March 24, 2009

Review of Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Paperback)From Publishers Weekly

Elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama was offered a book contract, but the intellectual journey he planned to recount became instead this poignant, probing memoir of an unusual life. Born in 1961 to a white American woman and a black Kenyan student, Obama was reared in Hawaii by his mother and her parents, his father having left for further study and a return home to Africa. So Obama's not-unhappy youth is nevertheless a lonely voyage to racial identity, tensions in school, struggling with black literature--with one month-long visit when he was 10 from his commanding father. After college, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago. He slowly found place and purpose among folks of similar hue but different memory, winning enough small victories to commit himself to the work. ... Before going to law school, he finally visited Kenya; with his father dead, he still confronted obligation and loss, and found wellsprings of love and attachment.

From Booklist

Obama argues with himself on almost every page of this lively autobiographical conversation. He gets you to agree with him, and then he brings in a counternarrative that seems just as convincing. Son of a white American mother and of a black Kenyan father whom he never knew, Obama grew up mainly in Hawaii. After college, he worked for three years as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. Then, finally, he went to Kenya, to find the world of his dead father, his "authentic" self. Will the truth set you free, Obama asks? Or will it disappoint? Both, it seems. His search for himself as a black American is rooted in the particulars of his daily life; it also reads like a wry commentary about all of us. He dismisses stereotypes of the "tragic mulatto" and then shows how much we are all caught between messy contradictions and disparate communities. He discovers that Kenya has 400 different tribes, each of them with stereotypes of the others. Obama is candid about racism and poverty and corruption, in Chicago and in Kenya. Yet he does find community and authenticity, not in any romantic cliche, but with "honest, decent men and women who have attainable ambitions and the determination to see them through."
Dreams from My Father

ReceptionIn discussing Dreams from My Father, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has called Obama "a writer in my high esteem" and the book "quite extraordinary." She praised "his ability to reflect on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had, some familiar and some not, and to really meditate on that the way he does, and to set up scenes in narrative structure, dialogue, conversation--all of these things that you don't often see, obviously, in the routine political memoir biography. [...] It's unique. It's his. There are no other ones like that."

The book "may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician," wrote Time columnist Joe Klein. In 2008, The Guardian's Rob Woodard wrote that Dreams from My Father "is easily the most honest, daring, and ambitious volume put out by a major US politician in the last 50 years." Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The New York Times, described it as "the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president."

The audio book edition earned Obama the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
Comment:  Obama mentions Natives several times in Dreams from My Father, including:

Native American, pg. 9
Cherokee, pg. 12
Native Hawaiians pg. 23
Indians, pg. 63
Indians, pg. 90

A few thoughts about the book:

  • Obama is much better versed in black history and politics than you'd guess from his 2008 presidential campaign. He obviously made a conscious decision not to talk about race in any depth.

  • Obama knows a fair amount about Native Hawaiian history, African tribal history, and American Indian history. Even if you exclude black history, he may know more about non-European history than any previous president.

  • Living with his white mother and an Indonesian stepfather, then with his white grandparents, Obama was in a classic "living in two worlds" situation. Native readers undoubtedly will get a lot from his soul-searching, especially in the tumultuous first section.

  • Rob's review

    Some reviewers said they couldn't put Dreams from My Father down. A few said they couldn't finish it. The reality is somewhere in the middle, of course.

    The book is divided into thirds: growing up, organizing in Chicago, and returning to Kenya. The first part, as Obama struggles with his racial identity, is the most compelling. The second and third parts are more prosaic: a litany of who he met, what he saw, how he operated. They're still good reading, but they're definitely not page-turners. When Obama meets his extended family in Kenya, you start wishing for a family tree so you could keep the 10-20 people straight.

    Rob's rating:  8.0 of 10. Check it out if you're interested in understanding Obama and black-white issues in America.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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