Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: Relevant Now More Than Ever

“For we are strangers before them, and sojourners, as all our fathers were”

1 Chronicles 29:15

I am not one to reread books, but Barack Obama’s 1995 “memoir” demanded a revisit. And it did not disappoint. Through the circumstances of his birth, Obama explores the issue of race — particularly the question of blackness, as well as issues of class and masculinity. In powerful prose, Obama takes us through his early life, from a childhood that was lived on both the clear blue shores of Hawaii and the Indonesian tropics to his time as a community organiser in Chicago. I don’t think labelling the book as a memoir does it justice, it goes beyond providing a mere account of the life of the then-Harvard Law Review’s first Black President, as I shall explain in this review.

After reading Dreams From My Father a second time, it helped me better reflect on the circumstances that got me to read it in the first place, during the summer of 2020. A couple of weeks had passed since protests against racial injustice spread across the West and beyond, and yet again societies were forced to confront the perpetual tension between much-proclaimed values of freedom, equality and justice with histories marred with repression, subjugation and bigotry. Many of the issues he explores remain pertinent, perhaps more so now than ever before.

I will state from the outset that there is no real substitute for reading the book. There are a plethora of themes covered. Some that, due to my limitations and biases, I have either ignored or missed. However, I do wish to explore a few themes that I found particularly interesting and relevant to myself. Namely, those of race, community service, and fatherhood.

Race: An Odyssey

The issue of race features throughout the book, forming the basis for many of Obama’s explorations. The biracial son of the Kenyan Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham of Wichita, Kansas, Obama describes his parents’ union as one that reflected the hope, enthusiasm and naïveté of the Civil Rights movement era of African independence from colonial rule. He spends much of the book unpacking this, through a range of conversations, interactions and experiences from Hawaii to Chicago to New York and Nairobi.

Of the many stories shared with us, the ones I found most pertinent and interesting were Obama’s conversations with his friend Ray and his encounter with Frank Marshall Davis, a semi-famous poet and political activist, before he left for college.

Ray

Ray, whose real name is Keith Kakugawa, was a close friend of Obama and had arrived in Hawaii from Los Angeles as a result of his father’s job. Obama notes them falling into “an easy friendship”, despite Ray being two years Obama’s senior, largely due to them being one of the few Black students at their high school. At this point in his life, Obama’s fully appreciating his existence in America — albeit in Hawaii — as a black man. From being called a coon by a classmate to having an older lady in his grandparents’ apartment building feel threatened by Obama’s presence behind her, running out to tell the apartment manager that he was following her.

“It was obvious that certain whites could be exempt from the general category of our distrust

At this moment in time, Obama was like many young Black men in America: frustrated with his place in the world, and how white America remained an overbearing chain on his ability to be free. For Obama, the pejorative “white folks” becomes yet another source of contradiction and confusion. Despite his exasperations with white America, Obama has to reconcile the fact that his closest relatives — his mother, grandmother Toot and grandfather, Gramps — are all white. But pejorative was all that term white folk represented, a synonym for bigot symbolising Obama and Ray’s frustration at the white world. It’s easy to draw similarities with trends within internet culture today; case in point are pejoratives like ‘Karen’ which, although referring to no one in particular, represent a caricature of the closeted racists that popular culture now detests. This is yet another example of how various cultural products, in this case, such pejoratives go through various renditions and iterations as time passes and society changes; these terms are not simply confined to use by Black America but have been adopted by wider popular culture as a rebuke of those that internalise and act upon outdated and unacceptable racial stereotypes.

Another important conversation has to do with Obama and Ray’s struggles navigating their existence in both black and white worlds. Obama criticises Ray for accepting a high-five from Kurt, one of their white friends, suggesting that he was mocking Black culture. Ray strikes back, accusing the young Barack of hypocrisy, choosing to play by white America’s rules when he needed an extension for homework and other favours from teachers. This, and other interactions lead to Obama in form of pseudo-spiritual/intellectual inquiry, scouring his local library for the works of famous African-American leaders and authors — James Baldwin, Du Bois, Malcolm X and others — in search of something, anything, to help him attain self-actualisation in an America that limited his personhood. Here’s a snippet of Obama’s realisation:

“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 desires, 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 choose 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.”

But for the young Barack, his introductions to these intellectuals provided neither clarity nor respite:

“In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.

