tagReviews & EssaysDreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father


I am exhausted. In the past 60 hours I have read the most troubling and liberating book of my life...Dreams From My Father by now President-Elect Barack Obama. Through the pages and chapters, I have vicariously followed his unique journey as the mixed race child of an absentee father raised by his white mother and grandparents. But the exhausting and troubling part of the story is its commonality with my experiences...and millions of others. It is the all-too-common story of one man's search for meaning and his place in a world bereft of community. Over the past half-century, it has become all our struggles.

This book was originally written and released in 1995 by an unknown and as yet unproven African-American attorney. He had been offered the opportunity to write what he thought would be an exploration of current state of race relations following his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The result was a moving journey through time, place and persons: from his first memories as a young boy hearing only of this mysterious and larger-than-life father at the foot of his grandfather; to the dawning sense of community running unfettered through the rice paddies of Indonesia; to the struggles of a young man to identify with one part of his heritage without alienating the other; to his sometimes brilliant and sometimes heart-breaking work to re-build community in Chicago's South Side; and finally upon his procrastinated journey to his father's homeland.

While his personal journey may be unique, his struggle is common: how does a child of divorce and re-marriage define family and community. It is an issue facing hundreds of millions of us...the adult children of divorce and re-marriage, especially those of us for whom one or both parents were absent. How can we build a solid foundation for the future if we do not know our past? For me as the mother of a mixed-race child, this story held unique meaning.

But it is also in some very meaningful ways the book he had originally intended to write; an exploration of race in America. He eloquently portrays his own struggles to find himself as a black man in America despite his upbringing in a white household. I read with great interest of Obama's struggles to learn and integrate his African heritage as the sole dark face in his family. At times, he found it impossible to embrace the black race without denigrating those whom he loved deeply. Of particular meaning was his reflection upon the time when the grandmother he adored was afraid to take the bus, because of harassment by African-American youth. As a young teen himself, he felt deeply the conflict between honoring this central figure of his childhood and identifying with boys, who were like himself in so many ways.

What I found missing...or only occasionally glimpsed...was the recognition of a shared struggle across the lines of race. I had originally purchased this book because this is the man that is to be my President, for whom I voted and yes, the hope to which I point my own mixed race child. But what I found was a resonating voice...a ying to my yang if you will. His story was not so terribly different from the intellectually misfit young white girl growing up in the Deep South or the struggles my former Mexican-American partner went through growing up in East Los Angeles after the race riots of the 1960s or even my Afro-Caribbean husband growing up in London in the 1970s, a time when there were 'special' schools for lower-achieving black children.

By far the most difficult part of the book for me though was when he wrote of his parent's interracial marriage in less than favorable terms.

"The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart."

As the wife of a black man, who was raised by racist parents myself, I read these words with a deep and abiding sense of anger and hurt. Much of the remaining two days were spent in consultation with those I loved and whose opinion I valued. In the end, I came to the realization that this tome was written by a very different man than the one we see today. I hope from the bottom of my soul that like me age has taught Obama that love, except for that of a parent, is rarely pure.

Most relationships, especially romantic ones, are very much about finding in the other that which is missing in ourselves. Besides the obvious difference of our skin color, my husband and I compliment one another in many other ways. He is strength in my weakness. He is taking it one day at a time to my constant worrying. He is the firm hand of discipline to our daughter when I am the shoulder to offer comfort. And yes, when we make love it is terribly, terribly erotic that his hands are so much darker than my pale breast which he caresses.

Whatever your personal struggles, this book is an absolute must-read. But I do not recommend doing so in 60 hours...although I know that you too will find it difficult if not impossible to put this book down. I am sure too that it is one of the books which I will find myself re-reading several times, but for now...I am off to begin what I hope will provide the answers to the myriad of questions still unanswered in Dreams From My Father; his second book...Audacity of Hope.

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