This book has been written with great literary flair. Every place in which Barack Obama has lived or which he has visited is described with the skill of a great travel-writer; every person, every social setting is graphically and memorably brought to life. His independently-minded maternal grandparents, white folk who had themselves eloped against the wishes of the grandmother's father, had no theory about racial equality but simply assumed it and were shocked when their surroundings did not. Apart from the fact that the grandfather had itchy feet, that may have been one of the reasons why they left Texas and moved to Hawaii, which was more racially tolerant than mainland America. When their daughter married Barack senior, a black Kenyan whom she had met at the University of Hawaii, they accepted him. It was a brief marriage: he left his wife and his brown-skinned two-year-old son, Barack junior, to study in America, and never returned to live with them. Two years later she married an Indonesian (another superb pen-portrait), and when Barack was six years old, they all went off to live in a village on the edge of Djakarta. Barack learnt a lot from his step-father and from life in Indonesia under a savage right-wing dictatorship. He also learnt much from his mother, who counteracted the step-father's fatalistic acceptance of the situation in Indonesia by constantly setting before her son the struggles of the American liberals in the 1960s and 1970s. Her second marriage, too, would end in divorce. She sent Barack back to Hawaii when he was ten, to be educated at a good American school there.
Even in Hawaii where there was more racial mixing than anywhere else in the United States, there were many incidents which taught the adolescent Barack that he was a black person in essentially a white man's world, and there was one incident in which he found that even his beloved grandmother was afraid of a black beggar when she would not have been of a white one. It was a shattering discovery for a youngster whose mother and grandparents were white: to which world did he really belong? He was still confused and angry at college in Los Angeles; and then he realized that he was going in for self-dramatization (and, to some extent, I feel he had not fully overcome it in this book). There was no need for him to be trapped in that kind of drama - some of his more mature black fellow-students taught him that. His identity was surely something more than was defined above all by his race.
But that was easier said than found, or perhaps even really wanted at that time. He wanted to identify himself with a community, and initially this was a black community. So in 1983, at the age of 22, he joined a community organization in Chicago, and the second part of the book is about his time there. Things had started looking up for black people in that city. They were immensely proud of the election of the first black mayor, Harold Washington; anti-discrimination laws in the public sector had enabled some blacks to move to the more prosperous areas of the city (only to find that the whites were moving out); but in run-down districts like Altgeld there was still a huge pool of hopelessness. Some alienated youngsters had created their own gun-culture, and it was uphill and disheartening work for Barack and the community leaders to get people to come together to do something to help themselves, and also to pressure the authorities. After a year's hard work there were some small successes to celebrate (each movingly narrated), and each bringing in new participants, and also set-backs - which lost some of them again.
For some of Barack's colleagues, total rejection of white society was the only way in which black `self-respect' could express itself. Barack understood the psychological need for this; but - not only because of his own background - felt that self-respect cannot be based simply on what was essentially a generalized hatred for and separation from a society in which blacks were enmeshed with whites in a thousand practical and inescapable ways.
After three years as a Community Organizer, Barack thought he could be of more use to the black community if he took time off to train as a lawyer. He won a place at the Harvard Law School; but before he took it up, he paid his first visit to Kenya in 1987; and the account of that visit takes up the third part of this book. In America he had already met a half-sister with whom he established an instant rapport (a most touching account, that), and now he met the rest of his very extended and complicated family (Barack Senior had fathered eight children from four different women), with all their rivalries and resentments, but also with their warmth. From the third wife of his grandfather he learnt the whole story of his Kenyan family. If he had visited Kenya in search of roots, his perplexities and self-questioning did not diminish - but that aspect is not the only one in this vivid account of his visit to the country.
The book is a reflection of a sensitive and thoughtful man of mixed race in America. In 1995, when it was first published and Barack Obama was 33 years old, he still seemed very uncertain of who he was, was focussed on the problems of the black community in the United States and then on his Kenyan heritage. Today he seems very confident and sure of his identity, campaigning for the Presidency on a programme that transcends any question of race. In more ways than one, he has come a long way.