An analysis of obama’s “dreams from my father”
Why I chose this book
The book Dreams from my Father: A story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama, currently the US president, is a must read to me. This book that was published by the Three River Press in 2004 had been hyped a lot. I guess the hype was mostly informed by the uniqueness of the writer at the time of its publication. Obama was then at the threshold of becoming one of the few privileged African Americans to have made it to Congress. Moreover, Obama was a splendid orator whose speeches left many wide-mouthed and some grappling with their handkerchiefs. These and many other factors made Obama a household name-and so were any thing of his. So the book, just as its author, became very popular. It became so popular that I was compelled to purchase my own copy that very year. And I have to confess that reading that personal reflection was in the least disappointing.
I have therefore chosen this book both for its hype and its objective. For the book is not only interesting but also enlightening.
The significance of this journal’s title is hardly inferential. It is as clear as it can be read. The title, to those who find racial issue emotive one in our society, impressed me a lot. But this was barely a conventional examination of race relations in the US. Here was a man, born of a Kenyan immigrant patriarch and a Kansas Harvard graduate, telling his story; this was neither about a purely African American man nor a cross breed of an “African American” and a “European”. It was about the integration of an “African” and a “European.” So Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance signified, at least to me, a new approach to examining racial relations in America.
To some extend, therefore, the title encouraged me to read the book due to apparent racial denotations. But I have to say that the bigger-than –life picture of Obama that had been erected in the public encouraged me more to read the book. Most people that knew Obama then had the image of his African father tucked somewhere in their minds. As such, I was also eager to know what dreams this African father of his had. Were they sweet heavenly dreams or nightmarish ones? What did Obama have to say about race given his peculiar racial position? And what exactly did he want to inherit? Or what did he mean by inheritance? I read this book beyond the cover page to answer these questions.
The main theme
This journal is basically about race relations in the US. That issue which he tackles from the preface page when he cites his having been the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review as a major impetus to jumpstarting the process of writing this book (Obama preface). But other topics are also highlighted in this book. Topics such as identity and identity crisis among racial cross-breeds like the authors; unemployment among certain classes, gender and races; the nature of American politics and how it is riddled with hypocrisy and mudslinging; corruption in Africa and many others. These topics are intermittently covered in the pages of this book as well. But it is apparent that the topic of race and inheritance are given the lion share in terms of coverage in the Dreams from my Father.
Race has been a contentious issue in the United States of America for quite a long period of time. And the author throughout the book acknowledges this fact. But Obama does not pretend to have the most suitable solution to this deeply rooted problem. He realizes that there is a kind of suspicion that needs to be gotten rid of in the first place if we are to find a viable platform on which to strike a lasting solution to this problem; that today the different races recognize the need to play, eat, drink, school, work, and live together but for this suspicion.
Why did he write this book?
Obama must have been driven by a more impersonal concern to write this book. Although the first impression one gets is one of someone grappling with his own identity. Well, Obama really strives to locate himself in the blurring racial paradigm he finds himself in. But this is not his headache alone. There are more Americans out there that find themselves in this dilemma. And the dilemma need not be necessarily a racial one: The dilemma might be academic, social, economic or any other. Whatever the dilemma these people would also like to find their footing right. Moreover, Obama does not find any thing wrong with his having been a product of racial integration, at least in the end. He is proud of it. Proud of his funny name. Proud of his funny father. And proud of his funny skin. Obama would like us to appreciate ourselves the way we are. There is nothing wrong with being black, white, mulatto or Hispanic. This seems like Obama’s objective.
The style used
Obama employs a combination of styles to hit the message home. He variably sounds informal, formal, philosophical, and socio-political. Though a learned friend, he does not burden the reader with a lot of technical legalese. In fact he elected not to proceed with shaping the book along the “the limits of civil rights litigation in bringing about racial equality” (Obama xiii) and instead chose a more informal approach that would not really be pinned down to any profession. He utilizes an informal approach for most part of the book: More so when he is talking about those in the lower rungs of the economic ladder. At times he sounds really metaphysical as he tries to demystify an issue, for instance when he tries to understand the reason(s) that might have compelled a certain lady-friend of his to change her eye color (Obama 135). And he takes on a socio-political angle whenever he talks of, for instance African-American housing in Chicago (Obama 133-205).
