Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

All the other books that I want to read finally made me feel guilty enough to complete Obama’s book. The distractions were numerous, but two evenings later and I can officially say, “Yeah…I read that…”

“You know, my faith is one that admits some doubt.” – Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s Bio: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4th, 1961. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was born and raised in a small village in Kenya, where he grew up herding goats with his own father, who was a domestic servant to the British. Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, grew up in small-town Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs during the Depression, and then signed up for World War II after Pearl Harbor, where he marched across Europe in Patton’s army. Her mother went to work on a bomber assembly line, and after the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through the Federal Housing Program, and moved west to Hawaii. It was there, at the University of Hawaii, where Barack’s parents met. His mother was a student there, and his father had won a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya and pursue his dreams in America. Barack’s father eventually returned to Kenya, and Barack grew up with his mother in Hawaii, and for a few years in Indonesia. Later, he moved to New York, where he graduated from Columbia University in 1983. Read more…

Book: Dreams from My Father

Publisher: Three Rivers Press/Random House, Inc. (2004 edition)
Original Publication Year: 1995

Pages: 453 (including Keynote Address…to the Democratic Convention)

Opening Lines: A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan.

From the Inside Flap: In this lyrical, unsentimental, and compelling memoir, the son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American. It begins in New York, where Barack Obama learns that his father—a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man—has been killed in a car accident. This sudden death inspires an emotional odyssey—first to a small town in Kansas, from which he retraces the migration of his mother’s family to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life, and at last reconciles his divided inheritance.

Reason the book was selected: My boyfriend says that I don’t read enough non-fiction. Seeing him read this book and hearing him discuss various portions from it encouraged me to pick it up myself. And of course I wanted to see just how “real” this presidential candidate was with his readers.

Cover Art Commentary: While I understand this book is a memoir, typically when you read a biography you want to see photos somewhere in the middle, right? Instead Obama gives us three funky pictures on the front cover. I examined the first few pages trying to see if he made any notes on how the photos related to him. Nothing. I believe I figured them out though. My guess is that these individuals are (from L to R): his grandmother, Akumu, seated with his father Barack; obviously Barack Obama; and his stepfather Lolo with Barack’s sister Maya.

Book Overview: Without reading any other reviews or summaries, this memoir probably wouldn’t cover the stories and topics that one might expect. Separated into three sections labeled Origins, Chicago, and Kenya, readers are guided through Obama’s path to self-discovery. Being a presidential candidate and graduate of Columbia Univ. and Harvard Law, without knowing him, one might assume that Obama came from a certain type of socio-economic background. These assumptions are dispelled immediately when we discover that both sides of his family lived decent but meager lifestyles. Readers will also learn that as strong and opinionated as he is today, there were numerous occasions in the past when words failed him. Although confident now, there were also times when Obama struggled with not only his Black/African identity, but also his American identity.

It’s not about you, is the phrase that began to guide Obama toward who he is today. Toward the end of the Origins section we gain a better understanding of how people and events ease us all toward our rightful paths. The college rallies, coffee and dorm room chats, and the first glimpses of who his father was as a man were for Obama, the first glimpses of “a need for change.”

The individuals Obama encounters during his community organizer days in Chicago are what actually shape that particular section. As Obama learns exactly what a community organizer is and does, he becomes closer to the people in the community that he assists. His boss Marty, a white Jewish man, attempts to train him on the skills he’ll need to be successful, but doesn’t necessarily find success himself. As Obama’s respect and accomplishments grow, Marty further distances himself before departing the scene totally. Obama demonstrates his mentor and acquired leadership abilities in this slow-paced, mostly uneventful section. Then deciding it’s time to move on from this world, he applies and is accepted into law school.

The memoir begins with the death of Obama’s father, foreshadowing the journey to Kenya that he must eventually take. In the third and final section we finally gain a better understanding of his father’s background and how his bloodline effects Obama as a man. The reader is introduced to numerous family members, and keeping up with all their names was sometimes overwhelming. Every few pages one of these family members gives Obama what they can (namely a story) to help him gain a better understanding of the father and family that he never really knew. By the final pages, it is obvious that the novel has come full circle.

