Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

What impresses me about Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) is the strong, confident narrative voice of Barack Obama. He wrote this memoir well before becoming president ever seemed a real possibility. It is not a campaign biography, nor is it written to present a prospective leader to the American public. Instead it seems a book of personal explanation and self-assessment in which Obama recounts the progress of his life from his birth until his enrollment in Harvard Law School. The book is honest and forthright without being self-promotional. It is refreshingly self-deprecating without false modesty. Since he first announced for the presidency, the facts of Obama's early life have taken on a nearly mythic aura, subject to much accidental and intentional distortion. In this impressive book Obama tells the story of his life as he remembers it.

Obama describes his unconventional mother, Ann Dunham, her marriage to the Kenyan man who becomes his father, and later her marriage to the Indonesian Lolo Soetoro who through an important part of his childhood is his step-father. Obama's maternal grandparents are also important characters in the story, the parents who accept and support their daughter's unconventional ways, including her marriage to an African, and their love and care for their bi-racial grandson. Obama expresses regret in the preface (written ten years after the memoir) that he doesn't pay more attention to his mother in the memoir, whom he credits as the central formative force in his life. She died after he finished writing the book. Yet she is present throughout, balancing her desire to follow her own path with her strong sense of responsibility as a parent. She was, by her son's account, a loving and stern woman.

The ostensible theme of the book is Obama's real and metaphoric search for his biological father, the man who disappeared from his life when he was three and who resurfaced for a short time only once more when he was twelve. The search for a father is not only an effort to come to understanding of and terms with his parentage, but also an effort to understand his African ancestry, and his place in a racially divided America.

Obama's bi-racial parentage and identity give him both involvement in and separation from the nation's complex racial character. The result is what often seems to be a relatively objective ability to examine these problems with analytical understanding. This ability served him well in his recent campaign for the presidency.

In the book's final chapters Obama describes his trip to Africa, where he meets his half-sister and other members of his father's family. This family is large and complex and riven with various alliances and rivalries. Obama discovers that his father is remembered as a warm and promising man who (in the eyes of some) didn't live up to his potential. He also discovers that his African family knows much more about him than he does of them. Although his father is dead by the time he travels to Africa, the trip helps him to understand his father, and his own place in the scheme of things, better than he did before.

In this memoir Obama makes clear his awareness that he had an unusual and remarkable upbringing. He is grateful and unapologetic for the breaks and assistance he enjoyed along with way. His awareness that he belongs to a family whose filaments extend far beyond the boundaries of the United States—from Ohio and Hawaii and Kansas to Africa and Indonesia--gives him a global perspective and awareness that is one of the most attractive elements of his character.

I rate this book along with Jimmy Carter's Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age (1992) as the best political memoir I have read.

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