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Author / Writer Spotlight, Non Fiction

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama


Before Barack Obama became a politician he was among other things, a writer. Dreams from my Father is his masterpiece a refreshing, revealing portrait of a young man asking the big questions about identity and belongings. 

The book is segregated into 3 sections, namely Origins, Chicago and Kenya.

In Origins, Obama recounts his own emotional odyssey. The son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, in this memoir Barack (nickname Barry) traced his migration of his mothers’ family from Kansas to Hawaii. He remembers fondly of his gramps and toot, his mother’s family history, his grandparents’ acceptance of his father and the one time that Barack’s father visits him for a month in Hawaii. Short of a role model, his mother inspires him to be the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc.. Barack also remembers his childhood in Indonesia, playing with his childhood friends in the Kampong, growing up with his step father Lolo, who taught him the law of survival (in the developing world context) to spar and to fight. “Better to be strong, if you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone’s who is strong. But always be strong yourself, always,” said Lolo. In high school, he made it into the basketball team, spending time with best friend Ray. 

That’s just how white folks will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; i was learning that black people could be mean too. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth out bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn. 

In Chicago – upon graduation from occidental college in LA, he worked as a research assistant and then a financial writer in Manhattan, but then decided to give up his cushy job, his own office and secretary to become a community organiser in Chicago in year 1983. He work under Marty Kaufman, and reached out to the deprived community of the South side of Chicago, sat in kitchen of residents of Altgeld, Chicago, talking to residents, understanding their issues. He spent many years in organising local events, helping to reduce unemployment, black crime neighbourhood, school reforms, support residents to resolve asbestos hazards with the president of the council; with the help of local parishioners and church members, support agencies. All this before he went off to Harvard to pursue a law degree. After returning to Chicago, he was elected the Illinois State Senate in 1996. 

En route to Kenya, Barack spent some time in Europe. 

By the end of first week (in Europe), I realised that I’d make mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine. I felt as if I were living out someone else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass. I began to suspect that my European stop was just one more means of delay, one more attempt to avoid coming to terms with the Old Man (his father).Stripped of language, stripped of work and routine – stripped even of the racial obsessions to which I’d become so accustomed and which i had taken (perversely) as a sign of my maturation – I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there. 

In Kenya, he travels to Kenya, he met all his family and relatives for the first time, including his late father’s estranged wife, Ruth and her children. Where half sister Auma, Aunty Zeituni, half brother Roy and many others told of Obama’s legacy, the lives of grandfather and father’s life in Kenya. The culture and traditions, the political climate of Kenya, his observation of racial tension and residue effects of Kenya colonial past, documented. At last, Barack had come full circle, confronting the bitter truth of his father’s life and at last reconciles with his divided inheritance. 

What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic input, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labour? Or is it something else entirely; a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?

I could list various possibilities. But I’d never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead , I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love was constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances; the cheerful gray-haired lady who rang up my groceries back in Chicago. Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or a race, or a particular moral course and the commitment were no longer tied to a face or a name but were actually commitments I’d made to myself.

In Africa, this astronomy of mine almost immediately collapsed. For family seemed to be everywhere; in stores, at the post office, on streets and in the parks, all of them fussing and fretting over Obama’s long-lost son.

 I read a lot politician memoir only to fall into tedium of how hard work, social connection and privilege background (subtle implication, though) propels them to the height of their career; outlining the great political feats and matter-of-factly prose beseeching for public acceptance and political correctness. This book is different, so honest and profound that you feel as if the current 44th President of the United States is your neighbour’s son that you grew up with. Barack laid out all his insecurity, his fears, his struggle to cope with an absent father, his questions about finding his identity and the sense of belonging. He uses swear words, he is caught in a situation where he feels like “a pig roasting in a spit”, his failure to fit in with his white girlfriend, he experiment with booze and joint, he contemplates not going to college, his growing up pain, his search in his place on earth, are both endearing and heart wrenching.   

My favourites sections of the book are the Origins and Kenya. I was thoroughly intrigued, inspired and entertained. A rare gem of a book, a remarkable life of a remarkable man. A remarkable life straddles between east and west heritage, between Christianity and Muslim, between the rich and the poor, the black and the whites, and came out surer and stronger. Mr. Barack Obama, you epitomise what multicultural, success, global harmony and peace means, I salute you! 

I first decide to read his book because of who he is, I finished the book and decide to read his next one, because he writes so beautifully and with such authenticity. Highly entertaining. 

This memoir is published in 1995, and became a bestseller soon after it was reissued in 2004. The book won Tesco award in the Galaxy British Book Awards 2009 for Best Biography of the year. For more on Barack Obama, read his bio at Wikipedia. 

Verdict: 4.5/5
What I like most about the book: It inspires as all biographies aim to do, but more than that it is highly readable and entertaining too!

What I like least about the book: The book does not place the events chronologically. No mentioned of year, no sense of how old Obama was when some of these incidents happened. Another slight grudge, not a major one is that the central theme of the book has a lot to do with racial obsession which I found to be a little wearisome. All things mentioned are coloured with racial inequities. I think some things in life are best taken at face value sometimes. I live as an alien in my adopted country now. Initially, there is always this nagging question of not being able to fit in. I moped, I complained, and I moaned about it. But 3 years on, I’d decided that I need to be comfortable in my own skin. That is what really matters. How people see me, how they perceive me unfavourable because of my ethnicity, is their problem, not mine. I would think someone as great as the man himself wouldn’t have to fight most of his lifetime with such inner demon. Maybe I’m wrong.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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