The Negatives: Obama says it himself in the introduction, sometimes he may have “overestimat[ed] the interest” that others may have for certain parts of his story. There are quite a few portions of this book, especially the Chicago section, that should have been edited WAY down. Including the epilogue, the book was 442 pages, of which at least (AT LEAST) 40 could have been left in his editor’s recycle bin. Then again, how does an author determine when he/she has gone into detail and description overdrive? Mixed in between those details, sometimes Obama would go overboard with the “here’s the message you’re supposed to take away from this part” chatter.

Again, once he arrived in Kenya, there were just too many family members to keep up with. I don’t know if it was because some of them lacked unique characteristics that would have kept them easily identifiable ten pages after they were originally introduced, or what. Maybe a family tree should have been considered somewhere in the book.

Notable Excerpt: We were always playing on the white man’s court, Ray had told me, by the white man’s rules. If the principal or the coach, or a teacher, or Kurt, wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn’t. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desire, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn’t even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self–the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass–had been freely chosen by you. At best these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could chose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger. (p. 85)

Other Publishings: The Audacity of Hope At the heart of this book is Senator Obama’s vision of how we can move beyond our divisions to tackle concrete problems. He examines the growing economic insecurity of American families, the racial and religious tensions within the body politic, and the transnational threats–from terrorism to pandemic–that gather beyond our shores. And he grapples with the role that faith plays in a democracy–where it is vital and where it must never intrude. Underlying his stories about family, friends, members of the Senate, even the president, is a vigorous search for connection: the foundation for a radically hopeful political consensus…

Barack Obama: In His Own Words – A book of quotes from the Illinois Senator, allows those who aren’t as familiar with his politics to learn quickly where he stands on abortion, religion, AIDS, his critics, foreign policy, Iraq, the War on Terror, unemployment, gay marriage, and a host of other important issues facing America and the world.

Obama Said: In many ways, Dreams from My Father was harder to write. At that point, I wasn’t even sure that I could write a book. And writing the first book really was a process of self-discovery, since it touched on my family and my childhood in a much more intimate way. On the other hand, writing The Audacity of Hope paralleled the work that I do every day–trying to give shape to all the issues that we face as a country, and providing my own personal stamp on them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5. While the book was an overall good read, a few snips and cuts could have made it a GREAT read. I know most people will disagree, but I think most of them held him in high regards before reading this book. In that case, I’m sure this book definitely didn’t let them down.


12 thoughts on “Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

  1. Do you think the book would have been any different if the sections were switched around. I questioned whether or not having the section titled Kenya first, then Chicago, then Origins would have had any effect on the reading.

    I am in the process of reading The Audacity of Hope right now and find myself more impressed with the thoughts expressed there than in Dreams from My Father.

    Love the site and I can’t wait to read the next review. Black Like Me should generate a decent discussion on your blog. Then again people would rather talk about how fat Lil’ Kim is getting than a book.


  2. Trenee,

    Greetings from Spring Branch, TX.

    I’m glad to see that you finally finished this book. I come to your site occasionally and was worried that you were losing steam. If I may, your review seemed indirect. Did you really like it or not? Do you consider him a viable candidate based on his first book? Is he, in your terms, “real” or fake?

    I know that you prefer fiction (your boyfriend is wise in pressuring you to read more non-fiction) but I think it’s important for you to read about a man who potentially might lead this country. I am not sure if he’ll slip past Hillary, but it is good training for someone headed back to school.

    Keep up the work. My daughter is reading “Black Like Me” for school. I’m excited to hear your review.



  3. @ Trenne,

    Thank you for visiting the intellectual madhouse (website), and good to see you read Obama’s book you gave some details. It is good that Obama is mixed or biracial too this has helped him a lot. More power to him.

    Thank you and take care.


  4. I’m also glad that you finally finished the book. I was abou to give up on you. I too am interested in reading your views on how this book will effect your vote. Do you think that it will sway the votes of others? Curious.


  5. Wow. I didn’t expect so many comments and questions.

    Quiana- I don’t believe having read this book will have any effect on my vote. I thought it was interesting to that Obama allowed us to really get into his personal life. He mentioned doing drugs and his battle to understand what being black really means in America. While I respect and appreciate his openness about such topics, that doesn’t necessarily mean that such honesty should win you an election. Then again, I’m not rushing out to read books on the other candidates either, so… As far as other people are concerned, will this book sway their vote? I would like to believe that most of the people who have read or will read this book were highly considering voting for Obama anyway. Reading this book, in my opinion, won’t sway them one way or another. Maybe Audacity of Hope should be considered the vote swayer. I wouldn’t know.

