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Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance Paperback – August 10, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
—New York Times Book Review
“Fluidly, calmly, insightfully, Obama guides us straight to the intersection of the most serious questions of identity, class, and race.”
—Washington Post Book World
“Beautifully crafted . . . moving and candid . . . this book belongs on the shelf beside works like James McBride’s The Color of Water and Gregory Howard Williams’s Life on the Color Line as a tale of living astride America’s racial categories.” —Scott Turow
“Obama’s writing is incisive yet forgiving. This is a book worth savoring.”
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here
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to this. The Audacity of Hope was written when he was already a Senator and about to run for President, and by then
his political skills had developed considerably. I expect that his next memoir will be extremely well written and polished.
But Dreams From My Father is the book that most explains who Obama is. His strengths and weaknesses, which make
him so admired by many and feared by his opponents, come out strongly. Opponents of Obama will find reasons to empathize
with his experience and that of his family, but also will see how that experience shaped his worldview that was imposed on
the American people. This book should also show why many people voted for him in the first place, not only because
he is an eloquent speaker and skilled writer, but because he has a compelling personal story.
Besides the trip to Kenya to search for his family roots, there is an extended reflection on his experience in Chicago as a
community organizer. I think this reveals a lot about Obama's qualities as well. There is a true desire to help and improve,
an intellectual talent, and yet there's always a geographical displacement and emotional detachment, an outsider's perspective
looking in, that somehow distances him even as he tries to immerse in the milieu. (Contrast Bill Clinton's I feel your pain). He is
sensitive, perhaps too sensitive and questioning, and yet somehow not empathetic enough for the opposing point of view (e.g.
pro life). The end of the book has a reflection from a few years later on being a law student, on justifying the justice system for the
powerless, making clear that he was not only liberal but radical. This shows how in his later political career, even when he tried
to transcend partisanship and made a lot of intellectual deliberation, he almost always arrived at conclusions on the left end of
the spectrum, because he was coming from the far left end. For instance, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, from whom he later had to
distance himself, is just a regular normal character in the narrative but was in fact a radical liberationist in his theology.
To me the book resembles, in some respects, even the gentle but dark humor, Dennis Kucinich's Courage to Survive, where
he did in Cleveland what Obama did in Chicago. I can see why Kucinich eventually endorsed Obama even though by 2008 he
had smoothed out his radicalism.
Despite the conflict between Western liberalism and traditional African values, Obama is very much a feminist and the Western position
won out despite his sympathy for Africa. And yet one of the more compelling passages of the book for me, not politically but personally,
is at the end where he reflects on how even in a family where the women have held together, the men have often been plagued by
doubts about their race and their masculinity and the cruelty that being male can bring with it. Regardless of politics, that is something
that the Obama family seems to have modeled well and overcome in the next generation, with his daughters although he didn't have boys.
As an African American man who has gained some momentum in being authentically me, I appreciate how much of him is also an amalgamation of those closest to him. Thank you Barack for sitting down and taking the time to share your journey with me, it was a worthy venture to explore this chapter in your life. However, as it should be, I'm left wanting more.
Top international reviews
In many ways, that seems to make the book somehow pure, as though it’s a preserved distilling of the president’s personality when he was a younger man, and it’s pretty easy to see how his early life is still shaping him, even today. In fact, after reading this, I’ve found that it feels as though I know him, as though I could predict how he’ll react in different situations.
But really, that’s not what this book is about – he may be the president now, but that wasn’t always the case, and his book looks back at his early life and examines his feelings towards the father that was never there, his African roots and what being a black American actually means. It’s a fascinating study of race relations in America in the 1970s and 1980s, and what’s more poignant is the fact that while Obama does indeed look at the differences between black people and white people, he eventually concludes that the colour of our skin doesn’t define us.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t face struggles along the way, though – Obama also examines his own biases, and the unintentional way in which we come to judgements all of the time. He himself is guilty of stereotyping, but he tries to correct himself and that in itself is honourable.
Of course, it’s also fascinating to read about his exploits as a kid, and his trips to Kenya and Indonesia, or his work in Chicago trying to make the city a better place before he eventually applied for and was accepted in to Harvard. Turns out that Barack is a pretty good writer, and it shows – it was of a professional quality, with no typos or unnatural sounding sentences. Even the dialogue that he recreates sounds natural and fits perfectly with the character, who are of course real people.
Overall, I’d say that this is well worth a read whether you’re an American or not, and whether or not Obama is still president by the time that you read this. The identity of the author doesn’t really matter – the book speaks for itself, and it has a lot of stuff to say to you, too.
