Much to the glee of my bank account, a few weeks ago I discovered a paperback edition of Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, on sale in Target. While I still intend to read Clinton’s Living History, I doubt it will happen before primary season is over.
And so, I present (drum roll, please)…my thoughts. Not a book review. Not a literary critique. Not an endorsement. Just some thoughts.
In Dreams, Barack Obama tells it like it is in the most poetic of prose. Now, I could just be a sucker for picture-painting adjectives and attention to detail, but the man’s eloquent descriptions are comparable to those of a seasoned author. Renowned journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault said Dreams is “One of the most powerful books of self-discovery I’ve ever read…It is also beautifully written, skillfully layered, and paced like a novel.”
Indeed, Obama’s gifted use of language often induces one to forget that Dreams is the actual tale of a United States senator and presidential hopeful. This is probably due to the fact that he was still a lawyer, not an elected politician, at the time Dreams was published in 1996. Dreams tells the story of a young Barack (“Barry” at times) searching for his identity within the two worlds of his Kenyan father and white mother.
The following passages from Dreams will hopefully provide a glimpse of the sincerity and expressiveness that Obama displays on every page.
Obama's father left the scene when he was 2 years old, returned to Hawaii for an extended visit when Obama was 10, and died when he was 21. Most of what Obama knew of his father came from stories and the occassional letter. Therefore, it was Obama's mother who first taught him about the black experience:
She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King. When she told me stories of schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up and study in the mornings…Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.During his teenage years, Obama lived with his mother’s parents, Gramps and “Toot” in Hawaii. They were doting and proud of their grandson. However, in the following incident, Obama depicts a setting where societal race misconceptions penetrated even the most loving of homes. He walks in on the tail end of a heated discussion between his grandparents. When he enters, the argument dissipates and Toot explains what happened to her that morning at the bus stop:
“He was very aggressive, Barry. Very aggressive. I gave him a dollar and he kept asking. If the bus hadn’t come, I think he might have hit me over the head.”
I returned to the kitchen. Gramps was rinsing his cup, his back turned to me. “Listen,” I said. “Why don’t you just let me give her a ride? She seems pretty upset.”
“By a panhandler?”
“Yeah, I know—but it’s probably a little scary for her, seeing some big man block her way. It’s really no big deal.”
He turned around and I saw now that he was shaking. “It is a big deal. It’s a big deal to me. She’s been bothered by men before. You know why she’s so scared this time? I’ll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was black…That’s the real reason why she’s bothered. And I just don’t think that’s right.”
The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure… Gramps slumped into a chair in the living room and said he was sorry he had told me.
They had sacrificed again and again for me. They had poured all their lingering hopes into my success. Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.
A third of Dreams is dedicated to Obama’s experience as an organizer in some of Chicago’s poorest communities. His keen sense of observation is evident in this passage as he writes about a visit to an elementary school during his organizing efforts:
She laughed cheerfully and walked me into the hallway, where a wobbly line of five- and six-year-olds was preparing to enter a classroom. A few of them waved and smiled at us; a pair of boys toward the rear spun around and around, their arms tight against their sides; a tiny little girl struggled to yank a sweater over her head and got tangled up in the sleeves. As the teacher tried to direct them up the stairs, I thought how happy and trusting they all seemed, that despite the rocky arrivals many of them had gone through—delivered prematurely, perhaps, or delivered into addiction, most of them already smudged with the ragged air of poverty—the joy they seemed to find in simple locomotion, the curiosity they displayed toward every new face, seemed the equal of children anywhere.
In the final portion of Dreams, Obama visits his father’s homeland for the first time. It is in Kenya where he finally is able to fill in the voids of his father’s story, the beautiful and the ugly:
I feel my father’s presence as Auma [Obama's sister] and I walk through the busy street. I see him in the schoolboys who run past us, their lean, black, legs moving like piston rods between blue shorts and oversized shoes. I hear in the laughter of the pair of university students who sip sweet, creamed tea and eat samosas in a dimly lit teahouse. I smell him in the cigarette smoke of the businessman who covers one ear and shouts into a pay phone; in the sweat of the day laborer who loads gravel into a wheelbarrow, his face and bare chest covered with dust. The Old Man’s here, I think, although he doesn’t say anything to me. He’s here, asking me to understand.
Family seemed to be everywhere: in stores, at the post office, on streets and in the parks, all of them fussing and fretting over Obama’s long-lost son. If I mentioned in passing that I needed a notebook or shaving cream, I could count on one of my aunts to insist that she take me to some far-off corner of Nairobi to find the best bargains, no matter how long the trip took or how much it might inconvenience her.
Not long into Obama’s visit, the hardships and poverty his family and other Kenyans faced became an uncomfortable reality. He and his sister Auma, who had been born in Africa, were of the few family members who were doing okay on their own. Yet, they struggled with how their independence translated to their poor relatives. Questions of responsibility arose, outwardly and inwardly:
For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking deeply about money: my own lack of it, the pursuit of it, the crude but undeniable peace it could buy. A part of me wished I could live up to the image that my new relatives imagined for me: a corporate lawyer, an American businessman, my hand poised on the spigot, ready to rain down like manna the largess of the Western world.
But of course I wasn’t either of those things. Even in the States, wealth involved trade-offs that I could see Auma now making as she tried, in her own way, to fulfill the family’s expectations. Her restlessness, her independence, her constant willingness to project unto the future—all of this struck the family as unnatural somehow. Unnatural…and un-African.
Obama and Auma went on a safari excursion while in Kenya. Obama illustrates a carnal, yet serene episode in the wild:
It was the same dilemma that old Frank had posed to me the year I left Hawaii, the same tensions that certain children in Altgeld might suffer if they took too much pleasure in doing their schoolwork, the same perverse survivor’s guilt that I could expect to experience if I ever did try to make money and had to pass the throngs of young black men on the corner as I made my way to a downtown office. Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind.
And most of all the stillness, a silence to match the elements. At twilight, not far from our camp, we came upon a tribe of hyenas feeding on the carcass of a wildebeest. In the dying orange light they looked like demon dogs, their eyes like clumps of black coal, their chins dripping with blood. Beside them a row of vultures waited with stern, patient gazes, hopping away like hunchbacks whenever one of the hyenas got too close. It was a savage scene, and we stayed there for a long time, watching the life feed on itself, the silence interrupted only by the crack of bone or the rush of wind, or the hard thump of vulture’s wings as it strained to lift itself into the current until it finally found the higher air and those long and grateful wings became motionless and still like the rest. And I though to myself: This is what Creation looked like. The same stillness, the same crunching bone.
The following revelation came to Obama as he knelt in tears between the graves of his father and grandfather:
I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.
Dreams is not about politics. It doesn't present a pristine facade of perfection. Obama shares his embarrassments, his uncertainties, and his doubts--some would say to a fault; the mentions of drugs and alcohol have been debated in public sectors since his campaign for presidency of the United States. But it is Obama’s genuineness, honesty, and "miscellaneous" experiences that makes his memoir a refreshing, relatable read.