Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama - 13 March

Nine of us were present on March 13th to discuss Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama, presented by Leslie. Leslie mentioned that she had picked up the book while she was on a trip to Los Angleles, and after she read it, she felt she had to share it with us, and therefore asked to substitute it for the book she had originally suggested for March. (I think we're all glad that she did.) She punctuated the discussion with photos of Obama and his family from the February 2009 Special Edition of Life magazine, "The American Journey of Barack Obama," which she had brought along to our meeting. She noted that Obama was only 33 years old when he wrote the book, and said she was very impressed by his insights, for example, regarding his Indonesian step-father, Lolo, and his early life in Jakarta. He analyzes people very well. He particularly noted the big change in Lolo after he was recalled to Indonesia by the government there. Leslie felt that it's great to be able to write an autobiography and look at one's own life so objectively. Anne felt that there was a lot of bitterness and obsession in the book, and we questioned whether it's easier to have small doses of shame and hatred while growing up than to be hit full force when grown.
The book shows Obama to be a solitary figure who didn't have many friends. He didn't "mix" well with other people. He talked a lot about self-esteem, and particularly the problem of blacks in America. The American way of looking at color was noted: we seldom talk about "métisse." One single drop of black blood means that a person is considered black. Obama's early years provided a strong foundation, and it's evident that he was surrounded by love and admiration. It was felt that his mother, although mostly absent during his adolescence, contributed a great deal to his character, and particularly with regard to human values. (p.49 "If you want to grow into a human being," she would say to me, "you're going to need some values.") The fact that she would wake him at 4a.m. to give him special tutoring before his school day in a local Indonesian school, saying, "It's no picnic for me either, buster," shows what a devoted mother she was. Karen remarked on how painful the black identity must have been for a person who was so "cherished." We noted Obama's reactions to friends using skin-lightening cream or green contact lenses. Katharine C said she feels that Obama "carries the joy of Africa within him." Julie said she has friends who lived in Kenya and who knew the senior Obama, and said he was a wonderful person. They felt it was "such a shame, such a waste," about how his life turned out. The question arose of why, when one knows that family is all-important in Africa, Obama was surprised that the Chicago pastor submitted his wife's and daughter's resumés with hopes of getting them jobs. (We also remarked that solidarity is also shown by other, non-African, immigrant populations.)

Katharine C wondered whether Barack Obama has a "life plan," sort of like J.K.Rawlings, the author of the Harry Potter series. Julie called our attention to references to "The One" in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and mentioned that Oprah calls Obama "The One." Katharine J feels that Obama maintains unshakable self-confidence. (It was noted that he uses teleprompters and tries never to make a "spontaneous" speech because he feels that every word of what he has to say is important, and he does not want to make a mistake.)

We talked about Obama's visit to Africa, and his disillusionment with regard to his father, of which there was already a preface during half-sister Auma's visit to the US. We discussed the references to life in Africa before the white man arrived. Did Obama's grandfather become so strict as a result of contact with the whites when he went to work for them?

We felt that Obama made conclusions twice in the book, ending both the second (Chicago) and third (Africa) parts with tears. (p.295, referring to the "Audacity of Hope" sermon) "I didn't understand that they were talking about ... their relationship to God." (Audacity of Hope is the title of Obama's second book.) (p.429, at the graves of his father and grandfather) "'Oh, father', I cried, 'The silence killed your past. ... I felt a calmness wash over me.'"

We agreed that no U.S. president has ever written a book like this, and we have never learned so much about a president's feelings. We also felt that by admitting things like, "Yes, I took drugs," and "Yes, I was a bad student," Obama gives muckrakers no place to go. Chris wondered if people will tend to be more compassionate toward him if things don't get any better. One reply was, "Americans are forgiving," followed immediately by, "No! Forgetful!"

In the negative column, we agreed that the book lacks humor, despite the fact that Obama seems a singularly humoristic person.
We wondered that Obama wrote Dreams from my Father, when, basically, his father just provided the sperm. Obama has said that had he known that his mother would die so early, he would have written Dreams from my Mother.