Personally I think we should all read this book. Firstly, because for those of us who are non-black we will learn an awful lot that we didn't know about how it feels to be black in America. And secondly, because the majority of us are part of a minority group in some aspect of our lives. This book teaches us what being a minority can do to you, how difficult it can be, including how hard it is to come together as minorities and organise ourselves to bring about change. This book also teaches us that determination and small wins matter. That they can help make a difference. And that bringing about change is important at grassroots level and at leadership levels. It has also helped me to learn about 'organisation', which in itself is also fascinating.
Superb book. Someone should make this guy President.... ;-)
One leader of our time, who I sense demonstrates this practice very well is Barack Obama. What you think of his politics is not relevant here, because I sense he is able to do consistently, when an issue comes up, is turn and face it head on with full acceptance of what it is. From that place, inevitably, he is able to think clearly, sensing what is the next step to take or how to best handle or manoeuvre the current issue. He appears to me to demonstrate the ability to bring real present moment awareness and thought to issues, without having his mind go into all sort of stories, dramas and emotional upsets about them. This ability naturally gives him access to Higher Consciousness, which he can then choose to follow. This does not mean that he does not seek advice from his many astute advisors, but having sought that advice, I sense that he could allow a Higher Consciousness, to give him the clarity of thought that guides the issues to resolution.
In other words in 2016 I read a British expert praising Obama in the world's best leadership concept ever: Spiritual Intelligence Leadership. This book was written in 1994, 14 years before winning the election and yet the totalitarians populists keep on talking about a birth certificate of the son of an international student in Hawai whose mother was in Hawai. The book is clear. Harry Truman said Leaders are readers but not all readers are leaders. Obama is a leader. Others cannot say the same
The book was extremely well written and very easy to read. It also seemed very honest and self-aware in a way that I wouldn't have expected from such a young writer.
I found it very interesting not only to read about what Obama was like at a young age but also to read it from the point of view of his younger self. There was obviously much less self editing than there would have been if he were to write it now.
I had always assumed that Obama must have been a high achiever and very driven from a very early age in order for him to become President so young and so I was surprised that, although clearly intelligent, he didn't have a clear career path early on and didn't go straight to university.
It was also interesting to see how the issues that Obama was interesting in and fighting for in his youth obviously affected his decision to become involved in politics, despite the fact that he had no interest in it at the time.
Reading the book gave me additional respect for Obama because it made me realist just how different his background is to most politicians and how far he has come and how hard he has worked to get where he is today.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Obama or the complexities of racial identity.
Favourite quote: "I thought I could start over, you see. But now I know you can never start over. Not really. You think you have control, but you are like a fly in somebody else's web. Sometimes I think that's why I like accounting. All day, you are only dealing with numbers. You add them, multiply them, and if you are careful, you will always have a solution. There's a sequence there. An order. With numbers, you can have control...."
Everyone knows Barack Obama's story by now, so I am not going to rehash it in this review. What Dreams of My Father reveals, however, is Barack Obama's struggle for identity in a country that is obsessed with race and identity. The principal influences on his life seem to have been his mother, his Indonesian step-father, his maternal grandparents and his absentee father.
Dreams of My Father is a very personal story of how Barack Obama struggles to hew out meaning from his multiple racial and cultural heritages. As a boy living in Indonesia, he seemed to soak in the sights and sounds of this tropical 'paradise'. However, it was clear to him that all was not well in 'paradise. He was impressed by his step-father's hard-headedness as he climbed up the ladder of achievement in Indonesia. As a teenager living in the United States, he never seemed to fit in; he was always on the outside looking in - not quite white, and yet, not quite black. He seemed to have made a conscious effort to identify himself as a Black Man without falling for the crass stereotypes that this identify entails.
The book ends with his 'homecoming' to Kenya to meet his father's extended family after his father's depth. Unlike many African-Americans for whom Africa is just an idea - of ancient kingdoms, warrior clans and proud histories, which serve as an anchor for their sense of dislocation in America, Obama's experience in Kenya served to heal an open wound: not knowing who his father was. His 'homecoming' seemed to have helped him close the loop on a troubled Odyssey in search of identity.
Dreams of My Father is a refreshing, 'unputdownable' read. I loved every page of the book. Obama tells the story of his life with honesty, fluency and pathos. He does an excellent job of expressing his original sense of dislocation, which is inextricably linked to the African American experience, and his subsequent journey to find his place within American society. There is no anger, no recrimination, no political-correctness; this is just the story of a man who, like Simba in Disney's Lion King, finally takes in place in the circle of life.