However, he found some comfort in the uncompromising bluntness with which Malcolm spoke about the nature of the Black man (and woman) in America. I find this particularly intriguing, how Malcolm X’s legend is ever-present in not only Black America but throughout the diaspora. I remember the first time I read Malcolm’s autobiography and I too was struck by the fearlessness with which he described his life, his tribulations and violent self-discovery, all through a racial and religious lens. There was something about his expression, his charisma. Perhaps a remnant of his past life — his legend, both in life and in death, commanded and continues to command the respect of generations of Africans and those of African descent. Despite Malcolm’s mantras being duly rejected by his mates, Obama continues his exploration, looking to find answers to questions he does not necessarily know yet, an inquiry that would ultimately lead him to Chicago and Kenya.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

This personal voyage by the young Obama, whose destination is not important for this section, is highly significant today. In a time of culture wars, protests over the murder of George Floyd and America’s subsequent yet periodical reckoning with its racial past and present, arguments in Europe over players taking the knee and much more, Obama’s life, I believe, sheds light on the mind of today’s youth: oscillations between puritanism and practicality, principle and reality, the world as we want it to be versus the world as it is. At least in the West, there exists, some argue, a “war of ideas” — whether it be on gender, culture, religion, politics, economics etc. Even reality. But Obama’s woes with his reality remind us of many of the issues we currently face: searching for answers; questioning, challenging and discarding assumptions society has taken for granted. One simply needs to go onto the comments sections of the internet, the tweeting of millions of fellow millennials and Gen Z’ers, the sharing of stories — a collective humming, a search for answers to questions. Though, I would argue we’ve got a better idea of the questions we’re asking. Yet, still searching.

Education: to be Frank

One final conversation on the issue of race is an encounter between Frank and Obama days before he sets off to Los Angeles for university.

“An advanced degree in compromise.” Those were the words Frank chose to describe education as being. This comment does not stem from contempt but from what Frank viewed as being conscious realism, merely a statement of education as it is. Frank informs the young Barack of the real price of admission — the true cost of higher education on the Black student. He explains how college is essentially an ideological state apparatus, established not for education, but rather that of training.

“They’ll train you to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.”

Despite Frank’s scepticism toward education, he does not object to Obama’s educational pursuits, but rather warms him to be wary of the indoctrinatory nature of the institution he was about to enter. To keep his eyes peeled and ears to the ground, to “stay awake”. Though I disagree with Frank’s analysis of the nature of higher education, it got me thinking of an article I had read in one of my modules in law school this year. It spoke about the origins of critical legal theory in the U.S.A., and how it had been born as part of a response to a legal education’s proclivity to make its students more conservative; its tendency to make the previously ‘liberal’ and socially conscious into depoliticised individuals, devoid of care and concerned mainly with self-interest as opposed societal progression.

To some extent, one could argue that is true, but the target of its criticism is misdirected. In my opinion, this issue of university training as opposed to educating students stems from a chasm between the reason most students attend university and the actual purpose of universities. Universities are structured to facilitate scholarship and provide students with the basic building blocks to enter the world of academia. On the other hand, students view higher education as a necessary next step in the employability ladder. An opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual abilities and gain access to high-paying jobs. Does that necessarily mean the education system itself inherently robs individuals of their fiery political views? I don’t think so. The two definitely correlate, but it would be a stretch to claim higher education is the cause of the aforesaid trend. Rather, in my view, there is a plurality of voices present in universities — from leaders of radical thought to strongholds of conservative theories of yesteryear and today, and everything in between. Whether students decide to depoliticise themselves, seems a product of their own decision, conscious or not, as opposed to active thought control by universities.

Now, what does that have to do with race? Well, Frank in this circumstance symbolises the scepticism toward Western education by some Black intellectuals; those who believe they’re smart enough to see through the façade of higher education, to sift through the crap and see these institutions for that they are — ideological apparatuses. Frank’s warning was not aimed to discourage, but rather to inform, to caution a blind endeavour into the world of academia. This scepticism can undoubtedly be seen through Obama’s mixed emotions regarding his law school applications whilst working as an organiser in Chicago. The fear of abandoning his community, of forgetting his roots and merely becoming depoliticised, apathetic himself. Fear of what his fellow brethren will make of his decision to once again enter Babylon. But as Obama would find out, much of such criticism is internal and unnecessary, for most are just happy to see a brother or sister pursue that path. Regardless, Obama again accentuates the tension between the promise of education and the fear of its colossal effect on one’s life. ‘Does one have to sacrifice themselves to succeed in such institutions?’ For Frank, the answer seems to be an overwhelming yes. I tend to disagree.

