“A classic book” – Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

IMG_5Nov2021at071723At the start of her autobiography Becoming, Michelle Obama explains the different routes Obama and herself have taken to be where they are now:

“ If my family was a square, then Barack’s was a more elaborate piece of geometry, one that reached across oceans. He’d spent years trying to make sure of its lines.”

The theme of Barack Obama’s book is his rootedness in his family despite its separations and its movement from Hawaii to the mainland, from Africa and back to Africa, to Indonesia and back from Indonesia. The overshadowing figure is Obama’s father who returns to Africa when he is only a young child. There are scenes with his grandfather that are moving as he becomes the father figure.

What the biography shows is respect for those at the bottom of the heap and a realisation that his own education will help him to achieve more for the people he represents. He has to leave them. It is a hard lesson to learn.

So Obama emerges as the first American President of colour but also the first American President to experience the reek of poverty in the Third World of Indonesia and in the public housing of Chicago.

For me the Indonesian period was new. The community organiser role that Obama undertook showed how determined he could be in fighting for better housing conditions for the people of Altgeld, Chicago. He grows to respect the clergy as the last representatives of the people as the professional middle classes move out. Here he speaks of Reverend Philips, one of his mentors:

“ His voice came at me like something out of a dream… He wasn’t sure, he said, how much longer that mixing would go on. Most of his wealthier members had moved away to tidier neighbourhoods in the suburbs. They still drove back, out of loyalty or habit. But they no longer volunteered to tutor children or visit the homes of the poor and elderly… Their children would no longer retain the memory of that first circle of enslaved people around the fire.”

When Obama visits Africa he shows the novelist’s ear for dialogue. For all his urban sophistication he realises that he has lost the warmth of communal life. What emerges is a figure from the periphery of the American world who makes it to the American Presidency with almost accidental progress.

His prose is clear and direct, providing an exemplary autobiography. It explains what shaped his drive to improve American healthcare for the poorest. It shows, too, why he left office with a smile on his face that revealed his own self-confidence and resilience.

Any Cop?: To understand the diversity of America this is a classic book.

Richard Clegg

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