Observations on Theology, Culture and the Hosier family

Friday, 2 January 2009


Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama

I was given this by my brother in law for Christmas, and it is a quite remarkable read.

Of course, it is impossible to tell how differently I would have read ‘Dreams’ had it been written by someone who was not President-Elect. Famous politicians are able to sell large quantities of their memoirs, regardless of whether those memoirs are especially well written or revealing, and Obama is now the most famous politician of them all. But this was written long before all that, in 1995 – at a time before he had run for any office, but had attracted some attention as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. So, in that sense, the book needs to be judged on the merits of its original writing – the first work of an unusually intelligent and interesting young man trying to find his place in the world – but this is now impossible. With every sentence there is the awareness in ones mind that, “this is the President of the United States!”

I’d like to think though that if I had picked this up ten years ago I would have been as hooked by it as I was this Christmas, because it is simply brilliant.

During the presidential campaign there was a certain amount of griping from the Republican side about the media obsession with Obama, its willingness to give him headlines and airtime. True, but someone who can communicate like this deserves more media space. It is very, very good writing, and utterly compelling.

‘Dreams’ is built around Obama’s relationship with his father, a man he only met once, and never really knew. The Obama family history is a remarkable one – grandfather was the first person from his Kenyan village to see a white man; father a natural academic who ended up at Harvard before returning to work in Kenya; son President of the USA. It is a messy and pained history though. Obama’s father sired children by at least four women, and left ‘Barry’ and his mother in Hawaii while he pursued his career. Then that mother took her young son to Indonesia where she married another man and produced a sister. Half-siblings scattered across the continents. And all Obama’s many relations held emotionally under the sway of his brilliant, autocratic, stubborn, mysterious father, even long after he had died.

Around this central story the rest of the story unfolds in a quest to discover who Obama really is – the questions all of us have amplified by his scattered family and lack of geographical fixity and, especially, by his skin colour. The sense of unbelonging ripples through this books pages – not white, but not really African. Pulled between worlds and expectations. Uncertain.

For me, the strongest part of the narrative is the central section that details Obama’s time as a community organizer in Chicago. It is here that his nascent gifts are most obvious – galvanizing the poor and poorly motivated to try and improve their communities; early interactions with politicians and TV news crews; great self-confidence in spite of not knowing who the ‘self’ really is. It is easy to forget that at this point the story is about a man in his early twenties, but then everything in Obama’s life seems to have happened at accelerated pace – the jump from a pre-colonial African culture to ‘leader of the free world’ in three generations; publishing a book of incredible depth and insight while aged only 34; a senator for a mere term before winning the highest office of all.

It is in this section of the book that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright appears, so suddenly and controversially in the news last March – the man who would “cost Obama the Presidency,” they said. My response to reading about Wright here was to feel some sorrow that Obama denounced him last year. I wonder if in that decision he was being as true to himself as he was in ‘Dreams’. It is a book of remarkable candour, and it is hard to imagine someone being this honest if they knew they would one day be campaigning for President. Was Wright really dropped out of conviction, or out of convenience?

Where does this leave me then in terms of my feelings towards the next US President? In some ways, no different to before. I still feel his electoral victory means some things that will be good and others that will be bad. I still respect the biblical command to pray for those in authority. But it has also changed my thinking, if only to the extent that I admire someone who can communicate so well, and the thought that someone who can write this way will be in the Oval Office is exciting. And there is definitely something exciting about having a leader who has served his time serving the poor in the tougher parts of Chicago, and does cross all kinds of national, ethnic, and racial boundaries in his own story.

So I would recommend Dreams From My Father. If you haven’t yet read it, give it a go - at the least you will be better informed about the next US President.

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