Dreams from My Father: My Attempts to Know Obama


I just finished reading Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance over the weekend. Like many I'm intrigued with Barack Obama and would like to understand him better. I feel like reading the book certainly helped in that quest, but I can't say that it made more--or less--inclined to vote for him.

First, ignoring politics, this is a great book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, sometimes forgetting that what I was reading was autobiography because the story was so good it felt like a novel. Here's a sample from the book (pg 327), one of many I flagged:

What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? 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 arrive 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 negotiate love, commitments freely chosen. An then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances; the cheerful gray-haired lady who rag up my groceries back in Chicago. Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to face or a name but were actually commitments I'd made to myself.

This is the story of a man of mixed parentage finding himself and where he belongs. The book ends recounting experiences that Obama had visiting his family in Africa--a large extended group that seem, for the most part, to have welcomed him and given him a sense of who he was for maybe the first time.

Now to the political. Obama speaks frequently of an America that transcends race. I think that is much of his appeal--for voters of all races. And yet, if you read the book looking for evidence that he's transcended race himself, you'll find very little. The book is very much about race and his search for his own identity in America in the 70's and 80's.

That's not bad--it's who he was. I'm simply saying that Obama's story is not one of a child of a white woman and black man bringing the divided races together. Sometimes it feels like the opposite as he recounts his experiences.

There's a certain element of redemption in the book. If you look at Obama's trajectory when he was in high school, you wouldn't have picked him to go to Harvard Law and edit the Law Review there--let alone be President of the United States. And yet his story is familiar to anyone who has seen good kids lose their way and then return to the values they learned as children later in life.

And that, I think, is a nice allegory for the hold Barack Obama has over America: he promises redemption for America's past. The ambiguous "hope" and "change" promised by Obama is interpreted by many that we can get past the discomfort of race in American discourse and move on to a different, better place.

And yet, redemption isn't the entirety of Obama's appeal. I find myself drawn to his message not because of his race, but because of his age. I think a McCain-Obama race could shape up to be as much about generational differences as party differences. Many younger voters are going to resonate with Obama's world view and references because he's closer to their age. McCain just isn't that hip.

In the end, I decided that while I enjoyed the book immensely nd would certainly recommend it, it didn't tell me all I wanted to know about Barack Obama. I've picked up Audacity of Hope and will read it as soon as I finish No Country for Old Men (I can't put that one down).

P.S. Small world: I went to Google to find a picture of Obama for this post and found this entry from Eve Maler who went to high school with Barack--or Barry as he was known then in Hawaii. Complete with high school year book page. Check it out!