringing by a white mother and white grandparents with that of other black teenagers, finding it difficult to come to terms with his identity as a black American. Racism, the resulting lack of self-esteem, the search for identity and the effects of poverty on young people are themes explored throughout the book, as Obama moves between America, Indonesia and Kenya.

Whilst living in Chicago in his early twenties, Obama recalls trying to organise black people to stand up and fight for their rights. At first, he meets with failure. But he perseveres, drawing closer to the community leaders: three black ladies trying to stop black teenagers from joining gangs, and the white church leaders, disillusioned because they have seen no change. Obama accepts their hospitality and is drawn into their lives. Gradually they begin to share their past traumas, and this encourages him to face his own past.

Finally, Obama allows himself to visit Kenya, the land of his father. He is nervous, describing himself as ‘an African on his way to a land full of strangers.’ When he arrives, ‘tired and abandoned’, his suitcase has gone missing, but someone recognises his name and commiserates on the death of his father. This is a significant moment – the first time Obama has felt that he really belonged anywhere.

Obama’s description is characterized by vivid details which are instantly memorable, such as his sister, Auma’s ‘old, baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle’ which she had imported, and hoped to use and then sell for a profit. The clanking of the engine causes Obama to laugh and offer to ‘get out and push’ but he is chided by his aunt Zeituni who calls it: ‘a beautiful car’ which ‘just needs some new paint.’  He compares the poverty he saw in Chicago with the poverty of his extended family. His aunt Jane has two bedrooms ‘jammed from one end to the other with old mattresses’.

Obama learns that everything in Kenya, including employment, is based on family, tribe, who you know or whether you can pay a large bribe. No one shows any interest in finding his suitcase until he and his sister speak to an uncle who happens to be a good friend of the airport manager. Auma explains that Obama’s father had never understood this. He had returned to Kenya expecting to be successful because of his education and personality, but that wasn’t enough.

Obama is taken to the land his great grandfather owned, where his grandmother tells him of a rich oral history going back many generations. His grandfather was a herbalist, but learnt to read and write, and worked for important white men in Nairobi. He eventually comes to understand the dreams of both his father and his grandfather, as well as their failures and disappointments, and there is a strong sense of frustration that he cannot get his own family to see beyond themselves.

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