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The Early Life Of Barack Obama
on 21 October 2008
Long before he was a candidate to be President of the United States, or even a candidate for the state legislature, Barack Obama wrote "Dreams from My Father". He had been elected as the first African-American president of the "Harvard Law Review", and if that had been the end of his public career, this book would have long been out of print. But, with Obama running for the U.S. Senate, it was reprinted, and now his Presidential run has undoubtedly increased the interest in this work.
This is an interesting book, though certainly Obama's skill as a writer does not match that of his skill as an orator. The book is divided into three sections: "Origins", a look at his younger days; "Chicago", his decision to move to Chicago and work as a community organizer; and "Kenya", about his visit to see his extended family in the country where his father was born. The edition which I read also includes two introductions: one written for the original release of the book; and a second introduction written for the 2004 edition during his run for U.S. Senate. The book closes with a brief epilogue, and an excerpt from his second book "The Audacity of Hope".
"Origins" is an interesting look at some of the aspects of his growing up. This section is focused primarily on race, which is not surprising considering the reason he was asked to write the book. This section also contains key stories about his family, and most importantly his father, but I wish he had spent more time on that part of his life in this book. The section starts with the period prior to his realizing that race was important, and moves through a brief example of his being embarrassed by it, to a longer period of his taking on what is often considered the typical lifestyle of young black men. Finally he seems to break out of the trap he was falling into and embraces who he really is. The stories are rather a sparse collection from his childhood, so this is by no means a full biography, but one does get a glimpse of the road he took to get to where he is, including a detour into drugs, and touches on the death of his father. It is a story which takes him from Hawaii to Indonesia; to California and on to New York.
"Chicago" covers the period when he decided to become a community organizer. At the time he was in New York City, and initially he seems to be pulled away from his decision by corporate America. He then rededicates himself to his decision, and after some initial difficulties he meets Marty Kaufman, who offers him a position in Chicago, which he decides to take once he realizes that he has not connected with New York. His stories of his initial attempts and initial failures are interesting and insightful. It is in the last chapter of this section where he meets Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., and is introduced to the workings of the Trinity United Church of Christ. This occurs after he has decided to attend Harvard, and it is clear that Reverend Wright had a huge impact on him. It is here that he talks about the "Audacity of Hope" sermon, after which he would title his second book. Reverend Wright has become a controversial figure, and there are some signs of his controversial views in Obama's description, but the real impact appears to be in helping Obama find a connection to his faith, and not a case of Wright's opinion's or views leading Obama away from who he is.
"Kenya" covers Obama's trip to Kenya to meet his relatives before he goes on to attend Harvard. For me this was the most interesting section of the book, as it gives the reader a look at Obama's extended family, and the interactions between the members. It is also a look inside life in Kenya, and Barack's search to get to know his father. It is also in this section where Barack Obama realizes exactly who he is. Barack forms a fairly strong relationship with his half sister Auma, in spite of the distance and the difficulties which it creates. Both of them seem to be searching to define themselves in the world in which they live.
Oddly enough, though it was his being the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review which caused this book to be written, there is very little mention of his time at Harvard included; just a couple paragraphs in the Epilogue cover that period. That is perhaps the weakness of this book, as there are many gaps in his story which are not covered or receive only passing mention. What are included, are undoubtedly the events which he considers the most significant in his search for who he is.
I would have liked to learn more about some other parts of his life as well. The strength of this book is that it was written before Barack had entered the political arena, so while it is certainly possible that he had already decided to pursue such a career, he could not possibly have known how successful he would be, or how far he would go. Thus I believe he was very honest in the telling of his story. Overall, this is not a literary masterpiece, but it is an interesting read and provides insight into a man who is very likely to become the first African-American U.S. President.