on 26 March 2008
Forgetting for a moment who wrote this book; this is an engaging, thoughtful, intelligent, perceptive read. This is a real meditation on race and specifically, on what it means to grow up and search for one's racial identity in modern America. And yet, it is beautifully written. Rich in descriptive detail and almost novelistic vignettes, it is also pacey and hard to put down.
Returning to the author, it is truly hard to believe that this was written by a politician (although he wasn't at the time of writing). It is such a good read and provides such a thoughtful and open account of Obama's views and experiences, that it is truly breathtaking in this age of political posturing.
Read this to learn more about Obama. Read this to learn more about the divisions of America. Read this to learn about the black experience both in the US and in Kenya. Read this for the beauty of its writing, but above all, read it, you won't be disappointed.
on 9 September 2004
It is a rare privilege to have such a personal insight into the life and background of a prominent politician. Often it is written about leaders that nobody knows what they are really like as people. But in Barack Obama's case, it is laid out in quite frank detail in this book.
Like most people outside Illinois, I had not heard of Barack Obama until he gave his speech at the Democratic Convention on 27 July (it can be read on his website: [...] and I was fortunate to find the last copy of his book in a Chicago bookshop in August. The opening of the convention speech is a brief outline of the background that formed the book. His father was a Kenyan who went to study in Hawaii, and his mother was living in Hawaii having grown up in Kansas. They parted company soon after Barack was born.
The book is about his childhood and how he adapted to life after his father left his mother. She remarried an Indonesian man, and they went with him to live in Indonesia for some years. Barack returned to the US to finish high school. After graduating, he went to work in Chicago among underprivileged black communities there before deciding to go to law school in Harvard.
Obama's style of writing is extremely personal and analytical of how he dealt with certain issues in his life - his absent father, the colour of his skin, the remarriage of his mother, how he learnt of his father's death, his work in Chicago, his decision to become a lawyer and his rediscovery of his roots in Kenya (including his grandmother, uncles and aunts, and various half-brothers and sisters). Despite having led a very different life in a different part of the world, I was regularly struck by similarities between his life and mine - and can only assume that every reader would have the same reaction.
On a slightly critical note, the book is written at times in quite a fictionalised style that took some time to get used to. It cannot really be believed that Obama remembered every word and pause in quite so many conversation (not to mention what he saw through the window during the many pauses in conversation).
That aside, this is a great book which appears not to have been written with an eye on a political career (future Republican opponents will doubtless make great play out of a small, passing reference to drug use). It was first published in 1995 when Obama was fresh out of law school, commissioned as a result of his having been the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Even if his political star were to fade without the widely tipped shot at the 2012 presidency, I would recommend anybody to read his book.
on 27 April 2007
I have never before read a politician's memoirs - but then, Barack Obama is no ordinary politician. This is a searingly honest account of the growing up pains of a mixed race, highly intelligent young man, searching for identity and meaning. I thoroughly recommend it - both to people who want to know more about this very inspiring man, and to those who simply want an absorbing read.
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.
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.
on 29 July 2008
What a great read this is.
It is amazing to have such an insight into the man who may soon be President of the USA, arguably still the most powerful position in the world. This book was written even before he became a Senator, I'm sure a lot of what he has written would be edited out if it was published today!
What is so incredible, and I think what makes him seem so personable, is that he comes across as just another ordinary guy. He doesn't come from a famous or affluent background. He talks so openly about the difficulties of growing up as a black man, confused about his origins and what they mean. He grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii... and then worked for very little money as a community organiser. And now he's running for President!
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read and is highly recommended...
on 29 June 2008
This is a truly remarkable book. And I deeply hope that this thoughtful man becomes the president.
This book, which is not ghosted, was written when he was 33 years old long before he had any thoughts of a political career. In it he explores what is means to have a black Afrcan father that he never knew and a whilte American mother and seemingly to belong no-where. As he grows up he has to discover what it means to be black while being raised by white parents and, while doing so gives the reader a gentle and loving education into the issues of race.
As a white 'middle class' girl these are not issues that I have ever had to consider. It's easy for me to say 'I don't see colour, I only see people' as I have never had to see colour, I have never been reminded of my colour or had assumptions made about me based upon it.
