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Barack Obama's intimate memoir of his personal life

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  • May 22, 2008
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Barack Obama must be the only person on the planet with a background like this: son of a free-spirited young woman who married a black student from Kenya while living in Hawaii with her parents, her father a World War II veteran seeking his fortune as a salesman and her mother a career woman who did not want to be called "Grandma." The family had come to Hawaii because Gramps (he didn't mind being called that) asked for a transfer when he learned the furniture company he worked for was opening a store there. And so their daughter happened to meet the first Barack Obama who happened to have gotten a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii. It was not clear that their marriage was ever legal, as we learn later in the book that the senior Barack already had a wife in Kenya. The union did not last, but it left a legacy - a son, the young Barack Obama who tells us his story, a moving account of his journey toward reconciling the two parts of himself.

Clearly, he loved his mother, and she never stopped loving him or wanting the best for him, even while her idyllic dreams faded as the enigmatic Kenyan left her to study at Harvard, then go back to his other women in Kenya. She married an Indonesian student and took young Barack to live in Indomesia, where he learned to play with other kids of various shades of brown, and struggled with the poverty and corruption that seemed to permeate life there. Finally, his mother decided he had to go back to his grandparents in Hawaii, to better schools and better opportunities. Gramps called in all his favors and was able to get young Barack into the best school on the island. The author tells us that this first experience with affirmative action had nothing to do with being black. It had everything to do with grandparents who loved their grandson.
His life with the grandparents who made him a priority in their lives defined a happy childhood. While the racial difference did not infect their family life, at times it still intruded. He relates the story of a man hassling his grandmother as she waited for a bus, and the shock he felt when Gramps tells him that the man who frightened Toot was black. This bothered Gramps, but he was right away sorry he had told his grandson. Full of contradictory feelings about his own racial identity, Obama goes to see an old black poet who Gramps liked to hang out with. The man explained (in his own poetic way) that a white man can be comfortable with a black man, come over and fall asleep in his house and be buddies, but, said the old black poet, the white man can never understand what it really feels like to be black, and that "your grandma's right to be scared... she understands that black people have a reason to hate." The chapter concludes with the words "and I knew for the first time that I was utterly alone."

In his aloneness, he goes to college in California, then moves to New York. He matter-of-factly tells us that the person who offered him a place to stay was not in his apartment when, suitcase in hand, fresh off the subway, he showed up and rang the doorbell. With no place to stay and not enough money for a hotel, the future Senator (future President?) SLEPT IN AN ALLEY! I was astounded to read this, and thought of my own daughter, who also went off with just a few bags and not much money to find her future in the Big Apple. I hope she never slept in an alley.

Unsatisfied with a professional suit-and-tie job, Obama gets it in his head that he wants to be a community organizer. He sends out resumes, he quits the good job, he goes down to his last dollar before taking a job offered by a scruffy white guy to work in some tough neighborhoods of Chicago.

His experiences with the poor people of Chicago are poignant and related with an honesty and refreshing lack of boasting. No, he didn't wipe out poverty and racism, and some of his efforts fell flat, but he learned a lot about himself as well as what life is like for poor people who feel powerless. And he had a few successes.

It's hard to say whether the first part of the book, with all those early experiences, was the best part, or the last part where he takes us along on his trip to Kenya, to try to reclaim the elusive father he never really knew. He has met his father only once, back in Hawaii at the fancy school where the other kids, learning his father was African, asked if his father ate people, and young Barack makes up stories to hide his feelings about not knowing his own father. And he endures the tortured worry when his father is invited to speak to the school children about Africa, and savors the vindication and relief when the kids actually enjoy the black man's tales about the faraway place called Kenya. His father teaches him to dance, then disappears from his life, except for a now and then letter.

The book shifts quickly into the Kenyan story, a little too abruptly. But I was soon lost in the tale of all the family, trying to keep straight who was related to who and how. It must have been a bit like that too for the author, who found his lost family in many ways not as he thought they'd be, but in other ways more wonderful than he expected. He traced the path his grandfather Onyango had taken, from Luo tribesman to wearing the white man's clothes and learning their ways. But the English colonialists left, and Jomo Kenyatta, of the Kikuyu tribe, led the country as the senior Barack, son of Onyango, returned with his Harvard education, to help build a country. He did not build any wealth for his family, as the author tells us of modest houses, shared beds, traveling by rickedy bus, and using outhouses. I loved the account of going on a safari and his description of the animals. His sister Auma did not want to go ("safaris are for the white tourists") and his insistance ("You're letting your prejudices keep you from enjoying your own country"). He shows love and concern for all his African family (an incredible collection of half-brothers and sisters with mutiple mothers), but Auma has a special place in his heart. She came to see him in America and had lived and studied in Germany. She too had some of the same ambivalence about heritage. No male chauvinist Luo ways for her!

