When our book group chose Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama for February, I thought it might be coming to the party (any party!) too late. But, in fact, we all felt the timing actually enhanced the reading experience. We got a glimpse into the head and heart of a man who, as he was writing this autobiography in 1995, had no thought he would someday seek – let alone attain – the presidency of the United States. Yet all of us knew, as we read: this author is going to become president!
To say Barack Obama has led an examined life is an understatement. Born to a white mother and black father from Kenya, Obama met his biological father only once when he was ten. His parallel search to learn about his father while sorting out what it means to be black in America is the intriguing core of the book. We are taken on Obama’s journey from Hawaii and Indonesia to New York, Chicago and Africa. Along the way, he questions his experiences and the people he encounters, driven by a gnawing dissatisfaction
and doubt about the role of race.
Because of a youth spent in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama came late to racial prejudices and stereotypes as we know them in the United States. Yet, Obama seems to be revealing that he feels like he came from two different worlds, and felt a part of neither.
The author displays a fierce and exhaustive intellect, parsing all sides of a question. His findings, eloquently presented with a philosophical overlay, belie their pragmatic conclusions.
Members of our group differed over what Obama’s search revealed about his ultimate take on race (at least by the end of this book). Some thought he came to view the racial divide to be more insurmountable than he originally believed, and, perhaps, that his shouts of one country, one community rang a bit hollow. But others thought his sharper understanding of the many-layered obstacles to progress might enable him to help move the nation toward becoming one community.
It was too early for us to predict whether Obama’s experiences from his own quest will equip him to be a successful president. We were left hoping that the same drive, laser focus, and constant and deep probing for answers evident in his personal exploration will guide his presidency. Transformation is slow, erratic and fraught with pitfalls. Barack Obama may not always find the right answers, but the book suggests he has an ample capacity to engage in the search.