Obama is not as bitter about the hard experience the blacks have gone through as most of other African-American writers before him. Indeed, he notes that at one point when agonized with his bizarre racial position to a near breaking point he locked himself in a room with books of eminent African-American scholars as Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, and Dubois but all he could get from those pages was “the same anguish, the same doubt; a self contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect” (Obama 86). He unreservedly accepts the historical happenings. And not only that, he also tries to fit in the American society just as he is. Yes, the author gives instances when there was outright racial prejudice or discrimination like when his mother, as a young girl, would be spotted with a black girl and the whole children would begin chorusing:
These racial chants would reach a climax when the next day his grandfather, on a mission to find out more about the problem at the principal’s office, would be told by almost all the adults called in: “ ‘You best talk to your daughter, Mr. Dunham. White girls don’t play with coloreds in this town’” (Obama 20-21). Or when, his grand mother Gramps told him of an experience he had while with Obama’s father. They were in a pub and one man asked what the nigger was doing there; or when his friend Ray would get into a racial outbursts and name callings (Obama 74-76). All this times Obama was never indignant nor approval. He put on a tone of detachment; he always tried to cut a conciliatory outlook.
Obama takes on this conciliatory tone partly because of his intricate status, but more because of his objective in writing this book. Obama is in a difficult position to be joined up with the African Americans as they burn with anger and frustrations against the white; or with the white as they demean the human status of African-Americans-in fact he says that he that he “ceased to advertise [his] mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites” (Obama xv). Instead he seemed to borrow a lot of his father’s confidence amidst all these confusions and tribulations (Obama 8).
The author’s Objective
But Obama is not frustrated with his mulatto state because to him the tragedy is not his, or in other words it is not his alone, “it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife’s six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates” (Obama xv). Obama race is a sort of unification symbol and thus, though at first he does drug in a bid to escape his intricate racial background, his rootless past, he ultimately consoles himself in being from both worlds.
There is no where the author vividly portrays the level of confidence his father wielded as in when he came back to visit them from Kenya and gave a talk to his son’s classmates. The author was at first apprehensive of what would happen, may be his African father would mess around, he thought. But that was never to be. Obama says that his father gave a brilliant speech that in the end he received a few pats for having such a wonderful father (Obama 70). Indeed by the time he finished “Miss Hefty [the author’s class teacher then] was absolutely beaming with pride” (Obama 70). Such an event really tells of his father’s power to co-exist among divergent peoples with confidence. He could change even the racial perception of small kids; that is what the author seemed to be saying.
But there is an event that Obama tells in which he deviates completely from his father vital lesson of confidence and tolerance. When he was with his college friend Ray and he refused to offer his hand to a white boy named Kurt (Obama 83). According to Obama then, white folks were just making fun of them (Obama 83): That they would do things, or say words, that black did just to make fun of them (Obama 83). This notion, the author found out later on was naïve and simplistic. One had to first of all appreciate the state of things and then try to handle them gradually (Obama 85), not just to retaliate with exasperation.
It is not very clear how the author reaches resolution to this problem. But his visit to his father’s land is at least illustrative. In Kenya Obama realized all of a sudden that people never found his name to be funny; that they pronounced it well. He says:
I found myself trying to prolong the conversation, encouraged less by Miss Omoro’s beauty-she had mentioned a fiancé-than by the fact that she had recognized my name. That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A. or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, “Oh, you are so and so’s son” (Obama 305).
He finally started feeling like he was in a familiar environment; that he had found his lost part. He had finally come to terms with his identity and had regained the confidence his father had. When he went back, he went with an identity. He was an American born of an Kenyan father and a Hawaian mother. The writer had really reached his resolution.
The moment when this resolution becomes even more vivid is when the author meets his wife Michelle-who is a southerner-and marries her in a colorful ceremony attended by a host of his family members (Obama 438). Even more impressing and pertinent to Obama’s objective is the fact that he was able to take his wife to his other family members in Kenya (Obama 438). That event is colorful and really revealing as far as Obama’s objective is concerned. It gives him an identity; an identity that he now shares with someone else-someone he adores more.
