Barack Obama was 33 years old when he published his memoir, a fact often noted with the kind of wink that says, “Clearly, the man knew he was destined for greatness.” But that’s not at all how the book reads. Dreams from my Father is written with humor and humility. Graceful, fluent writing abounds, but so do the frankly self-conscious moments of a young writer who knows he’s still got a long way to go towards wisdom.
Dreams from my Father is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and it is, but intimately so. When Obama describes arriving in Indonesia as a little boy, he resists the scholarly urge to set the scene and instead reveals the country as it was revealed to him, from the back seat of a taxi, recalling the “brown and green uninterrupted, villages falling back into forest, the smell of diesel oil and wood smoke.”
It is in Indonesia, a country where almost no one is black or white, that Obama has his first realization of the deep racism of America when he comes across an article in Life magazine about black people who have tried to dye their skin white.
Back in Hawaii, an adolescent at the fancy Punahou prep school, Obama quickly understands that in America, he is and will always be black. Through his high school and college years, he self-consciously plays the part he knows everyone in his life expects him to play, excelling as the young black man making it in the world of white privilege. But he begins to feel more and more unsatisfied with his hothouse identity. And so he makes what was, in the Greed-is-Good Eighties and in his Ivy League universe, an utterly counter-cultural move: to the far south side of Chicago.
When I read the book in the first weeks of Obama’s presidency, it was the Chicago chapters that moved me most of all. I lived in Chicago for two years, reporting crime stories and other local news all over the city, so I can picture the sagging bungalows and public housing apartments that were his turf. When he talks about how he changed during those years, he calls it “the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way—wealth, security, fame—but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.” In a line like that, I hear the future president. I also hear how good it feels, when you’re young, to let go of the cynicism you feel you have to cultivate just in case you never get to do anything truly meaningful.
Dreams from my Father is a young man’s story of yearning for just that, meaning: for the why of his namesake father who left and then died; for the place in America that would call out to him: You belong here. The book is a claiming, a stitching together of all the threads of his complicated identity: African, white American and the African-American that he became.
I can’t help but believe that the act of writing Dreams from my Father helped prepare Obama to be president, because it enabled him to plunge ahead into his most ambitious years with a full understanding of where he had come from and why he was who he was. Writing helped him to make sense of his experiences.
I’m glad I waited to read Dreams from my Father, which was written in 1995. It was such a pleasure to read it after the election. But now’s a good time, too: to take a break from polls, pundits and debates and sit down with the story of how Obama became Obama.
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