Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama. Three Rivers Press, 1995, 2004.
Since this book was first published, Barack Obama has risen rapidly to the top of American politics. It is remarkable that this book is still prominently displayed in bookstores and on his Web site, despite what it reveals about Obama's internal mental landscape. His supporters no doubt count on the average American's not reading it (a hope that in all probability is accurate, even though unfortunate). And, as we will see, there is a certain whitewashing occurring in the media about the book's content.
Dreams from My Father, as an introspective autobiography, is of continuing relevance. It wasn't long ago that he wrote his "Preface to the 2004 Edition" in which he remained foursquare behind the book: "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."
This presents thoughtful readers with a sharp contradiction. The 2004 edition has added several pages from Obama's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. The final words there strike an amazingly different tone than the one expressed in Dreams from My Father. Without flinching, he says:
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.
This summarizes the tone of the second (and much more politically attuned) book, which is an appeal to all Americans, no matter what their race. It is bound to surprise anyone who has just read Dreams from My Father, which is, from beginning to end, a paean to Afrocentricity and anti-white animus.
The first book takes its place in a long tradition of eloquent black literature. Obama yearns for, and exalts in, racial pride as a black man; at the same time, he spells out the grievances he and other blacks (whom he quotes at length) feel toward white America. The pride is seen in 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.
Both the pride and the message of white viciousness run through the length of the book. An example of the latter comes when he quotes from a friend who tells of "our rage at the white world." Obama opines 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."
The book is beautifully written in 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 easy, pleasurable reading. Obama is a master orator on paper just as he is when campaigning. His writing is so polished that this reviewer, who has spent more than half a century writing and editing, is forced to wonder how much, if any, contribution Obama's editors made to the work. If it was minimal, Obama's literary skill is astonishing. It would be worthwhile for someone to investigate whether there is not, indeed, one or more editors and think tank people doing for Obama what Ted Sorensen did for John F. Kennedy.
Two literary techniques are particularly striking. The more common of the two comes in Obama's extensive use of quotations from other blacks who express, in agreement with his own perspective, a black's discomfiture about living in a predominantly white society. The other is something rarely seen: it is to create an action narrative not out of real events but out of pure introspection. As a reader makes his way through a long passage of seeming action, it is easy to forget that it started with Obama's 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 . . .
Somewhat seductively, Dreams from My Father presents a surface of chronological narrative, while what is actually being presented is often mental imagery.
Obama's search for his African identity centers, as the book's title suggests, around his having idealized his father (largely with the prompting of his white mother). Thus, he speaks of "the father of my dreams, the man of my mother's stories, full of highblown ideals . . ." This romanticizing of his father led, too, to 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.
At one point, he traveled to meet his father's family in Kenya, and his visit prompted the following description:
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.
His sense of personal liberation shines through exaltingly when he contrasts life in Kenya with that 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.
His father and Africa continue to inspire him throughout the book even though he relates information at odds with such a perception. He continues to seek "Third World solidarity" and to affirm blackness, speaking of "my black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa." He tells how his mother's words 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.
Though white herself, she implored him to relish his blackness:
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.
A mixed picture is conveyed, however, by the actual facts that he recites about his father and Kenyan family. The father belongs to the Luo tribe, in which Obama's grandfather, Onyango, had been a prominent farmer and a medicine man. When Obama's grandmother told Obama that his Kenyan grandfather had once worked preparing food and organizing households for whites, Obama tells us (in what is really a revelation about himself) that it caused "ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger." (Here, Obama feels comfortable writing within the milieu of black literature, in which such language is permitted.)
Coming down a generation, we see that Obama's father attracted the attention of two white teachers in Kenya. They obtained his admission to the University of Hawaii, where he was given a scholarship. (It is worth noticing that there is rarely, if ever, any expression of appreciation for such actions by whites, and the source of the money for scholarships for the father and later for Obama is never identified.) Leaving for Hawaii, the father nobly "gathered up his pregnant wife and son and dropped them off with" his mother in Kenya. Studying econometrics in college, he graduated at the top of his class after just three years, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He and Obama's mother met in a Russian language course. They married even though the father already had a wife and son in Kenya (though it isn't clear whether Obama's mother knew that at the time). They had a son of their own, the Barack Obama we know. Another scholarship -- again unaccounted for and not particularly appreciated -- saw the father through Harvard (not especially an inexpensive school) for his Ph.D. Being in Cambridge separated him from Obama's mother in Hawaii, and after Harvard the father "returned to Africa to fulfill his promise to the continent." Obama was two years old when his father and mother separated (which is why there is reason to suppose that his idealization of his father came from his mother rather than from any memories of his own).
