Three Rivers Press, 1994 (2004 revision), 457 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-4000-8277-3
Sometimes, the most important part of a book isn’t the text.
So it is that the most vital line of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father is found on the back cover of the 63rd printing of the book’s revised paperback edition: “Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on November 4, 2008.” Much to the dismay of the author who, in 1994, promoted his autobiography-so-far as an original contribution to the ongoing American racial debate, most people will read the book knowing much about the author as a career politician.
Written in the early nineties, Dreams From My Father predates Obama’s formal political career and, as such, offers a very different type of memoir than you would expect from a politician. It’s essentially a narrative of a young bi-racial man as he tries to navigate the shoals of America’s racial identity issues. From a very unusual background (white American mother; black Kenyan father; born in Hawaii before being raised in Indonesia; then back to studies in Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago), young Barack Obama ends up trying and rejecting various ways of thinking about himself: He learns racism, rejects black nationalism, meets people of all kinds of backgrounds and tries to come to grip with the absence of a father in his life. The book leads almost inevitably to a defining visit to Kenya, where he comes to learns about his father’s true history and where that leaves him as a person.
Dreams From My Father is written as a personal narrative that incorporates elements of fiction-writing: dialogues are recreated, scenes are pieced together, composite characters are meant to represent various ideologies, and so on: It’s a surprisingly readable book, and if the language can become occasionally florid, it’s a book that people will read while hearing Obama’s voice. (Sometimes literally so, as the audio book of the book -occasional profanities and all- was read by Obama himself… and netted him the first of his two Grammies.) After eight years of a president who barely appeared literate, it’s a bit of a shock to find out that an actual author (and a pretty good one at that, even allowing for the possibility of editorial assistance) is actually now sitting in the While House.
But my ideological colors are showing. It’s still a bit of a shock, though, to read a long passage about social inequity, about how black/white divisions can be a distraction from class issues, and realize that this contentious community organizer, this careful, conflicted young man (having outgrown early drug experiences –yes, he does talk about how “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” [P.93]) is now sitting in the White House, shaped by his experiences and ready to apply his best judgment to the crises confronting the nation. It almost enough to warm the heart of even the most comfortable cynics, although those same cynics may have trouble reading the weepy grave-sweeping epiphany that serves as the book’s conclusion.
Because, no matter what the author may have intended in 1994, we are reading this book to get clues about the current president: where he comes from, what experiences had an impact on him, and how he’s likely to react from this depth of knowledge. Modern readings of Dreams From my Father turn the book’s initial goal inside-out: We’re not reading about an unknown author considering overarching issues, but reading about a specific person’s thoughts on those specific issues. Some Obama fans are bound to be disappointed at the book’s early genesis (Michelle barely makes an appearance in the book’s closing pages, and we get almost no glimpse of Obama’s post-law school experiences), but that’s the nature of the first tome in any autobiography. The follow-up volume, The Audacity of Hope, has been out since 2004… and no matter what happens, Tome 3 and beyond are being experienced right now. They’ll make fascinating reading.