Dreams From My Father
President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father examines significant aspects of feministic influence throughout the book. One of the most influential characters in Barry’s life is his mother. We first see an influence of Obama’s mother in the preface. Obama mentions how differently he would have written the book, if he had known his mother wouldn’t survive her illness. He would have written it with a drastic difference in the way his mother is portrayed throughout the memoir.
Ann Dunham, a freethinking and fearless white woman from Kansas, who married a black man from Kenya, paves the way for young Barry to become a successful student and leader. Barely two years into the marriage, she was left to raise Barry alone; yet she returned to college, studied for an anthropology degree and remarried, to an Indonesian student whom she followed to Jakarta with her son. Nonetheless, she fretted that Indonesian schools were inadequate and dragged her son from bed at 4am to teach him English for three hours before school. Barry recalls her saying, “If you want to grow into a human being, you’re going to need some values” (49). As Barry grew up, his mother spent a lot of her time teaching him the virtues and ways to embrace the blackness within him. He says, “Her message was to embrace black people generally. She would come home with books about the civil rights movement…” (51). We see here that Obama became aware of how people would treat him differently once he moved back to America. He realizes after that his mother was only trying to warn him about the discrimination he would face; essentially, his mother teaches him what it is like to be different and to embrace it. Another important feminine influence that molded some of the ways of his thinking was his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, known as Toot.
She raised him in his teenage years and was the backbone of the family. She struggled through sexism to become the first woman vice-president at her local bank and out-earned her husband in particular situations. Obama realizes that his grandmother’s expectations for herself were never really anticipated. At first, he questions how anyone could believe that they cannot succeed, but he comes to an understanding about his grandmother’s situation at a very young age, which helps him understand American culture as he moves on to college in Los Angeles. Barry realizes that all his grandmother wanted was fulfilling the needs of her grandchildren and that is what Barry believed kept her going all those years. She would say, “So long as you kids do well, that’s all that matters” (57).
When Barry moves to Los Angeles for school, he meets several women who have a significant influence on his life. First there is Joyce, who was, according to Barry, a “good-looking woman” with green eyes and honey skin. However, in a conversation where Barry asks Joyce whether or not she will be attending a Black Students’ Association Meeting, she replies with an answer that Barry was not expecting. Joyce replies, “Why should I have to choose between them? It’s not white people who are making me choose. Maybe it used to be that way, but now they’re willing to treat me like a person. No- it’s black people making me choose. They’re the ones telling me that I can’t be who I am…” (99). Joyce is a multiracial woman from African, French and Native American decent, and Barry is surprised when she answers the way she does.
He realizes that all Joyce was doing was blaming the other people. He began asking himself questions such as, “Why is it that the white people get to be treated like individuals? And why are we the half-breeds and the college-degreed grouped into a different category?” In a way, Barry feels as if Joyce is pathetic and he wonders why anyone would “downplay” their black race. From this interaction with Joyce, Barry realizes that he is not much different from Joyce; maybe he is also confused about his race. There is also Regina, who is much of the reason Barry leaves to continue his education in Manhattan. Regina is another one of Barry’s classmates and a powerful woman who is proud to be black. As a contrast to Joyce, Regina is responsible for pulling the “blackness” out of Barack. Regina begins to slowly make Barry realize how he should embrace his color and everything about it. There were several incidents where Regina forces him to think about his race. For example, when Regina asks why Barry never uses his real name or when they both begin to talk about their childhood. Another example is when she asks Barry his reasons for reading a “racist” book in the coffee shop. After having all these conversations with Regina, Barry makes a comment, “Strange how a single conversation can change you” (105). He realizes that he needs to embrace his culture and be certain of his color and who he is.
Another feminine influence is seen when Auma, Barry’s sister, comes to visit from Kenya. This is when Barry begins to really experience his father; Auma brings him the story of the Old Man. She is a strong and driven character and someone that Barry needed at this point in his life. She was a positive impact on Barry and leaves him with more questions, “I still wonder sometimes how that first contact with Auma altered my life…Not so much the contact itself…coming at a time when the idea of becoming an organizer was still just that, an idea in my head, a vague tug at my heart” (138). We also see a lot of Auma when Barry visits Kenya.
She is the one who takes Barry to see his relatives and houses him during his stay. Before traveling to Kenya, Barry meets several people who all have a specific impact on Barry at some point during his job as a community organizer in Chicago. Mona, Angela and Shirley are the first of the women who Barry meets when coming to his first community event. There is also Sadie, who he works with to get rid of the asbestos in the residential units of Altgeld Gardens. After the fallout involving Sadie and the asbestos meeting, Barry hears from another woman Bernadette that gets him thinking again, “Ain’t nothing gonna change. Mr. Obama. We just gonna concentrate on saving our money so we can move outta here as fast as we can” (248). As he works with these different women and hears their stories of the hardships that they are forced to face, it makes him realize that the women of the area only need some faith and someone to push them to do better.
When Barry visits Kenya, he meets several of his relatives, many of them being the women of his father’s family. Of the several aunts and relatives he meets while in Kenya, Granny is the one who tells him the story of his grandfather and father, Ohyango and Barack Sr.. While Granny is telling the story, Auma interrupts to complain about how the women are always doing all the work in the family. Auma and Granny begin to have a conversation regarding the women customs of Kenya. This begins to get Barry thinking, “I leaned back on the mat and thought about what Granny said. There was a certain wisdom there, I supposed; she was speaking of a different time, as I too was listening to the story of our grandfather’s youth…” (406). Barry realizes that the culture in Kenya is very patriarchal yet the women of his family seem to succeed more then the men. Barack realizes that he will always have questions whether it is about his father or himself; it is just a matter of accepting them and moving forward.