    Chance – Do you really believe that his being mixed has helped him? After all, he does have a black wife and “black” children. I don’t think being mixed will be the determining factor for his winning this election.

    Pam – My boyfriend commented on the same thing concerning my review being indirect. He said that this review wasn’t as detailed and didn’t seem to have the same passion as my fiction entries. Did I like the book? I thought the book had some interesting reflections and since completing it I have thought more about some things that were discussed in the book. I thought it was a decent read. I didn’t love it, but the important thing is that certain scenes and words remain on my mind. That’s the sign of a “good” book, right? To answer your other questions, yes I do feel he’s a viable candidate based on this book. Sure, he doesn’t have some of the same experience as the other candidates, but shouldn’t the experiences that he has mean something? I feel like Obama is a strong leader. Look at George Bush, he had previous experience and what kind of job has he done for this country? Hmmm… Was the book real or fake? I’d like to believe it was real, only because he published it before he’d even considered ever running for president. I honestly feel as though we were allowed to get into Obama’s head and stand aside as he battled his demons.

    Anonymous – Do I think the memoir would be any different if the sections were switched around? I believe the order worked as is. With Origins, we were given his developmental foundation. Had Kenya been first, some things that were mentioned would have been lost to the reader.

    Thanks everybody for your comments, but most importantly, thanks for visiting the site!


  6. well…I too am at a stand still with his memoirs. While I enjoy the book, I think I am intrigued because of his canadicy. I hope that other Americans will take the time to read his book and make an informed decision.

    On another note…I miss talking and hanging out with you!


  7. Thanks for this extremely helpful review, Lori. I’ve been resisting reading Obama’s books b/c of the hype around his political campaign now and feeling like it all might be propaganda, but this one sounds really interesting (i have a community organizing background myself and might find the long-winded piece on his Chicago days more engaging). Also, I wanted to know your full name so I can put you on my blogroll. Can you post it here or email it to me at ronagirl@hotmail.com? Thanks!


  8. Angela – I see you are having one of those same reading moments I just dealt with. Push through. Do you really think that this book will effect voting decisions?

    Rona – Who is Lori? Me?


  9. I understand you wanting to be more formal and somewhat professional in your review, but I have to be honest, this style largely robs you of what makes you an interesting writer.

    In some places, it’s impossible to tell what in this review is you and what is co-opted from press materials. If I’m reading this correctly, you spend almost as much time explaining your motivations for reading and opinions on the cover art as you do actually talking about the book’s content. You also give the negatives their own section, but leave the positives to the PR copy/paste job that you started off with.

    We can read all that marketing crap on the Obama site, just put in a link and give us the real skinny playgirl.


  10. Rashid, actually the entire ‘book overview’ is mine. Yes, it was forced because it’s more of a challenge for me to write about non-fiction since I rarely read it. Please note that I don’t read any other summaries or reviews before I do my own. I usually have different opinions of the materials I read than most other individuals do anyway. You know I’m a natural born hater.

    I like to spend a little time talking about book cover art because NOBODY else ever does. I find it interesting that many times the art selected for book covers has little or nothing to do with what’s going on in the book. It’s also interesting for me to search for how the cover art changes once the book is published in paperback vs. hardback versions and in other countries. Maybe nobody else is interested in this topic except me, but I have received email comments about my cover art reflections, so it must interest some people out there.

    Normally I do go through an entire good, bad, and ugly review section (if you’ll check the other reviews), but this book was a little different so I wanted to provide a simple overview instead. Although you can read some of the information I provided on other websites (i.e. the bio and from the inside flap sections), I like to plug it all in here making the review more like an actual lesson of sorts.

    In writing my reviews, I want to provide things other people/sites don’t. You can get a review anywhere, but within most reviews can you get a bio, information about other books, cover art discussion, favorite excerpts, and opening lines? Check for yourself (I’m sure you will and I look forward to seeing those links), but I don’t think so. Thanks for your honest review. I really appreciate it and will keep your feedback in mind when creating other reviews.

    I’d also love to read what you thought about the other books I’ve reviewed. Criticism is always appreciated. Maybe more people will co-sign on your comments. 🙂


  11. Pingback: Obama’s Books Continue to Sell « black girl lost…in a book

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