Community Service

Obama during his time as an organiser in Chicago

One of my favourite parts of the book was where Obama recounts his experience as a community organiser in Chicago. The story of how he got to Chicago begins right after he graduates from Columbia University. At this point, Obama had metamorphosed from the lazy, complacent junior at Occidental College to a motivated, hard-working Political Science senior at Columbia. Whilst at Columbia, Obama decides to become a community organiser. He states that the decision, at the time, did not necessarily stem from anything in particular, perhaps a product of his yearning for change. At least that’s what he told his classmates.

“At the time… I was operating mainly on impulse, like a salmon swimming blindly upstream toward the site of his own conception.”

However, the older Obama reconstructs a logic behind this decision:

“[…] my memories of Indonesia with its beggars and farmers and the loss of Lolo to power, on through Ray and Frank, Marcus and Regina; my move to New York; my father’s death. I can see that my choices were never truly mine alone — and that that is how it should be, that to assert otherwise is to chase after a sorry sort of freedom”

Obama’s unique upbringing has been a major factor in his passion for service and working for the vulnerable. He spent part of his childhood in Indonesia to live with his stepfather Lolo, an Indonesian student his mother met at the University of Hawaii. While in Indonesia, Obama witnessed the crippling poverty that existed in third-world countries. And thus, he has always been cognizant of how the underprivileged, through no fault of their own, are unable to access opportunities due to the dire nature of their circumstances. This awareness leads him in part to embark on a lifetime of service.

After graduation, he doesn’t immediately get into community organising. Instead, he takes on a role at a consulting firm for a while, rises up the corporate ladder yet still makes the jump, quitting his comfortable office job in New York for a life of odd jobs and ‘organising’. Initially, he struggles to find work. Nonetheless, he persists, eventually landing a job as a community organiser in a deprived neighbourhood in Chicago.

The details, though important, are not relevant to my analysis. For me, Obama’s naïveté is precisely what I find so inspiring. At the time that he decides to engage in organising, in a life of service, there’s no grand narrative, no theoretical framework to guide his decisions. He commits to this duty almost out of instinct — a desire to change the world that he was frustrated with. I see a multitude of similarities with so many in my generation.

For a long time, millennials and Gen Z’ers were and continue to be belittled for their online activism, that curated infographics or various hashtags do not amount to real change. You hear the same rebukes and criticisms from segments of our own generations. Perhaps some of it is true, that there’s a limit to which online activism results in real change. But from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, our generation, in partnership with those that came before us, has shown that such activism can lead to change. That if we utilise our ability to converge around issues and causes that we believe in, we can make headlines, send shockwaves and ultimately enact tangible change.

A young protestor at the 2019 Toronto Climate March. Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

Take climate for example. Grassroots campaigns by climate change activists and in the UK at least, by the infamous Extinction Rebellion group, helped push climate change to the forefront of the public consciousness. Activists like Greta Thunberg, who I too have been critical of, have helped reshape the nature of the climate change debate to one where scientists are trying to convince the public and governments that the existential crisis that is climate change exists, but rather to conversations regarding whether we are doing enough to actually reduce carbon emissions and move to a green economy. That youthful arrogance — desire, perhaps impatience for change, is what in my opinion keeps thriving societies ticking. So like Obama, I cheer on the activists, dreamers, and those who care. Those brave enough to speak out about issues that concern them, to speak not out of annoyance but a belief, a conviction that we can — that we must — be better. So for those at the grassroots, those pushing for change at the micro, I salute you, because through Obama’s own account of his experience in organising, I better understand why activism is so important, so necessary for our societies to progress.

Barack Hussein Obama Sr: Dream & Reality

The young Barack with his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. in 1971

For much of Obama’s early life, his father was a mirage, a fantasy known only through tales detailing his impressive intelligence, charisma and boldness. One such story is of a time when, after a long period of study, Obama Sr. joins Gramps at a local bar. All is well until a white man audibly informs the bartender that he should not have to be subjected to drinking liquor “next to a nigger”. Obama Sr. then proceeds to publicly lecture the man on the idiocy of racism, universal human rights and the promise of the American dream.

