Even if Barack Obama had not gone on to become the first African-American president of the United States, he would have lived a remarkable life.
This much is clear, if you read his superb memoir Dreams from My Father, written after he achieved an earlier historic milestone, becoming the first Black president of the 130-year old Harvard Law Review, the esteemed student-run law journal of Harvard University.
Barack Obama was elected Law Review president, aged 28, in 1990. His eloquent comments made in an interview with the New York Times, following his historic appointment, hint at the higher role that lay ahead:
“The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress. It’s encouraging,” he told the NYT.
“But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”
After being elected law review president, he received an advance from a publisher to write his life story (up to that point) and the end result was Dreams From My Father. It had modest success at first, but became a bestseller when he became US President in 2009.
What ever you think of President Obama, as his time in office comes to an end, his memoir which reveals a man of the highest integrity (but with many human failings too) is well worth reading, particularly in light of the awful possibility that a Machiavellian power-hungry loose cannon, 69-year-old real estate mogul Donald Trump, might be next in line at the White House.
It’s certainly one of the best autobiographies you will read about any public figure. It’s beautifully written, rich in detail and painfully honest. President Obama would have made a fine writer had he not chosen a path in politics.
The book charts his life, from his early childhood in Hawaii until just before he entered Harvard University in 1988. It ends with his journey to Kenya to meet his family and learn more about his gifted, but troubled father.
Barack Obama Sr was an ambitious, charismatic and larger-than-life foreign exchange student from Kenya who met Kansas-born Ann Dunham while studying at the University of Hawaii. (Like his famous son, he too would study at Harvard, obtaining a Masters in Economics).
Barack – or Barry as his family called him – was born a year after they met in 1961, but the marriage did not last long. His father returned to Kenya where he became a government official and raised his third family. He made money, but then lost it all when the government changed and he would not support their views. He later struggled with drinking as he descended into poverty.
Barack saw his father only once again, aged about 10, when he came to Hawaii to recover from a car accident (a fearful, bittersweet and awkward time for a young boy, as Barack Obama describes in his memoir). They stayed in intermittent contact until he learned of his father’s sudden death in another car accident in 1982. At the time Barack was 21 and living in a squalid apartment in Harlem.
“At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man…as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and my grandfather told. They all had their favourites…”
Dreams from My Father is ultimately the story of a young’s mans search to understand his brilliant, but troubled father, who despite his lack of physical presence was the foundation stone for Barack Obama’s acute sense of black consciousness, his early waywardness and rebelliousness and his desire to help others through community organising.
In his memoir, Barack Obama recalls his time spent as a kid exploring the rough and tumble back streets of Jakarta, Indonesia (where he moved, aged 7, with his mother to live with her new Indonesian husband, Lolo) his return to Hawaii to complete his American schooling, his teenage years partying, drinking, smoking and drug taking but also searching for himself. Later he attends college in Los Angeles where he makes his first public speech calling for a South African boycott and finds it comes naturally to him and that he likes the experience. From there he moves to New York to live in the Black community of Harlem, where he gets a good corporate job with prospects. But he feels lost and directionless and quits to become a community organiser in Chicago, where a hero of his, Harold Washington, is the city’s first African-American mayor.
A big chunk of the book is given over to his many years spent as a community organiser in Chicago, meeting community leaders, religious figures and ordinary citizens, understanding the harsh realities of their lives their daily battles with unemployment, violence, drugs, poverty and neglect. Barack Obama writes candidly about his own naievety in trying to bring about change in people’s lives, his many failures and some notable successes.
In one moving scene he brings a community delegation from a neglected, polluted and impoverished housing estate called Altgeld Gardens by bus to demand a meeting with the director of the Chicago Housing Association over fears about asbestos contamination. This after an earlier request was ignored. The delegation refuse to leave. Later a TV crew arrives and films interviews with residents of Altgeld. Amid all the publicity the residents are promised, on camera, that testing would start by the end of the day and that a meeting with the director has been arranged. They celebrate later on the bus ride home with caramel popcorn:
“As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake calm and turqouise now, I tried to a recall a more contented moment.”
During his time in New York and Chicago, Barack Obama meets his sister Auma, who lives in Germany and another brother Roy who lives in Washington DC. Finally he makes the pivotal journey to Kenya, first to the chaos of Nairobi to meet some of his family and then he travels by train across the vast Kenyan plains to the Port city of Kisumu and onto Kogelo, to the tribal family homestead where he meets ‘Granny’ and hears the stories of his father, grandfather and their ancestors.
“Granny nodded and pulled me into a hug before leading us into the house. Small windows let in a little of the afternoon light and the house was sparsely furnished – a few wooden chairs, a coffee table, a worn couch. On the walls were various family artefacts, the Old Man’s Harvard diploma, photographs of him…”
From here the Young Barack Obama would make his way through the hallowed halls of Harvard and from there all the way to the White House.
It’s an amazing journey about a remarkable man, and its beautifully told.