‘Dreams From My Father’ (1995) – Book Review



An Introduction to Barack Obama

Barack Obama has and will remain amongst the most famous politicians of our time – his charisma, wit, public persona and leadership is held in high regard by many. Obama was an outsider in the Presidential race of 2008 – Hillary Clinton was expected to be the Democratic nominee, but instead Obama who at the time was a junior Senator for Illinois rose to prominence. Clinton dropped out and endorsed Obama who won the nomination with Joe Biden on his ticket and was elected President, defeating the Republican ticket which included John McCain as the candidate and Sarah Palin as the running mate. Obama went on to serve a second term with Joe Biden also on his ticket, but instead faced Republican Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee and Paul Ryan. His Presidency was a landmark – becoming the first African American to hold the title, thus it is fitting that this memoir is in part a reflection on how race has shaped his life. Obama’s career and rise to become President is not the subject of this memoir, instead Obama wrote about the early years of his life until his entry into Harvard Law School (1988) and published this when he was running for the Illinois Senate.


A Short Summary

Obama was born to his Father, Barack Obama Senior and his Mother, Ann Dunham who met whilst at the University of Hawaii – they married in 1963 and then divorced in the next year whilst he was two. In his memoir, Obama reflects on his absent Father – who after pursuing a PhD in Economics in Harvard went back to Kenya to serve his country. Thus, Obama’s stories and his view of his Father were instead formed by the stories he was told by family members and a visit from Obama Senior in 1971 for a brief month. Obama’s introduction to the African – American community whilst he was studying in Hawaii is credited to his friend Ray, who like Obama, was multi – racial. His studies soon ended and an enrolment at Occidental College for two years and then a transfer to Columbia College at Columbia University soon followed. The book then recounts his time working for a non – profit in Chicago in the South Side and where he encountered bureaucracy and the apathy that communities and community leaders had and ends with his first visit to Kenya.


A critical review of ‘Dreams from My Father’

The narrative voice of Barack Obama is unique in how it approaches his life – there is something undeniably special about Obama’s writing style. Obama doesn’t shy away from a discussion of race, which makes the book remarkable. Especially in America, race – relations and race discussions have always been a point of importance, but also contention. Questions of identity often plague us, but for Obama it is especially an important point of focus – as the son of an African father from Kenya and a white American mother from Kansas, his inner conflict is evident.


Race is a part of how Obama figures out who is he as he progresses through life – his upbringing by his white relatives and amongst white people has as he asserts, provided him with different opportunities. Obama’s upbringing and background is also a topic of focus, during his time in Chicago where Obama observed a different culture and could see how race has affected the lives of the community. Chicago is set against a backdrop of turmoil – political and racial, and Obama’s reflection proves one thing – the experience of black Americans now


and in the past, is something which is not homogenous or something we can fully appreciate unless it is lived through.


How does our inheritance impact us? This is carefully considered by Obama, and the conclusion is that, Obama does not fully know his inheritance. His feeling of lost and emptiness which is conveyed through his narrative voice is attributed in part with the lack of contact with his paternal family until he visits Kenya in the concluding pages of the book, which offers some closure to Obama. However, the absent role of his Father for the majority of his life, aside from a month’s visit, has had a profound impact on his life – his identity never feels complete which is evident from his reflections.

A certain part of the book which moved me, was an article Obama has read as a child about a black man who tried to peel off his skin. The subsequent discussion Obama makes shows how race and what we read, what we see and what we hear in the media and in society, can impact on our self – image and how it impacted his self – image to the extent, that he concealed these feelings from his Mother. It is often hard to reconcile our identity, culture, race and family, Obama does a good job at discovering the impacts that those four have had in isolation, and how they have intersected throughout his life.


Concluding Remarks

At a time where many of us are dismayed with the state of politics given the current unprecedented pandemic and the Democratic nomination process, Obama’s reflection on race relations and his life is a breath of fresh air. The book reads as an honest and open reflection on the decisions he made in his life, the role of race, his friends and family and the role his absent Father has played in his life. Obama lends a unique and candid voice to this book and it is clear through reading it, that Obama has taken great care to sensitively discuss the impacts that his race, racism and family have interconnected to impact his life. The book is also in part inspiring, at a time where most of us see our politicians as ‘out – of touch’, Obama’s humble beginnings and his acceptance to the most prestigious colleges in the United States could be considered an example of the American Dream.


It may be argued that in 2020, race doesn’t play as big a role in our lives. However, Obama’s Presidency which was a landmark for America doesn’t solve the issue of race – relations in the US, and it is clear work is needed to overcome racism today. Racism and prejudice are not things of the past, but rather it is ever present in society. For many African – Americans, race and politics often intersect. Discrimination and racism are the lived experiences for their community and can be the source of crises regarding their identity. Obama tells the story of the earlier years of his life in a carefully considered and thoughtful tone. Obama’s ‘Dreams from My Father’ is a must read book, not only for those who study Politics, but for anyone who wants to gain an insight and appreciation into the life of Obama and specifically how race, family, identity, culture and our upbringings can impact our lives, self – image and opportunities.


Aaminah Saleem is an International Relations and Politics undergraduate student at the University of Birmingham and Economic Spokesperson of Centre Think Tank. She tweets @AaminahSaleem2

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