Thanks to his wife, Obama’s says he has “learned to be more patient these past few years, with others as well as myself…it is one of the several improvements in character I attribute to my wife, Michelle” (Obama 439). He has learned to be tolerant and to appreciate diversity, thanks to his wife Michelle.
I think that the one of the most valuable lesson I have drawn from reading Dreams from my father is being confident. Just be yourself. Whether you are black, white, Hispanic, Indian; poor, rich; short, tall, just be yourself. Obama’s pride in being a cross-breed paid off. He is currently the president of the United States of America.
Obama is extremely inquisitive and contemplative on the issue of his identity. At first he finds himself troubled by his mullatto race. He says: “Miscegenation. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos” (Obama 11). Then, in 1967, miscegenation was still an ugly thing to do, it was a felony. Yet his parents had brought him to such an intricate state.
This state of affairs continues even after his parents divorce. And then he begins to inquire about his identity. He already knew, by virtue of having lived with them, more about his mother’s side. Now he wanted to know about his father’s side.
He would interrogate his mother. And his mother would offer him bits and pieces about his father’s personality. These would be supplemented with his grandfather’s. The latter seemed to have been close with the author’s father more. He would tell him of how his father was such a confident man: A man who would stand up and defend his rights in a predominantly pub; a man who would break into a dance with passion and elegance.
These spates of confidence from his father, and the fact that he was highly knowledgeable gave Obama some inspiration. He would strive to be like his father. He would be confident in his skin, and never shy away from expressing himself. But first he had to reconcile with his father’s roots. That is when he resolved to visit his father’s homeland in Kenya where he completely found his identity. He was both white and black-and he was proud of it.
A comparison between ‘Dreams from my Father’ and ‘The Invisible Man’
The book Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison is another book that tackles the same theme of race relations in the US but on a different level. It is on a more radical level. Ellison was not keen on striking a conciliatory note. His objective was to depict the violence and the brutality African-Americans went through in the 1940s and 50s. It is more concentrated on the violence and profanity the African-Americans have had to endure (Ellison 27,535). It was also fictional, unlike Obama’s which was non-fictional. Unlike Obama who was born of an African father and a white mother, the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s book was purely of African descent.
Critiques of the book
According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Obama portrays himself in the book, Dreams from my Father as “third cultured kid” (Ignatius 1). A third culture kid like Obama always “learn how to make their way in unfamiliar surroundings…They adapt, they find niches, they take risks, they fail and pick themselves up again. . . . Their camouflaged exteriors and understated ways of presenting themselves hide their rich inner lives”(Ignatius 1).
That is exactly what the book is about. Obama learns from his father to adapt even in intolerant environments: One who “searched for an identity as a civil rights activist and organizer” (Ignatius1).
And in an interview Obama did with Bill Thompson of the Eye On Books Obama noted that “his black African father and his white American mother came together during the civil rights movements-although they weren’t active…they were swept up in the spirit of integrationist America and the dream of Dr. King, and the optimism and idealism of the Kennedys and ended up separating shortly thereafter” (qtd. in Thompson 2). Such assertions gave me more insight in understanding this book.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1980.
Ignatius,David. “The Obama Dreams.” The Washington Post.17 Jan 2008. Online version>accessed on May 19, 2010.
Obama, Barack. Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
Thompson, Bill. “Barack Obama ‘Dreams From My Father.’” (online) Eye On Books:1995>accessed on May 19, 2010.
Obama used certain styles that made reading the book quite interesting. Throughout the book he employs narrative technique that is lively and captivating. At the start of book his description of his maternal grandmother and grand father are quite revealing (13-17). His descriptive technique can also be seen throughout the book.
At times you get the feeling like the writer seems to slant a lot on one side of his racial background at the expense of the other. This does not sound good for a person who is of mixed blood and who wish his audience to co-exist well despite their racial differences. The very fact that he chose his father’s dreams rather than his mother’s is in itself troubling. Couldn’t have had anything from his mother? These are some of the slurs in this book. Otherwise the book is a good read and I encourage most people to read it.