It’s impossible to read Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father without thinking about the fact of his presidency the entire way through. Everything takes on a different meaning knowing that that one big event is on the way, eventually. The uncertainties about his future he describes we now know are unwarranted — everything is going to work out. But other kinds of uncertainties — about his identity, about what it means to be biracial, about how to address racial conflict in America, about how to respond to white and black people both — these uncertainties take on a new meaning, since the person who felt so much doubt and experienced so much conflict is now president and in a position where he can’t speak about his feelings with the same honesty. I kept thinking as I read the book that I would really like to know what he is thinking and experiencing right now, but that’s one thing I can’t know. There is a degree of self-awareness and honesty in the book that no American president could get away with expressing while in office.
I came to like the personality that comes through in this book, and that has made me think about what kind of personality one needs to be president — because I tend to like self-aware, thoughtful people and it seems to me that having that kind of personality would make holding such an important political office a nightmare. When I think about some of the absurd, utterly irrational things people are saying about Obama (those in the “birther” movement, for example), I wonder how hard it would be to keep one’s cool, and when I think about the constant criticism and commentary and second-guessing he receives, I wonder how someone as prone to self-doubt as Obama seems to be can handle it all. I want someone whose mindset and thought processes I understand and relate to in the White House, and yet I wonder how such a person can survive.
I recognize that the book’s persona is a creation and is not Obama himself and also that he has changed since the 1995 publication date, but the book really does give the impression that there is an open, genuine person writing it, a person who has struggled and is now trying to write about those struggles honestly. Obama’s focus is his racial heritage and the problems he faced coming to terms with what it means to have a white mother and grandparents from Iowa and a black father from Kenya, and to have grown up in Hawaii where racial tensions existed, although on a fairly low level, and then to have spent time in California and New York before settling down in Chicago, where racial tensions are much more pervasive and his job is to try to do something about it.
The book is framed as a quest — Obama’s quest to find himself, ultimately, which means an attempt to come to terms with an absent father and to find a place or a way of being or a state of mind he can call home. Dreams from My Father has three sections, the first one describing his childhood up through his college years, the second part describing his years in Chicago as a community organizer, and the third part telling about his trip to Kenya to meet his father’s family. In each of these sections, he is searching for clues as to who he is and how he should behave. He tells of his introduction to racism, his uneasy response to the other black students around him, his rebellion and anger that stem from his self-doubts, and his search for an identity that will help him cope with so much uncertainty. When he gets to Chicago, he tells of the poverty and hopelessness he sees around him and of his struggles to figure out the best way to make some kind of lasting change — a monumental task. And when he gets to Kenya, he tells about his initial relief at being in a place where blackness is the norm and his disappointment that Kenya doesn’t have any simple answers to offer. He does find a resolution of sorts, but it’s a partial and complicated one.
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I want Obama to succeed as president to such an extent that I don’t like following and often don’t follow the news because I don’t want to hear about the possibility of failure. I’d prefer to be able to look back at this time with enough perspective to know how things will turn out rather than having to live through it. But since I can’t do that, I’ll just take comfort in the fact that we have a president who is smart and thoughtful and who writes well. Dreams from My Father is a well-crafted, engaging, engrossing, thought-provoking read.