With a very important U.S. Presidential election on the horizon, I decided to read this book to give me some insight on a man of which I really had no opinion four years ago when he was elected to the Office of The President of the United States of America. Shame on me for not taking the time to learn as much as I could about him then. I will not make that mistake twice! It is a privilege to vote for the leader of the most powerful country in the world and those who have earned that right (either through reaching the legal age or through acquiring legal U.S. Citizenship) should never make excuses to not spend some time learning as much as possible about both candidates, not just blindly following the one they “think” feels the same way they do about issues. I personally know many voters of all ages who derive their entire political belief system based on bumper stickers, slogans and by surrounding themselves with people who believe the same as they do, which is at the very least, irresponsible.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is fairly well-written (though a sometimes the author would seem to drift off in to explaining in minute detail of something fairly insignificant or replaying a long conversation word-for-word which became a bit tedious for me). The story he is telling is an interesting story and it is easy to feel the emotions he is trying to convey.
I do need to point out that this book was originally published in 1995 and that was the version I read. It has been noted that the updated 2004 version has some key differences and I will point those differences out in this review. They are important because they are very telling when trying to understand why the author does what he does when dealing with conflict. A note to those planning on reading this book: the 1995 version is the original version with the bio stating that the author, Barack H. Obama, being born in Kenya and has some shocking observations by the author. The 2004 version has removed those statements and parts of the book and made the story more “politically correct”. So take care in choosing the edition, there is a difference.
The story is an autobiography about an (at the time) unknown man who was born to an interracial couple in 1960. His father was an African national, from a village in Kenya, his mother a career college student from the midwestern U.S. Autobiographies are very useful means to learn from the author’s experiences. Autobiographies by authors that were highly successful in their lives, or had a major impact on history, can provide information revealing as many of the valuable lessons the author has learned and recorded for the benefit of the reader. Autobiographies also reveal how authors think and this was the part of the book that took it from a story about a boy growing up in the 60’s who is struggling with himself on how to “fit in” as a biracial person to a fervent advocate for the real and perceived injustices suffered by blacks in that era.
The author interprets every experience and thing he knows of in terms of liberal sociological and psychological teachings. It comes through, often seemingly illogically, in his interpretation of every experience and thing he acquires knowledge of on almost every page of the book.
At the end of his Columbia University days, he decided to become a community organizer (or social activist). The author had previously transferred from Occidental College (Oxy) to Columbia University in New York city since most blacks at Oxy wanted to get along with and be successful in the mainstream and were not interested in social activism. He viewed Columbia as being “in heart of a true city, with black neighborhoods in close proximity.” Oxy is located near Pasadena, a highly enviable and pristine town near Los Angeles, noted for its prosperity and resistance to crack-pot ideas and politics (from what this reviewer knows of that town). The author describes the Oxy environment as being similar to Hawaii, “The students were friendly, the teachers encouraging,” and the author labels any such behaving blacks as “compromise.”
While at Oxy, he preferred to associate with: “The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.” And the author appeared to be diligent about being as alien and uncivil in society as he could be with this group of clones of his maternal grandfather.
The harsh and bleak realities of portions of New York City that he stayed in and visited while at Columbia compel the author to cease using drugs and practicing other related dissipations that he indulged in while at Oxy. In other words, he fits very comfortably into the harsh and bleak areas of the NYC environment, but could not tolerate the relatively plush, prosperous, and pristine Pasadena environment. This attitude appears to this reviewer as being a very familiar symptom of firm blessed-be-the-poor type beliefs, whose roots comes from the Roman Catholic Church, which is the mother of socialism (minus the church’s assorted deities).
The author has little else to say about his Junior and Senior years at Columbia. The highlight of his stay at Columbia is a visit from his mother and his sister, to check up on him and to show her daughter all the sights to see in the city as well as other locations in the continental US.
After college, he became a research assistant in a consulting house to multinational corporations — with the intent of staying only long enough to pay off his college expenses. He described himself as “spy behind enemy lines,” still in the mind-set of an hostile alien. He was the envy of the other black employees at that firm and they were proud of him but disparaged of his plans to become a community organizer. After he was promoted to financial writer, he left the company (and it leaves him in excellent financial condition) to pursue his community organizer interests. His initial community organizer work proves to be unprofitable (and leaves him in poor financial condition).
