Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

This reprinted book illustrates the power of publicity. In the preface to this 2004 edition Barack Obama said that when the book was first released in 1995 the sales were ‘underwhelming’. Since he became US Senator and Vice Presidential nominee the book has become the ‘No. 1 International Bestseller’. The author’s honesty about the weak impact of his newly published book, his assessment that the volume is a little long and his recognition that the telling of the story left him feeling ‘exposed and even slightly ashamed’ are examples of his honesty and transparency.

As Joan Didion acknowledged that she writes in order to learn what she is thinking, Barack Obama’s journey in ink fulfils a similar purpose. After finishing law school at Harvard University he took time to write a book about the current state of race relations in America. He later said: “I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores. First longings leapt up to brush my heart. Distant voices appeared, and ebbed, and then appeared again.” (xiv)

This book became the record of a sacred search—his search for his father, his search for his identity, his search to understand his mixed heritage amid broken and lost relationships, his search to understand what it means to be black and in particular, a black American. The author says that the book is not strictly autobiographical in the sense of ‘summing up’ but more the beginnings of a literary family album and a book of questions. Among many questions in this book Obama asks:
Who am I?
What does it mean to be black?
Where do I belong?
What am I to do in life?
Who is my family?
Where does faith come from?
What sort of faith do I need?
Where is home?
What does it mean to come home?

These are personal questions yet most of them are universal questions. His answers are therefore helpful to readers, not because Obama provides ready-made answers but for his helpful pointers as people make their own journey. His loneliness and perplexity about his identity and the lack of help from others finds candid expression when he writes:

“Away from mother, and away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” (36)

The author is appreciative of the sacrifices made by some of his family members and is frank about the somewhat messy, scary and at times disappointing process of meeting family members for the first time, yet the sharing of these stories gives him a sense of place and purpose.

This book is indirectly a guide to personal pilgrimage, an invitation to consider one’s own story and join the dots, to begin filling in the gaps and find the jigsaw pieces that gradually reveal a picture that is a mixed blessing and one that is never finished. An example of a practical pointer about making a journey of one’s heritage comes from the lips of Barack’s African grandmother when she says to him, “A man can never be too busy to know his own people.” (377)

Obama demonstrates what it means to explore one’s history as the book shows him on a visit to Africa, searching, yearning, observing, listening, discovering and collecting. About his African grandfather he says, “If I could just piece together his story, I thought, then, perhaps everything else might fall into place.” (372)

The book records not only a gathering of family information but a journey from aimlessness to the development of strong convictions. As his mother said to him while he was young, “If you want to grow into a human being you’re going to need some values.” (41)

The author of this book is a wordsmith who searches for the right word, delights in his discovery and comes to realize the sheer power of words. During a visit by his father to the USA and to his school young Barack was amazed at the way his father spoke and captivated his classmates. This set the boy on another journey that began with these words: “If I could just find the right words…” (106)

A glimpse into the way Obama has found the right words and possesses the eye of a poet is found in this record of his safari in Kenya:

“And there, on the other side of the rise, I saw as beautiful a land as I’d ever seen. It swept out forever, flat plains undulating into gentle hills, dun-colored and as supple as a lion’s back, creased by long gallery forests and dotted with thorn trees. To our left, a huge herd of zebra, ridiculously symmetrical in their stripes, harvested the wheat-colored grass; to our right, a troop of gazelle leaped into bush. And in the center, thousands of wildebeest, with mournful heads and humped shoulders that seemed too much for their slender legs to carry.” (351)

One of the few unsatisfying things about this book is the epilogue and the way Obama crams many important life events and his feelings about these into a few lines. His changing attitudes, his marriage to Michelle and the death of her father are dealt with in mere headlines. Realizing that his is an unfinished story it may have been better to omit these references altogether.

This is an important book for understanding the person who has and will continue to make a vital contribution to the stories of America and our world. Dreams from my Father is a valuable story that may serve as a mirror in which readers will see themselves and will be helped by the author’s courage to take an interior journey, to ask the questions and confront the answers that we both seek and fear.

Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1995, 2007)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 68.00.

Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, is posted at this link on Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of two editions of Dreams From My Father.