Several reasons combined to cause Obama's parents to divorce. These included the separation; an angry letter written from Obama's Kenyan grandfather to his white grandfather saying "he didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman"; and the mother's then-awareness that she had never been given proof that Obama's father had divorced his wife in Kenya. This freed Obama's mother to marry again, this time to an Indonesian student in Hawaii. The father indefatigably tried to get his mother to leave this new Indonesian husband to live with him in Kenya; but, despite her continuing love for him, she declined. Barack Obama, Sr., was obviously a man of great sexual magnetism, since 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." At least so far as the record shows, the future U.S. Senator has had five brothers and one sister in Kenya. There was some contact between father and son, evidenced by a one-month visit by the father and by occasional letters that continued for a while after the visit and then stopped.
The ups and downs of tribal politics largely dictated the father's career. He had a government job and then lost it during the Kenyatta regime before being hired again. A terrible driver and heavy drinker, he killed a white farmer while driving drunk. It is no surprise, then, that he was himself killed in an automobile accident in Nairobi.
Dreams from My Father doesn't give nearly so much attention to the mother's side of Obama's family but some details are worth noting: His Kansas grandfather served in Patton's army in France and after the war attended the University of California at Berkeley. It is consistent with the leftward orientation of the family and of that institution that he came "to consider himself as something of a freethinker -- a bohemian, even." Obama lived with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia for four years as a young boy, receiving two years of elementary education at a Muslim school and another two at a Christian school. During that time, Obama was blessed with a half-sister, Maya. His Muslim stepfather in Indonesia held to a somewhat eclectic form of Islam: "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."
This marriage, too, didn't last, and Obama's mother returned to Hawaii, where she got her Masters in anthropology. Her work caused her thereafter to be gone much of the time, so she left it mainly to Obama's Kansas grandparents (who had moved to Hawaii) to raise him. The grandparents weren't wealthy, but Obama somehow was sent to a "prestigious prep school," the Penahou Academy in Hawaii, for seven years. The book is an introspective autobiography, but Obama surprisingly has almost nothing to say about those years of education, the classes, the type of education given there, the teachers or the fellow students. The same void occurs later, oddly enough, about his years at Harvard Law School.
It wouldn't seem that Obama learned his mastery of writing at the Penahou Academy, since he tells the reader that during his last two years there he was deeply alienated, smoked pot and "drank 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 contains considerable biographical detail about Obama. He worked as a "community organizer" in Chicago after graduating from college, and went to work for a consulting firm for multinational corporations, earning a promotion to the position of financial writer. It was at this time that he became aware that:
. . . power. . . in America . . . had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things.
This revelation about power is important because he says that he decided to go to Harvard Law School 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.
His later meteoric rise was foretold by the fact that in law school he was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated magna cum laude.
After admission to the bar, Obama practiced civil rights law and taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, serving eight years; ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000; and won his U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004. Before his election to the latter, he entered the national stage to much acclaim when, at Senator John Kerry's request, he gave his memorable keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He entered the Senate on January 4, 2005. He and his wife Michelle have two daughters.
Obama's next book, The Audacity of Hope, was published in 2006. It is titled after a sermon bearing that name by Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, at the Trinity United Church of Christ a short time before Obama entered Harvard Law School. In Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts that sermon at length, indicating why it 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 fortitude (the "audacity") to voice a message of hope, of "race pride and anger."
We mentioned earlier that there has been some effort to whitewash the anti-white message. Thus, black columnist Clarence Page, in a piece that appeared in early 2008, wrote that:
. . . hardly a day goes by without my receiving some e-mailed lie that claims . . . some . . . bogus notion intended to smear Obama or his United Church of Christ minister in Chicago as somehow un-American, anti-white, threatening or subversive. . . . If you can't nail your opponent with the truth, send rumors.
This is the tradition of the old story about the wolf in the hen-house, who cried out "there's nobody in here but us chickens." To see for yourself about the Rev. Wright's sermon, read pages 291-295 of Dreams from My Father.
For reasons that should be apparent, it is rather urgent that all thinking Americans read this book. It will long be ranked as one of the pinnacles of black literature.
--Dwight D. Murphey
Dwight D. Murphey has for many years contributed writings to The St. Croix Review. He is the associate editor of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, and the author of several books and many articles and book reviews, all of which appear at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info.