[This review was published in the Summer 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 271-272.]


Book Review 


Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Barack Obama

Three Rivers Press, 1995, 2004 


            This is a book of significant current interest.  Rarely has a prominent political figure painted so complete a picture of his internal mental landscape as Obama has done in Dreams from My Father.   Since it was written, he has experienced a meteoric rise in American politics.  That in itself would make his worldview something that readers will be anxious to know.  This is reinforced by the fact that the book is in no sense out of date as an autobiographical revelation.  After he won the Democratic senatorial primary in 2004, the year of his election to the United States Senate, he wrote a “Preface to the 2004 Edition” in which he said that “I cannot honestly say that the voice in this book is not mine—that I would tell the story much differently today than I did ten years ago….”

            But while this gives his introspective autobiography continuing relevance, it also presents the reader with a stark contradiction.  For this latest printing, Obama has added a few pages from his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope.  The last sentence in that addition reads: “We will need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break.”  That sentence summarizes well the tone of that second book, which is an appeal to all Americans, no matter what their race.  Anyone fresh from reading Dreams from My Father cannot help but discern, however, the sharp about-face this represents.  

            That first book, which we are reviewing here, affirms the pride he feels precisely in his blackness and chronicles in detail what he sees as the essential viciousness of white America.  The first is illustrated by his statement that “it was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.”  The second is found, as the other is, throughout the book, but is encapsulated when he quotes a friend who speaks of “our rage at the white world.”  Obama says that when whites see “evidence of black pathology,” it would be appropriate for them to see that pathology as “a mirror into their own souls.”

            If, as he said in 2004, he would leave that book unchanged, and if he says nothing to indicate his own awareness of the contradiction between it and what he is now saying, readers must necessarily ponder whether he is being honest when he now presents a face of moderation to the world.   It will not be our function here to resolve that question.  This review will undertake, rather, to present the book in both its favorable and its frightening aspects, and to let the reader decide.

            Stylistically, the book is beautifully written, and thus evokes the tradition of W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land.  The flowing, down-to-earth eloquence makes it a pleasure to read.  Obama is a master orator on paper just as he is on the stump.  His writing is so polished that this reviewer, who has spent a half century writing and editing, is prompted to wonder how much, if any, contribution Obama’s editors made to the work.  If it was minimal, Obama’s literary skill is astonishing.  We now know that Ted Sorensen produced much of John F. Kennedy’s eloquence for him.  We would need more information about the internal processes involved in producing this and Obama’s later book to know the true extent of Obama’s own literary mastery.     

            We are particularly struck by two literary techniques, one highly unusual and the other more common.  The latter of these is his extensive use of quotation from friends and acquaintances in expressing, as he himself does so often, a black’s alienation toward life in a predominantly white society.  The other—which this reviewer has not seen used before—is to create an action narrative out of pure introspection.  Long passages of seeming action start with his imagining what people might be doing or thinking.  “I imagined my father sitting at his desk in Nairobi,” or “Another year would pass before I would meet him [his father] one night, in a cold cell, in a chamber of my dreams.  I dreamed I was….”  More than anything else, Dreams from My Father is a book of mental imagery, told as a chronological narrative.   

            As the title suggests, Obama’s quest to affirm his African identity centers on his having idealized his father.  What his father meant to him appears when he speaks of “the father of my dreams, the man of my mother’s stories, full of high-blown ideals….”  This helped create for him an idealized picture of Africa: “…for me… Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land, full of ancient traditions and sweeping vistas, noble struggles and talking drums.”  When he took a month-long trip to visit his father’s family in Kenya (after his father was dead), his description was that “a steady procession of black faces passed before your eyes… beautiful faces that made me understand the transformation that Asante and other black Americans claimed to have undergone after their first visit to Africa.”  He speaks with exaltation when he contrasts it with life in America: “You could experience the freedom that comes from not being watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it’s supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway… Here the world was black, and so you were just you….”

            This picture of his father and of Africa remains an inspiration for him throughout the book despite his mention of a number of untoward facts that might well have shattered that perception for him.  His long search for “Third World solidarity” and for an affirmed blackness is illustrated when he speaks of “my black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa,” and tells how his (white) mother’s message to him “came to embrace black people generally.  She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King.”  It was his mother who prompted him in his racial consciousness: “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to carry.”

            The actual facts that he recites about his father and Kenyan family, however, give a mixed picture.  The father’s family are Kenyans of the Luo tribe, and Obama’s grandfather, Onyango, had been a prominent farmer and a medicine man.  When Obama’s grandmother recounted that at one time the grandfather had worked preparing food and organizing households for whites, Obama says it caused “ugly words to flash across my mind.  Uncle Tom.  Collaborator.  House nigger.”  (In saying this, Obama is using language that only black writers are permitted to use in the United States today.  Obama’s description perhaps tells us more about his own state of mind than about his grandfather.)