“This fella felt so bad when Barack was finished,” Gramps would say, “that he reached into his pocket and gave Barack a hundred dollars on the spot. Paid for all our drinks… for the rest of the night — and [Obama Sr.’s] rent for the rest of the month”

Obama Sr. graduated top of his class in Hawaii, attained a Harvard education and was an important government official in Jomo Kenyatta’s administration. It’s easy to see why the young Barack would feel intimidated by the fantasy of his father. For a lot of his early life, Obama describes his father — the ‘Old Man’ — as being a benchmark for excellence. A standard he would be judged against. A legacy to live up to, or die trying. Yet such a characterisation does not sufficiently catalogue the complex relationship he had with his father. Though he knew of his father’s supposed greatness through stories from his childhood, the young Obama exhibits anger toward his father due to his absence. But also, for being a mystery. Aside from a single visit in 1971, Obama would never meet the Old Man again, and by the time of his death in 1982, Obama would scarcely be affected by his father’s passing.

I think again here what is important to note is how Obama’s own experiences or lack thereof with his father have influenced his outlook on life, and politics.

This #FathersDay, we’re celebrating dads like James and Lazarus, who went through @YG_Chicago’s Becoming a Man program, and are shining examples for their daughters despite the obstacles they’ve had to overcome. Hear their reflections on fatherhood with @BarackObama.

Originally tweeted by The Obama Foundation (@ObamaFoundation) on 20/06/2021.

Obama is clearly invested in the role — or the lack thereof — of fathers/father figures in the lives of underprivileged males, and the impact of absent and/or abusive fathers negatively affecting the life chances of Black men. In his time as a community organiser in Chicago, he saw first-hand how the deterioration of communities — the proliferation of street gangs; teenage boys killing each other with guns, substance abuse, unruliness and a sense of hopelessness among single mothers as they watch their boys descend in a dark hole of crime, death and destituteness. An endless cycle.

Perhaps this particular aspect of Dreams from My Father catches my eye more because I am a Black male. For all of my life, I have been blessed to have had an extremely supportive father, one that was and is approachable, present and easygoing. In a world where masculinity has come under scrutiny, I have always felt a sense of confidence by having a guide through the example of my own dad. However, this is not the case for all boys and men. Too many boys grow up with absent fathers. No one to guide them through the process of becoming a man; the need to be responsible, to be kind, to be strong, to be vulnerable, to be human. I feel that’s not discussed enough in public discourse. Throughout 2021 men’s mental health awareness month, there have been attempts to encourage discourse around men’s mental health. As mental health becomes less of a taboo subject among men, I hope public discourse will once again turn to masculinity and the importance of its careful cultivation during the adolescent years of young men. But I digress, a topic for another day. Back to Obama.

Just before he begins law school at Harvard, Obama goes on a trip to Kenya to visit his paternal relatives and there finds out more about his family, his lineage, and through the tales of others, the reality of his father. Though the Old Man was indeed impressive, Obama learns that he too was human. Full of flaws, Obama Sr. had a tendency to be reckless, unable to tame his principles in a world that demanded compromise and subsequently paid a high price for it. Poverty, divorce and ostracism haunted the Old Man for years, but when he got back to his feet he remained with the same youthful arrogance, boldness and grandeur that left so many mesmerised by him.

By the end of his trip to Kenya, Obama revises his idea of and relationship with his father. He no longer views him as an overbearing yet absent benchmark for excellence, nor is he scornful over his father’s absence. Rather, he accepts his father for who he is in his entirety — a flawed human being, a victim of the struggle between his own ideals and the circumstances of his own existence. To judge the Old Man too harshly or to revere in his legacy would not do him justice, as either would merely be projections of Obama’s own internal state of mind. What he got was closure. Clarity on a man who despite his absence remained an ever-present shadow in his own life.

Concluding Remarks

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book both times. Albeit a tendency for Obama to dramatise the mundane (which is not a criticism, merely an observation), he shares with us bits of his extraordinary life, with a remarkable ability to piece together fragments of his memory to create a cohesive, engaging and deeply moving narrative. There is so much to discuss, so much to unpack and like with most books, there is no substitute for reading the ‘memoir’ yourself. Dreams from My Father is about many topics but at heart one of exploration. So never be afraid to explore, to discover yourself, for you do not know where that curiosity will lead you to. Definitely a book I would recommend to just about anyone.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of The Radius.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Art

    A wonderful read and a great journey through the book.

  2. sindikudziwa

    I think this was a vulnerable piece written so eloquently. Thank you for the read Ishmael

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