Then he interviewed with a Chicago based community organizer (highlighting that he looked very out-of-shape and unkempt, and was Jewish). The community organizer asked him, “Hmmph.”…”You must be angry about something.” The author replied: “What do you mean by that?” The community organizer answered: “I don’t know what exactly. But something. Don’t get me wrong — anger’s a requirement for the job. The only reason anybody decides to become an organizer. Well adjusted people find more relaxing work.” So this preferred career choice showed that the author had developed a large measure of anger about race.
(For those who might not know, a community organizer is a person who basically goes into a community of lower income people and points out problems that they should be angry about and incites them to do something about it. At the same time, he lamented that Africans didn’t know they were poor until “whites” arrived and showed them all of the things they were missing out on.)
His dad (Barack Obama, Sr.) was from Kenya. His dad was resourceful and intelligent enough to get a scholarship to attend college in Hawaii. That is where he met Obama Jr.’s white mother (Ann Dunham). He digressed to describe her parents (Stanley (family familiar: “Gramps”) and Madelyn (family familiar: “Toot”) Dunham) and their backgrounds. It is his white grandparents who perform a major portion of the author’s upbringing (the cover photographs show that author bears a striking resemblance to his white maternal grandfather – the text makes no mention of this). His white grandfather always preferred the company of blacks as he was something of a wild rebel and simply did not fit into main (white) society. This likely influenced his daughter’s decision to marry Barack Obama Sr.. His daughter’s marriage only lasted a short while. Barack Obama Sr. Received a scholarship to do graduate work at Harvard, so he left the his son at about age two and his mother in Hawaii with the grandparents and went to Harvard. He turned downed a more generous financial offer from another university in New York city that would have allowed the entire family to go there but he preferred the prestige of Harvard – despite its less generous financial offer. So he went to Harvard by himself.
Meanwhile, Stanley Dunham received a long and harsh letter from Obama Sr.’s severe father (Hussein Onyango) denouncing the marriage and it became apparent to her from the other contents of the letter that Barack Obama Sr. was still legally (or by local tradition) married to his first Kenyan wife and so she divorced him since she did not approve of polygamy. Before the marriage, Barack Obama Sr. had told Ann Dunham that he had separated from his first Kenyan wife that he had been married in a traditional village marriage. The narrative later explains that polygamy is a Kenyan tradition (ditto the rest of sub Saharan Africa) and when a Kenyan marriage ends, the children go to the father, if he wants them. African traditions are like laws and are treated as having more authority than civil laws (the book does not discuss this matter but you cannot miss it if you know any Africans or have visited the continent). Hussein Onyango was vehemently opposed to that marriage since he had become very familiar with western culture (he had immersed himself in it when the British showed up in order to learn their ways and to learn how to defeat them) and knew that no white woman would put up with a polygamous African husband. His long and harsh letter to Stanley Dunham effectively torpedoed his daughter’s marriage to Barack Obama Sr. once she had read it.
After Harvard, Barack Obama Sr. went back to Kenya with his next American white wife (Ruth, 2 children) while still married to the first Kenyan wife (2 children). He worked for the local Shell oil division and then used his connections to get a government job in the Ministry of Tourism. It lasted until his well known imperious manner got him into trouble with Jomo Kenyatta himself. He had to scrape by on handouts until Kenyatta died and then he got another government job in the Ministry of Finance. Meanwhile, he routinely became drunk so that his third wife Ruth left him after his first DUI car accident that killed the other driver (a white farmer). The author only saw him for a few days while he was living in Hawaii (when his dad came to stay to recover from his first major auto wreck). He then had a young fourth wife (1 child). Later his dad got killed in his final auto wreck.
This missing dad later motivates the author to search out information about him since he was never really raised by him at all and only sent him a number of short general type letters. His dad was spread too thin from one continent to another, one wife and the children by her (not “her children” according to Kenyan tradition), and with other wives and the children by them. Therefore, he ended up not being an effective real-time dad to any of the children he fathered. Only one of the author’s male Kenyan relatives realizes that polygamy simply does not work. The author was somewhat shattered by what he found out from his relatives in Kenya about his father.
