Dreams From My Father Summary

Barack Obama

Dreams From My Father

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Dreams From My Father Summary

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Barack Obama published this memoir nine years before his campaign for the United States Senate, and thirteen years before his campaign for the presidency. It covers his life up to his beginning at Harvard Law School in 1988.

Obama opens his book in New York, where he has just learned that his father has died in a car accident in Kenya. This event triggers memories and rumination on his mother’s journey from small town Kansas to Hawaii, where she meets and falls in love with Obama’s father, a fellow student.

Their relationship reflects the spirit of the 60s. Their love is stoked by innocence, and the political policies and attitudes that promote racial integration.

Obama is born in Honolulu, Hawaii in August of 1961 to his Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., and his Wichita, Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham. Obama’s parents met as students at the University of Hawaii and married in February of 1961. They divorce two years later, and his father goes to Harvard for a PhD in economics. After Harvard, his father returns to Kenya.

In his father’s absence, Obama grows to understand his father through the stories told by his mother and her parents. He sees his father only once more during a month-long visit the elder Obama makes to Hawaii in 1971. Obama’s father remarries, and dies in a car accident in Kenya in 1982.

Obama’s mother marries again, to Lolo Soetoro, a Javanese man from Indonesia who is also a graduate student. After they marry, the family moves to Jakarta. As a ten-year-old, Obama returns to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and take advantage of the better educational opportunities.

As a fifth-grader, Obama is placed in Punahou School, a private, college-prep school. He is one of only six black students at the school. Obama attends the school through his graduation from high school. While there, he meets Ray, another biracial young man two years older than him, who introduces Obama to the African-American community.

After high school, Obama heads to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College. He describes living a “party” lifestyle, marked by drug and alcohol use. Obama spends two years at Occidental, and then transfers to Columbia College at Columbia University, where he majors in political science.

After his graduation, Obama works in business for a year. After that, he moves to Chicago and works as a community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens Housing Project. He describes the challenges of trying to get his proposed programs enacted, and fighting against the deeply entrenched ideas of the existing community leadership and political bureaucracy. He also learns the power and importance of community.

Obama begins attending Trinity United Church of Christ. The church becomes the nexus of Obama’s spiritual life.

Obama visits Kenya, where he meets some of his family, before heading to Harvard Law School. In Kenya, he comes face-to-face with the realities of his father’s history. Stark poverty and brutal tribal conflict co-exist with the people’s spirit and hope. Obama comes to understand that he is inescapably linked to the people of Kenya, and pledges to embrace their common struggles.

Dreams From My Father focuses mostly on race, and the practical and metaphorical effects of race and racism. Obama is the result of a union of people from two very different worlds, and as such, his experiences revolve around understanding and navigating the distance between these worlds. He considers his position within these worlds, and asks some very important questions. Why does he feel so much connection to a father he never really knew? How does a young man, raised entirely by his white mother and grandparents, come to terms with the blackness he feels and the blackness that society assigns him?

Obama ruminates on family, and the family’s role in shaping who we are and how we make our way in the world. Obviously, our race is determined by the genetics inherited from our family, but even more importantly, perhaps, our family provides the example we follow for how we display our conception of race.

Obama, however, cut off as he is from one half of his family, must look elsewhere for role models to explore his Kenyan heritage. He is constantly metaphorically reaching toward his father, and this urge to learn about that side of his family becomes tangible in his visit to Kenya toward the end of the book.

Of course, any reading of Dreams From My Father will be affected by the reader’s political leanings. Whatever a reader’s attitude toward Obama’s policies—especially those promoted during his presidency—the connection between a person’s present and a person’s past is undeniable. As Obama writes in the book, “Past is never dead and buried – it isn`t even past.”