            As for the father, two white teachers in Kenya arranged for his admission to the University of Hawaii, where he was given a scholarship.  It is consistent with his general disregard for family obligation that he thereupon “gathered up his pregnant wife and son and dropped them off with” his mother in Kenya.  In college in Hawaii, he studied econometrics and after just three years was graduated at the top of his class, a member of Phi Beta Kappa.  In a Russian language course, he met Obama’s mother.  They were married (despite the father’s already having the wife and son in Kenya) and had a son of their own, the Barack Obama we know . (It isn’t clear whether Obama’s mother knew of the existing marriage.)  Another scholarship sent the father to Harvard for his Ph.D.  (Obama never mentions the source of the money for this and other scholarships his father and he received, and there is no expression of appreciation to those benefactors, whoever they were.)  Leaving for Harvard caused a separation, and after school there the father “returned to Africa to fulfill his promise to the continent.”  Obama was two years old when his father and mother separated.  He never saw his father again, except for a one-month visit his father made to him in Hawaii.

            Obama’s parents divorced for a variety of reasons: the separation, an angry letter written by Obama’s Kenyan grandfather to his white grandfather saying “he didn’t want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman,” and the absence of proof that Obama’s father had ever divorced his wife in Kenya.  Obama’s mother then married again, this time to what would be Obama’s Indonesian stepfather.  Indefatigable, his father tried to get his mother to leave her Indonesian husband to live with him in Kenya, but she turned him down despite her continuing affection for him.  He must have been a man of great sexual attractiveness, because he took another American woman back to Kenya with him and continued having children by her and more than one African woman, including “a young woman he was living with.” So far as is known, Obama has had five brothers and one sister in Kenya.   After the father’s one-month visit, sporadic letters were exchanged between him and Obama for a while, but they eventually stopped.

            In his career, the father experienced the vicissitudes of tribal politics, having a government job and then losing it during the Kenyatta regime before regaining government employment later.  He is said to have been a terrible driver.  A heavy drinker, he killed a white farmer while driving under the influence; and eventually he himself was killed in a car accident in Nairobi.

            The other side of Obama’s family doesn’t receive nearly so much attention in Dreams from My Father, but should be mentioned here because, as we have seen, his mother and her family had considerable influence on him.  His Kansas grandfather had served in Patton’s army in France and had then attended the University of California at Berkeley.  Given the leftward nature of that institution, it is reasonable to infer that it was there that he came “to consider himself as something of a freethinker—a bohemian, even.”  It is worth recounting, at the same time, the details of Obama’s education. He lived with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia for four years as a young boy, attending a Muslim school for two years and a Christian school for the other two.   It was during that time that Obama’s half-sister, Maya, was born.  His stepfather was Muslim, and readers will be interested in Obama’s description of his somewhat off-beat Islamic orientation: “Like many Indonesians, Lolo [the stepfather] followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths.”

            After Obama’s mother separated from the stepfather and returned to Hawaii, she got her masters in anthropology and, being gone on anthropological work much of the time, left it mainly to Obama’s Kansas grandparents to raise him (in Hawaii, to which they had moved).  Somehow, even though the grandparents weren’t wealthy, Obama was sent to a “prestigious prep school,” the Penahou Academy in Hawaii, for seven years.  Oddly, given that the book is an introspective autobiography, Obama tells us almost nothing about those years of education, the classes, the type of education given there, the teachers or the fellow students (just as he later says virtually nothing about his years at Harvard Law School). 

            He says that during his last two years at the Academy he was deeply alienated, smoking pot and “drinking booze.”  Following high school, Obama enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and then transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where “for the first time in years, I applied myself to my studies.”  As an undergraduate, he immersed himself in the campus Left: “To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully.  The more politically active black students.  The foreign students.  The Chicanos.  The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets… At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy… We were alienated.”  While a student in New York City, he attended “socialist conferences at Cooper Union” and “African cultural fairs that took place in Harlem or Brooklyn.”

            The book gives considerable detail about his work as a “community organizer” in Chicago after his graduation from college, and about having gone to work for a consulting firm for multinational corporations, where he was promoted to the position of financial writer.   It helps understand his becoming a lawyer that in the course of this work, he came to believe that “power… in America… had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things.”  He says that when he decided to go to Harvard Law School, it was because “I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change… I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail….”  In law school, he was chosen the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude.

            Upon becoming a lawyer, Obama conducted a civil rights law practice and taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago.  He won a seat in the Illinois State Senate in 1996, where he served eight years; ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000; and was elected U.S. Senator from Illinois in 2004.  He first made his name on the national stage when at Sen. John Kerry’s request he gave a much-acclaimed keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  He took his seat in the Senate on January 4, 2005.  He and his wife Michelle have two daughters.

            Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope was published in 2006.  The name comes from the title of a sermon by Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, at the Trinity United Church of Christ shortly before Obama left for Harvard Law School.  In Dreams from My Father, Obama tells at length of that sermon, which inspired Obama to name his later book after it.  “People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters.”  Wright described the world as one “where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere.”  And yet even in such a situation of despair, Wright had the “audacity” to voice a message of hope, of “race pride and anger.”

            Recently, there has been some effort to deny the anti-white nature of this sermon that Obama considers so inspiring.  In an op-ed column that appeared in newspapers on February 28, 2008, black columnist Clarence Page wrote that “hardly a day goes by without my receiving some e-mailed lie…, some… bogus notion intended to smear Obama or his United Church of Christ minister in Chicago as somehow… anti-white…  If you can’t nail your opponent with the truth, send rumors….”  Readers will do well to compare this denial with the content of the sermon as reported so exultantly by Obama on pages 291-5 of Dreams from My Father.

            All thoughtful readers are well advised to spend some time with this book.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Dwight D. Murphey