The last chapters are also an abrupt shift. We fast-forward through the rest of Obama's life to the time he wrote the book. It's as if he wanted to tell us more, but ran out of space and just summarized the rest. I'm sure there is so much more to tell, and who knows if the years ahead will yield up an even more incredible story than this? Barack Obama seems to have finally laid to rest the ghost of his father and found his own authentic self. We are the richer that he chose to share his journey with us.

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More Dreams from My Father: A Story... reviews
review by . July 21, 2009
 Barack Obama's auobiography, which starts at birth and ends before he enters law school, reads like a good novel and is filled with interesting characters.     There's "Gramps," the white grandfather who tells Hawaiian tourists that the young Barack is the descendent of a king. There's "Toot," the white grandmother who lets Barack watch the last five minutes of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," despite dire warnings from his dad. There's …
review by . June 04, 2009
I will admit that I hadn't heard of the author until his big speech and have obviously followed his career thus far. He is a wonderful speaker and make people want to listen to him. Gorgeous and amazing. I wasn't sure what to expect from his writing, but I was hoping it would be good.    This far surpassed my hopes. His writing is gorgeous, it has a certain flow to it that makes you want to slow down and really follow what he is saying and why. And his story is one worthy of …
review by . November 15, 2008
I am impressed by Obama's ability to analyze himself. In "Dreams from my Father," he readily points out his adolescent flaws, frustrations, and misunderstandings in a way no sitting politician ever could. Historians should be very grateful that he wrote this before he ran for elected office. I cannot think of another memoir by a politician that seemed so unfiltered and human.    By the way, Obama is a beautiful writer. His sentences are smooth and at times lyrical. I look forward …
review by . June 29, 2008
...which I read before anyone began to take Obama's chances of being nominated for president seriously. Still, it had the tenor of a campaign biography -- careful, modest, strategic, and yes, evasive at times. The most any campaign biography ever provides is a sense of the subject's priorities; in other words, you won't find many clues to Obama's specific positions on world issues in the account of his childhood. You will, however, get a feeling of the man, and you will discover an American who …
review by . April 26, 2005
Told from his earliest remembrance to his entrance to law school, Illinois Senator Barack Obama chronicles his coming-of-age story in Dreams of My Father. He lived under the shadow of a man for whom he was named but did not know; a man bigger than life and a man he did not meet until he was ten years old.    That "Barry" struggled with his identity was no small wonder. He was the product of white mother and an African father living with white grandparents in Hawaii. As a teen …
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Theresa Welsh ()
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I'm a book lover, book reviewer and part-time book seller. I'm also a writer and author, with a background in IT work in both the auto and medical industries. I retired from full-time work a year … more
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About this book


Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is a memoir by President of the United States Barack Obama. It was first published in 1995 after Obama was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, but before his political career began. The book was re-released in 2004 following Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC); the 2004 edition includes a new introduction by Obama, then a Senator-elect, as well as his DNC keynote address.

The autobiographical narrative tells the story of the life of Obama up to his entry in Harvard Law School. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Barack Obama, Sr. of Kenya, and Ann Dunham of Wichita, Kansas, both students at that time at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Obama's parents separated when he was two years old and divorced in 1964. Obama formed an image of his absent father from stories told by his mother and her parents. He saw his father only one more time, in 1971, when Obama Sr. came to Hawaii for a month's visit. The elder Obama died in a car accident in 1982.

After her divorce, Ann Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, an East-West Center student from Indonesia. The family moved to Jakarta. When Obama was ten, he returned to Hawaii under the care of his grandparents (and later his mother) for the better educational opportunities available there. He was enrolled in the fifth grade at Punahou School, a private college-preparatory school. ...

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ISBN-10: 1400082773
ISBN-13: 978-1400082773
Author: Barack Obama
Genre: Non-fiction, Biographies & Memoirs
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Date Published: August 10, 2004
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