It felt a little odd to be reading this book some twenty-five years after its initial publication. Barack Obama wrote Dreams From My Father after having been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and it was republished in 2004 after he won the Democratic nomination for a seat as the U.S. senator for Illinois along with a new, up-to-date introduction. In that even this recent addition to it is now fifteen years old, I found this book fascinating as an insight into recent history from the perspective of the man who would become president just four years later.
Obama writes well, and carefully. This is a book which remains self-aware throughout, only very occasionally becoming self-conscious. There are some expressions and phrases which come across, as he notes in his updated introduction, as “indulgent or overly practiced”, however on the whole I found the writing intelligent and emotive. Additionally, while Obama has the tendency to spend a little longer than totally necessary on some of his observations or trains of thought, I had no problems with the overall pacing of the book.
With memoir, it can be easy I think for authors to get caught up in relaying events and context which feel more necessary to them than they do to a reader. I thought Dreams From My Father managed to avoid that pitfall, with life events moving at a steady clip, at least up until the final section which slows down by necessity. I enjoyed the way the chapters were typically structured; dropping us into the middle of a moment or a feeling, and then zooming out to provide the context around or leading up to that. I feel like that kept the sense of momentum up throughout.
The book is split into three parts: Origins, Chicago and Kenya. The three are given almost equal numbers of pages, however the first two felt considerably busier with stories and events than the third. Origins largely describes Obama’s childhood, Chicago his career as a community organiser and Kenya his journey to his father’s homeland to connect with his family there and reconcile the different sides of his identity.
The threads of identity and self-knowledge run throughout the first two sections as well, of course. Obama frequently describes his difficultly finding a space that felt it could contain the disparate elements of his heritage, finding community where he could belong, without qualification or justification. This is the beating heart of the story, and I thought it was approached with an openness and honest curiosity that was incredibly disarming.
There is a similarly open and even-handed approach to race relations in the book. Obama talks about attitudes of white people towards black people, and black people towards each other, with a range of different emotions. He moves through confusion, wry humour, frustration and anger; not linearly, but back and forth depending on the situations. At times there’s an element of helplessness, of questioning whether people will ever learn to look past superficial differences, but Obama’s writing is also characterised by generosity and an underlying hope. He doesn’t make any sweeping pronouncements, but there is a quiet sense that people are mostly good. That people want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and that that desire might be able to override some of their less positive impulses.
All of that said, it feels important to note that this isn’t a book about racism, just as it isn’t a book about community organising in deprived areas, or a book about Kenya. This is a book about family, where it starts, where you run up against the limits of it, and what it means to be from somewhere. It’s a heartfelt and deeply personal account of trying to understand an absent parent, and of trying to find a place to belong, written with wit and sensitivity.
This is non-fiction that reads with the smoothness of a novel, and I’d highly recommend it, particularly if you have an interest in the links between identity, family and the tricky art of belonging.