Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama

I highly recommend it, one of the top pieces of English literature I´ve read in years.

He wrote this autobiography after graduating from Harvard Law school and being the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, early 1990s I think, which got him a lot of attention and thus a book deal. I picked it up because I wanted to learn more about the man, and I thought it was nice a political biography was written before he became a serious politician, as such I assumed it would be more genuine then the usual sloganism and propaganda of political manifestos.

My overall impression right now of the man is left-wing heart, moderate mind, tons of tenacity, long-term focus, gifted intellectually, and fascinating family and cultural background.

The book is split into a few main sections, a history of his (white) family on his mother´s side and how she met his father, a discussion of the time in Indonesia, and then the time in Hawaii (high school), undergraduate at Columbia, his activism in Chicago when he was a community organizer, and then his visit to Kenya before going to Harvard Law. He only briefly discusses Harvard Law in the epilogue.

His family background is very complicated. His father married his mother in Hawaii, while he had another wife back home in Kenya. They split up when thew father went to Harvard, as he didn´t have enough money to support them. The father had a few more wives after that, including one other white wife, and it´s very interesting in the Kenya chapter when he meets all his family.

After the mother split with the father, she moved to Indonesia where she married another man, Lolo, who in the biography came off as an excellent stepfather. From that relationship Barack got a sister, Maya.

He´d move to Hawaii for high school, he had trouble adapting to the culture of the different sports for example, as nobody played soccer or badminton. There´s an amusing anecdote from when he was young, he told his classmates his father was an important tribal prince in Africa, that he was very important. He was crushed and afraid when he heard his father was visiting and would speak to the class about Kenya for an hour. It turned out ok and his classmates were impressed with his father.

For those who are curious about the media meme that his grandmother is not really his grandmother, his father´s biological mother ran away from home when his father was 9, because of her husband´s behavior. He was then raised by another wife of his father, and that was the woman Barack Obama Sr. considered his mother, feeling his biological mother betrayed him. The older sister Sarah, being old enough to understand the treatment her mother was receiving, felt differently.

I have not read in a long time a piece of african american literature, and such a description of the african american experience. Racism is a central meme of this book, and several events are discussed such as Obama´s alienation. What I thought was the most interesting section was when he spent a year, or maybe it was two, as a community organizer in Chicago. I found it a very insightful description of the racial situation there in the 1980s. His first success at organizing, I think, was when he found out the city of Chicago had jobs banks virtually everywhere, except in the black neighbourhood where he was working, Altgeld. His second success was on the issue of asbestos in public housing pipes.


Altogether I am impressed. While it is of course a biased expose as it his life in his words, realistically the average 30 year old (his approximate age when he wrote it) would have little to show that would be interesting in an autobiography. He had a lot and he demonstrates strong character.

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