A Search for Identity, A Search for Racial Relations
Title: Dreams From my Father; a Story of Race and Inheritance
Author: Barack Obama
Publisher: Three Rivers Press, 2004
Genre: Non-Fictional (Autobiography)
Reviewer: Manuel Odeny
Few months after winning the Democratic nomination for a seat on the US senate from Illinois, the question of Barack Obama’s identity forced the re-publication of Dreams From my Father in 2004. The first print was when he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
“(I) went to work (on the book) with the belief that the story of my family, and my efforts to understand that story, might speak in some way to the fissures of race that characterized the American experience, as well the fluid state of identity- the leap through time, the collision of cultures- that mark our modern life.” Obama observes in the preface of the book.
The book is a story of a fatherless boy trying to retrace his roots. His African father Barack Hussein Obama, Snr arrived at university of Hawaii in 1956, at 23 and married Ann Dunham. The parents separate in 1963 when the boy is only 2 years.
The author’s search for his family history is given in a calm, quite and powerful way evoking the reader to have an insight in human spirit and relation. His experience cuts across the globe and race, from Hawaii his birth place, and Chicago where he worked as a community organizer for three years. To Indonesia where he lived with is step father Lolo, and the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya, giving light to ‘fluid state of identity.’
Dreams From my Father; a Story of Race and Inheritance is divided in three parts; Origins, Chicago and Kenya.
In Origins, Obama talks of his early life in Hawaii, his stay in Indonesia and racial consciousness at Punahou School. He proceeds to Occidental College in Los Angeles where he struggles to fit as a black student.
“I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man’s court” Obama writes “until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”
His search takes him to the library, to WEB DuBois who ended in Ghana, poet Langston Hughes in Harlem and Malcolm X on black consciousness.
In the second part Chicago, Obama writes on three years as a community organizer in Chicago in search for a community. Although his search of identity begins from the fact of race, he realizes it should not end there. In Chicago the problem of poor housing, increased crime rate and poor services is felt across the racial divide.
This makes the sense of hope to move forward not to be based on bloodline of inheritance, but the need of all community to work together.
A visit by the author’s sister Auma ushers the reader to the third part, Kenya. His sister encourages him to visit the country and his father’s grave before joining Harvard Law School.
His visit to Kenya makes him realize who he is without any intellectual obligation.
“For a long time I sat between the two graves (his father’s and grandfather’s) and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt calmness wash over me” he finishes in his final paragraph.
“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 book gives the story of Obama’s maternal grannies Stanley and Madelyn Dunham (the WASP bloodline’s poor cousins) from Kansas in the heat of civilian war and racial prejudice to their settling in Hawaii.
The story of his paternal grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama in Kenya, the way he embraced the change of Britain colonialists. The two family story written with eloquence, respect and in intelligent style draws parallel in uniqueness of rich cultural experience to give meaning to race.
The author personal narration, although superfluous and dragging on and on gives abundant information for a reader to relate to.