Monday, 1 June 2009

Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father

Obama is the son of a white American mother, a black Kenyan father. He comes from two different worlds and feels comfortable in neither. With his mother and her parents (white folks) he is accepted and accepting but when he first goes to school in Hawaii he feels out of place. In Origins, the first part of Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father, he describes his early life.

Obama makes a point of aligning himself with the black population, the brotherhood, the dispossessed and disenchanted. He describes many white people as having a life “bought off the rack or found in a magazine”. Throughout the book he is trying to come to terms with being a Black American.

In the second part – after he has gained his degree at university – he goes to Chicago. He works as an organizer helping communities help themselves. He learns that to get people organized he has to plug into their self-interest. For example, a woman’s worries about her son’s safety might be the impetus needed to get her involved in a programme to make the community safer.

It is the beginning of his political career. He learns how to get people motivated, and about “individual advancement and collective decline”. As a student his friend told him “It’s not about you, it’s about people who need your help” and he learns the truth of this in Chicago. He finally relaxes into his skin and finds the people around him accept him for himself: not for whom he thinks he should be.

Finally, Obama comes to realise that he does not have to be part of the brotherhood, at the same level as everyone else in his sphere. He can further his studies and offer more to communities by doing so. The reader gets a glimpse of where Obama’s presidential speeches were nurtured, where such phrases as “the audacity of hope” were hatched.

He applies for Harvard and in the meantime visits Kenya and his father’s family there. In this third part of the book, Kenya, he is trying to find his roots. By trying to understand his dead father, and attempting to uncover his father’s motives and aspirations, he hopes to understand himself.

The life and family he experiences in Kenya opens his eyes to the fact that Africa is not his spiritual home. He is black, yes, but he is American. His sister, Auma, is a soul-mate, but some of his wider Kenyan family are as grasping as others are generous. They too are human. But his family and their life in Kenya does make him more committed to black empowerment.

Whilst in Kenya, to help find his true self, he searches for those things that had inspired his father: the dreams from his father. But he discovers that his father was not the paragon he thought. And by the end of his holiday in Kenya Obama is no longer in thrall to the romance of Africa, nor in the shadow of his father but accepting of himself and his American inheritance. He returns to law school, becomes the first black President of Harvard in 1995, and the rest is history.

This is a fictionalized autobiography – some of us liked the style, others would have preferred a factual account. But I can quite understand why he made it more chatty. To make the book more accessible, more alive, less the heavy hand of facts and incidents.

This version of his autobiography was first published 2004. At 442 pages the book is way too long. The first part, Origins, is fine. The middle section, Chicago, is three times as long as it needs. Much is repetitive - apart from sister Auma’s visit - and a lot of it boringly so. The section, Keyna, is twice as long as it should be. It’s a good book but, cut in length, it would be so much better.

But it is fascinating to see the seeds of Obama’s political awareness. Throughout the book – as throughout his life it seems - he asks philosophical questions and looks for practical answers. He has lofty principles and great aspirations. He talks about big issues: Community, Freedom, Hope. He has faith is in “participatory democracy” and he has “faith in other people”. If just some small part of these concepts and aspirations come to pass, we shall all be glad of his dreams.


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