Dreams From My Father – what does his book tell us about Obama’s presidency?

Imagine someone a bit like dozens of social movement and NGO activists who you’ve worked with over the years. Raised across three continents; a spell of community activism that tempers romanticism with hard knocks; all this interspersed with wrestling with the sense of identity to make sense of being of mixed race, the absent father, and all that moving around. What sort of president would that person make? We’re about to find out.

I’ve just finished Dreams from my Father and like everyone else, was blown away by its intelligence and openness. Amazing to have the early years and inner world of a US president so exposed from day one. What pointers does it give for Obama’s likely predispositions on foreign policy and development?

His extended visits to his family in Kenya were real insider experiences – he got out from the cities to the villages, and into people’s houses and lives. His father (who he barely knew) epitomised the hopes and disappointments of independence, going from Big Man to embittered drunk as his tribe (the Luo) was marginalised by the Kikuyus. His grandfather was a servant to the Brits – Obama quotes excerpts from his passbook, with comments from his various colonial employers. Don’t expect too much instinctive sympathy for the ‘Mother Country’. On aid and development issues, he is attuned on issues of governance, corruption and the culture of poverty and exclusion (from both Kenya and Chicago’s South Side).

On globalisation, his years in booming Indonesia, declining Chicago, and marginalised Kenya left him with a fine-grained appreciation of the creative destruction at its heart – in some lovely writing he imagines Jakarta’s booming garment factories in turn succumbing to post-industrial decay, like Chicago before it, as the eye of the global economic storm moves on.

From his time in Chicago he appreciates the role and difficulties of social activists – the sparsely attended meetings and failed initiatives, the need to identify where the energy is in any given community and to organize around felt needs, the vital role of the churches, and the complex and contradictory motivations and characters of many leaders. He explores the subtle causes of black (especially male) exclusion, both internal and external , with extraordinary insight.

And he writes like a dream (this book was published in 1995 and written before he went into politics, presumably when he could not afford to be tempted by a ghost writer). Imagine any other president with the experience or the ability to write this:

‘During my very first days in Chicago, I had seen the knots of young men, fifteen or sixteen, hanging out on the corners of Michigan or Halsted, their hoods up, their sneakers unlaced, stomping the ground in a desultory rhythm during the colder months, stripped down to T-shirts in the summer, answering their beepers on the corner pay phones: a knot that unravelled, soon to reform, whenever the police cars passed by in their barracuda silence.’

Powerful writing. Interesting times.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.

Comments

3 Responses to “Dreams From My Father – what does his book tell us about Obama’s presidency?”
  1. JG

    I agree with most of what you said here. What I felt most was an ambiguity as to how identity/ies inform(s) his politics, to be more blunt, an unwillingness to “take sides”. That is, Obama does an amazing job of being both a cosmopolitan and an embodiment of American exceptionalism. (I’m not saying it’s a bad thing!) I wonder most what that will mean for his presidency, especially as it relates to Africa.

  2. David Taylor

    Hi Duncan, I just finished reading The Audacity of Hope and I think I’ll go on to read Dreams from My Father now too!

    I’m most impressed by Obama the movement – the way he is seeking to shift the mindset of the American people in the way Reagan & Thatcher did. This will hopefully properly embed the reforms he makes over the next 4-8 years…unlike Clinton, whose Third Way didn’t shift the American public and meant that the reforms made were shallow and easily reneged by the Bush administration when they come in. I fear the same might happen in the UK if Labour lose the next election.

    Related to that, Obama’s use of language…I’m keen to read George Lakoff who notes the very clever ways the neo-cons used language to frame debates (tax relief, pro-life etc). I thought Obama did this really well, e.g. when he talked about the ‘Ownership society really meaning that you were on your own’ in his acceptance speech at the Democrat convention.

    Sorry this is rather long, but returning to the Obama movement, I’m really keen that NGOs (and progressive political parties) learn from what they achieved in terms of mobilising people. But I’m fascinated also by what comes next, Obama’s ‘Organizing for America’, how that movement is sustained whilst in government, government involves complexity & compromise, how can communicate that and bring people along with him instead of losing them and leaving them feeling disillusioned…in other words avoiding making the same mistakes Labour made by completely bungling the goodwill they rose to power on in 97!

  3. Pushpanath K

    This is in response to your comments about Obama, his upbringing and his identity.

    I would like to provide here my slightly different take:

    The context of his upbringing, his deep and profound ability to self-reflect, as well as his ability to digest different views, ideas, thoughts, paradigms and debates and to present a powerful case for fundamental and transformative change, make him, I believe, unique, both among change-makers and as a leader too.

    But, for me, it means even more than that…

    I am a “First Generation”, i.e. immediately after Independence, Indian; a “Midnight Child” as Rushdie refers to us in his powerfully riveting first novel about India. We were catapulted into a world of giants, larger than life leaders, both in India and elsewhere around the world. Gandhi was a deity and others, such as Nehru, veritable pillars of modernity and sophisticated intellect. There was not a moment growing up when we were not regaled by the stories of these leaders or had drummed into us the importance of emulating them as we grew up.

    I used to feel inspired and stunned at the same time. Inspired by what was possible and stunned by the impossibility of the expectation placed upon us .I could never be the “Giant” that they were nor could I be myself – a limitation that I realised but a frustrating and restrictive realisation merely in its knowledge. This feeling has never gone away.

    The belief that a single and great leader is fundamental to great changes in history is engrained and continues to remain with humanity despite countless examples to the contrary. But it has remained, until now, a belief and a wish.

    In my opinion Obama, as a person and a phenomenon, has changed everything. Firstly, he presented great “Hope”, not in a way that elevated it and portrayed it above the plane of human existence but rather as an extension of the everyday “hope” that each one of us harbours. His own personal circumstances and the life history that shaped him resonated with us all, at different levels and in multiple contexts. I remember my mother saying to me after watching “Gandhi”, the movie by Richard Attenborough, “Even if you carry a little bit of “Bapu” (as Gandhi is endearingly referred to in India) in you, it is enough for all of us.” Obama, in both actions and words, has made me and many more feel that we already have a bit of him and his ideals in all of us and that we can do great things because he can and will do them. He also made us feel that the change we believe in is only possible because of us and not because of him. That is exceptional and historically different. He is part of a tradition of change makers through history but he makes us believe, so are we.

    Obama presents a fundamental shift in the idea of “change” as one that is inclusive, not led but “helped” along. He has made it possible for me and many others to step forward and step up to the cause of “change” built on the fundamental principle of justice and human rights. His clarion call has been heard by “young” and not so young people alike.

    The audacity of his “change” can only be fuelled by that one, all important and sustainable fuel called “Hope.” Obama demonstrated that the impossible is not so.

    What better case in point of the “impossible being possible” than an African-American holding the Highest Office in America, a land built upon the systematic undermining and servitude of his people, where power, position and prestige were considered the vestige of the “Whites”, and where exceptions to this rule, minor as they were, were made by concession.

    The challenge now to international organizations like Oxfam is clear. Can they do what a nation such as America has done? Can they truly bring about different voices among its leadership, which is not a mere concession? Can Oxfam be inspired enough to change and show historic responsibility?

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.