As an African, I salute Barack Obama and the possibility that he embodies; Dreams of My Father has challenged me, more than any other autobiography that I have read. It deserves my 4 stars.
The book is about a young man's search for both his own identity and for an understanding of community and affiliation: through family, race and politics. His identity is mixed: racially, culturally, and in terms of social class. He looks for his identity through the characters and actions of his white US grandparents and his mother, and his Kenyan father and a whole extended family of Kenyan siblings and relatives. He also looks for it through activities in the Black US community of Chicago. The book is divided into three parts, chronologically covering different periods of his life and each of these communities/identities in turn.
The book appears to us to be about the internal struggles with a particular black identity, but some of us wondered whether articulate working class white kids struggle with the same issues, and maybe many of the struggles Obama describes are simply about growing up. We had an extended discussion about our own search for identity. Some of us felt that, as we got older, we increasingly needed to look for identity through biology, race or culture. We thought in particular about people who had been separated early from parents - that it was often very important to them to look for `roots'. We discussed the fact that as part of white majority in a white majority culture we had choices about our identity, whereas some people have no choice - identity is ascribed to them by others - in particular racial identity. So Obama is understood, by himself and others as a black American, even though he has one white parent and was brought up by his white grandparents and mother.
We thought Obama's insights were very sophisticated, for example his reflexivity and his understanding about identity as being the stories people tell about themselves to themselves and to others, rather than the facts of their lives. He constantly asks: What do we know about ourselves? How do we find positive stories that enable us to act generously? But there were times when we thought the language was over-written and a bit `precious', and we all agreed that the central section was much too long and for people outside the US it was confusing and too detailed. We wondered if it was this section he was referring to in the preface to the 2005 edition where he says if he were writing the book now he would shorten it. But given that this was the first book of a young man it was extremely impressive.
This book is an example we think of Obama's charisma, and we all hope that he will be able to make a difference in both US and world politics
There is a strong focus on the break up of family life, the impact of such and what happens next. This is where it differs from many writings on family structures. Barak uses these experiences to shape the directions he takes, graduating, and then going on to work with underprivileged black communities, culminating in the decision to go to Harvard Law School.
Barak's style of writing is delicate and yet systematic of life and what it can deal. Barak has clearly avoided blaming his background for anything, instead focusing on the potential of opportunity, and preparing himself to be the best person he can be
The central themes for me were;
· Written pre political days, with no hidden agenda
· Read by the author, adds greatly to the emotive elements of the story
· Covers aspects of family life many would shrink from sharing, which is one of the saddest parts of society. We need to talk about the unpleasant things just as we do the "nice" things. This is what makes us strong and resilient
So, if like me you spend too much time in your car this is a great opportunity to make it quality time with a difference.
'Dreams From My Father' drew me straight to the point and its beautiful and honest style kept me reading with increasing wonder and appreciation as I learned of Obama's remarkable international family, his own untiring efforts and of those with whom he worked.
A couple of sentences tell of the effects of Obama's attendance at a church service but 'God' is not thrown at one. It's honest but private, and very low key.
His youthful mistakes were not glossed over, only recognised for what they were and grown out of. His evocative and moving word-paintings of the lives, social and fascinatingly local as well as international environmental circumstances of others play a great part in this autobiography, making it all the richer for their wide variety. They show so much of Obama's motives and how these developed.
'Dreams From My Father' has humour and poignancy, as well as painful insights, illustrates the practical workings of an increasingly dedicated man, an 'organiser' whose practical concern for the common and individual good leads him to greater commitment as a Senator.
When I finished the book, I felt refreshed and encouraged, filled with new determination to do my bit and with hope for the future. I had to buy 'The Audacity of Hope' to see more of Obama's ideas and their application. I was far from disappointed by that book either. It was even more inspiring.
I think this book is a must for understanding the new President of the U.S.A. and a very useful tool for understanding race, heritage and ourselves, whatever our colour or creed.
One of the main points of this book seems to be that living through a period of social change takes many casualties. We have seen it with the Native Americans, the Inuit, the Australian Aboriginals and in many other societies, where Western economies and social values have started to eat away at the original culture, leaving that population in tatters -unemployed, displaced and without meaning. I thought he did a beautiful job explaining what this means to a single extended family.
Change is the great constant of life, and this book helps us to see what happens to those on the receiving end of social change through modern Western dominance. The Kenyan experience became a mirror in which to see the American Black experience. I think it is a book extraordinary for its insights, by a then very youthful writer.