The author’s mother married an Indonesian student (Lolo) after divorcing Barack Obama, Sr. and moved to Indonesia with the author. His step-father fathered his half-sister Maya. The author’s step-father took a genuine interest in his development and upbringing, teaching him how to survive and cope in a hazardous, corrupt, and wretched society. This training appears to be the basis of the author’s unrivalled political skills. This marriage lasts until the author’s mother decided that this husband was too cooperative with that country’s corrupting practices to get by (her impractical idealism clashed badly with his practical reality methods) and did not like how the author was being treated in the local schools (since Asians are intolerant of racial differences). The author’s step-father tried hard to provide for and shelter his family — at a level far above the norm for Indonesian society, but the author’s mother resented it all since none of this conformed to her ideals of absolute ideological perfection. One can afford to have these ideas, courtesy of a rule-of-law society, such as in the US, whether these impractical ideas work or not, anywhere at all — but not in a social Darwinist type society, such as Indonesia, where no one can survive on the ideals of absolute ideological perfection. So in the end, ideological incorrectness ended the marriage. The author labels his step father as a compromiser, despite all the survival skills he taught him that he very effectively uses for politics.
On the other hand, the author’s mother was, to some degree, justified to object to the corrupt practices present in Indonesian society since that is what make a third world country a third world country. This reviewer has encountered a number of people from the third world who were raised on social Darwinist principles. They always look only after themselves, they will take advantage of you every time you have to work with them, they take credit for your work, they hide information you need – even if you have requested it, they walk all over you, they make you appear to be useless, and in the end – they cause you to be booted out.
Obama’s mother then took her children back to Hawaii (when he was about 10 years old) to have their grandparents raise them while she was working on yet another degree and then divorced Lolo. That’s right, her work as a perpetual student was more important than than raising her children. Sound familiar? The Dunhams seem to have been already immersed in the lower end of the self-serving, self-righteous, and all about-me social behavior.
Back in Hawaii, his maternal grandfather’s boss used his alumni connections to get the author admitted to Punahou, an expensive private secondary school in Hawaii. Obama completed grades 5 to 12 at Punahou. A notable incident there was a white high-school friend’s discomfort at an all-black party that made the author feel as if he was regarded as societal alien by all whites and this angered him very intensely. This incident appears to stir up his festering anger about race.
Later, his grandmother insists on being driven to work on a day following an incident where a black man had harassed her at the bus stop. This incident cements his anger about race.
The book even explains how he developed his renown smooth-saying abilities (from pages 94-95 of the 1995 Three Rivers Press and Crown Publishers paperback versions):
“…and one day she” (referring to his mother) “had marched into my room, wanting to know the details of Pablo’s arrest. I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied, they were relieved — such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”
So there lies the explanation for Obama’s smooth-saying: an effective tactic, that uses a courteous demeanor and reassuring smile to beguile people into being satisfied with whatever he was saying (while hiding his anger). Moreover, he explains that is also an effective means to deceive (trick) people. This also explains why he manages the amazing feat of continuing to maintain his associations with radicals of all types while maintaining his popular appeal to the mainstream (it looks like the step-father Lolo taught survival skills very well).
Those two pages of the 1995 autobiography grabbed this reviewer’s attention more than any other portion of the book since they explain so very much about this author.
As for rating the book, it is fairly well written and detailed, and provides excellent insights into the author’s thinking and experiences (a 5 rating). However, what it reveals is very negative and the book drones on and on throughout with the author preaching his dogmas and all of this makes the book a very unpleasant read, but it was a valuable experience (a 1 to 2 rating). So I gave it an average 3 rating overall. The narrative does not flow chronologically and the account needs to be pieced together as in the manner of solving a puzzle. That is a common literary style and I did not use that for the rating. Anyone that carried out their “civic duty to vote” in November 2008 ar any other time in the future should read or have read this book beforehand no matter how pleasant or unpleasant they may find it to read. It will be a basis for a much more informed experience than all of the useless noise emanating from all of the political campaigns.