President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with civil society leaders at the Young African Leaders Initiative Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi. Photo credit: US Embassy Nairobi

Obama’s Journey to Discover His Roots

In 1995, after becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a young and relatively unknown politician named Barack Obama wrote a candid memoir tracing his quest to discover who he was.


DREAMS FROM MY FATHER
By Barack Obama
466 pp. Random House $17

Obama begins with a recount of his childhood growing up in Honolulu where he was estranged from his father at a very young age. His father was from Kenya and his mother was a white woman from the midwest.

It couldn’t have been easy growing up as a mixed race person in the 1960s and 70s. Race relations in the United States were at a breaking point and every bit of progress that was made with legislation seemed to not quite be enough to change the attitudes of the general population. His struggle with identity, belonging, and purpose continued throughout his childhood and into his later years.

He had a strong support structure thanks to his mother and grandparents. They accepted him, encouraged him, and ensured that he was given the tools that he needed to succeed. Unfortunately, their support was not quite enough to calm the gnawing feeling of not belonging.

Know where you belong, he advised. He made it sound simple, like calling directory assistance. “Information—what city, please?” “Uh … I’m not sure. I was hoping you could tell me. The name’s Obama. Where do I belong?”

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (pp. 114-115). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Obama had limited engagement with his father growing up. They mostly communicated via letters. His father’s advice to him was to known where he belongs. With this advice in hand, upon completing his undergraduate studies Obama began exploring activism and political organizing.

The next part of the book chronicles his work as a community organizer in Chicago. We learn about the struggles of the community and the long hours and hard fought battles that took place in order to make any sort of progress.

The last part of the book goes into detail into Obama’s journey to Kenya to meet his fathers side of the family. It was common in Kenya for men to have multiples wives which resulted in very large families. We are introduced to close and distant relatives through a series of vivid recollections of the conversations, stories, and experiences that took place.

Obama’s writing style and voice is superb. He tells an honest story and produces rich characters that we can relate to through the brief vignettes that we are shown. His descriptions of the people, places, and things that he encounters on his quest transport the reader from the beautiful islands of Hawaii, to the chilly slums of Chicago, all the way to the arid plains of Kenya. It is amazing to witness the level of detail that went in to developing the compelling dialog and meaningful stories that are scattered throughout the memoir.

In the epilogue, Obama laments the challenges of studying and practicing law.

The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality;

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (p. 437). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

He poses a question for us to think about.

How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (p. 438). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Many leaders don’t start to write books until they are well into the prime of their careers. This peek into the early part of Obamas life written at a time before he became one of the most powerful people on Earth provides us with a unique perspective that helps us understand his character and values. Obama’s story has unique twists, but the general theme is a universal one and inspires all who are struggling to find where they belong in this world.

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