Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

dreams-from-my-fatherNonfiction — print. Times Books, 1995. 403 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance”, Obama’s book was added to my to-be-read pile as soon as Obama clinched the Democrats’ nomination. Unfortunately, it seemed several patrons at my local library had the same idea and I had to wait for my turn to read the thoughts of a “son of a black African father and white American mother” on race in America. I had hoped to gain more insight into who President Obama is as he admittedly was not my candidate of choice.

“When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am.”  (pg. ix)

Dreams From My Father is very detailed and decently written, though at times it starts to become evident that Obama was trying to be a good writer. The memoir is divided into three sections – Origins, Chicago, and Kenya. The first, Origins, details Obama’s first interaction with race as he grows up with the “white side” of his family.  He discusses how difficult it was when people would say things like “that’s just how white folks will do you” and even just the term “white folks.”

White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false.” {pg. 75}

The interesting parts of Obama’s life are detailed under the umbrella chapters entitled “Chicago.” It’s in Chicago that he starts doing something instead of talking, and his work in Chicago was very inspiring. I especially enjoyed seeing how he helped build grassroots organizations in Chicago’s South Side, and you can see how his ideals of hope and change were forming before he ran his campaign. (This book was written in 1995.) It’s in Chicago where he really confronts the issue of race – for example, the education of African American children:

“The first thing you have to realize,” he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, “is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period. They’re operated as holding pens – miniature jails, really…Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understand of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn – the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that systematically rejected him, denied his humanity.” (pg. 236)

The memoir is lacking as a literary work, but, in the end, I feel like I came away from his memoir with more of an understand of who he is as a person – a version of him unclouded by today’s political arena. Obama is clearly confused on where he fits in, where he stands in the issue of race, and the memoir reads more like something he wrote for himself rather than for personal consumption, an issue he notes in his preface.

The best way, though, to sum up the entire content of Obama’s memoir is the conundrum of racial identity in America — if you move too close to the direction of “black,” you risk falling into the traps of drugs, gangs, and jail that have plagued urban black youth. But, if you move too far in the direction of white, you “leave your people behind.”


  1. The Chicago chapters were particularly evocative to me as well, especially since my grandma used to teach in Altgeld Gardens and her stories matched up quite a bit with Obama’s. I actually thought his writing style was pretty competent for someone who didn’t really go into a literary profession, but I can see how some would find the prose too florid or the narrative trying a bit too hard as well. Nice review! Can’t wait to read some of your others!


  2. @ Rebecca: I hate the wait, but with biographies I know I’ll never read them again, so to buy them would be a big waste of money.

    @ Alirambles: Weird. Maybe it didn’t go through. I’ve noticed that my responses aren’t going through sometimes.


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