But the book isn't just about colour - it's also about our inheritance, whatever that may be, it's about our personal history and having a sense of it, about understanding our parents and being able to forgive them because of that understanding. And about embracing and celebrating our inheritance.
It is a deeply moving book and I found myself crying in it more than once despite the fact that it is not written in a way that manipulates emotion. I would give this book ten stars even if it were written by an unknown author who never wrote another word. The fact that it is written by a man who may be president, is purely an added pleasure.
If a truly great book is one that alters us in some way and enables us to see the world around us differently - then this book succeeds on every level.
on 16 July 2008
Given the events unfolding in the US election cycle I wanted to know more about the man many see as the next leader of the free world. I had already read 'Audacity Of Hope' which is basically his manifesto of policies and views and wanted something more personal.
And I wasnt disappointred by this book.
Written around 10 years ago before Obama entered into politics this book is a brilliant autobiography by a man with an amazing life story.
The son of a black Kenyan and a white American, estranged from his father, raised for periods by his grandparents, living for a time in Indonesia and fighting the whole time to find his place in the world - Obama's is a truly unique story.
As Obama says in the new introduction for this reprinted edition the honesty here could never have been shared by a man running for the highest office in the land, so this then the unfilitered view of the mans early life, warts and all.
The book splits his life into three sections: one about his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, the mid section about his life as a community organiser in Chicago and finally his trip back to Kenya to reconnect with family and roots and try to gain a sense of who he really is.
Although my life has little in common with Obamas I still found the book to be gripping and inspiring. It also serves to demonstrate a gifted writing style that could easily transfer to great prose. Having read this I hope Obama is elected in November and I look forward to future volumes of autobiography after his second term.
on 22 November 2015
You might have heard of Mr. Obama before – you know, he’s the president of that country that everyone keeps banging on about. This is his first book, written and released before he even got in to politics, and created at the behest of a publishing company after he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
In many ways, that seems to make the book somehow pure, as though it’s a preserved distilling of the president’s personality when he was a younger man, and it’s pretty easy to see how his early life is still shaping him, even today. In fact, after reading this, I’ve found that it feels as though I know him, as though I could predict how he’ll react in different situations.
But really, that’s not what this book is about – he may be the president now, but that wasn’t always the case, and his book looks back at his early life and examines his feelings towards the father that was never there, his African roots and what being a black American actually means. It’s a fascinating study of race relations in America in the 1970s and 1980s, and what’s more poignant is the fact that while Obama does indeed look at the differences between black people and white people, he eventually concludes that the colour of our skin doesn’t define us.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t face struggles along the way, though – Obama also examines his own biases, and the unintentional way in which we come to judgements all of the time. He himself is guilty of stereotyping, but he tries to correct himself and that in itself is honourable.
Of course, it’s also fascinating to read about his exploits as a kid, and his trips to Kenya and Indonesia, or his work in Chicago trying to make the city a better place before he eventually applied for and was accepted in to Harvard. Turns out that Barack is a pretty good writer, and it shows – it was of a professional quality, with no typos or unnatural sounding sentences. Even the dialogue that he recreates sounds natural and fits perfectly with the character, who are of course real people.
Overall, I’d say that this is well worth a read whether you’re an American or not, and whether or not Obama is still president by the time that you read this. The identity of the author doesn’t really matter – the book speaks for itself, and it has a lot of stuff to say to you, too.
on 12 January 2009
No point in adding to the eulogies, just some additional thoughts.
- As you read this, there is one point where one can see how easily it would have been for Barack Obama, as he searched for his own identity, to have become a disillusioned and radicalised young man, and turned his formidable talents and character to evil ends. Are there lessons to be learned about the radicalisation process here? (Sadly, I think it may just be down to intelligence.)
- He describes the pride experienced by black people when the first black mayor of Chicago is elected. What a lovely parallel with that felt when he himself was elected President.
- How lucky we are (I write as a European) that this man decided to go into politics when he could have decided to become a very rich businessman instead. Presumably by the same process which called him irresistibly into community work as a young man, when he could likewise have taken a commercial path.
- And he'll still be young when he can no longer be President. Wonderful that he'll still be available, hopefully, to apply his wisdom to the world's problems.