Most autobiographical writing attempts to explain the author’s part in various interesting or significant episodes of the past. Writing DREAMS FROM MY FATHER: A STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE from the early side of midlife, however, Barack Obama displays more interest in understanding how he came to be who and where he is at the time he writes—an African American civil rights lawyer fighting for the downtrodden in Chicago. Having lived on several continents, Obama writes this memoir from an intriguingly rich perspective. The motives of the public man in search of inspiration from his African ancestry are fully, compellingly explained, but other, more personal aspects of his past are left shrouded in silence.
People of mixed heritage raise interesting questions. Obama explores many of these, leading readers to wonder with him why, for example, a man fathered by an African he barely knows, but raised by a white American mother, her parents, and an Indonesian stepfather, would gravitate toward the African half of his identity. Also, must a person who is half white, such as Obama, accept America’s designation of such people as black? While Obama does offer thoughtful meditations on several aspects of his situation, he may well have decided that fully answering such questions would have bogged down the brisk pace of his narrative. With an engaging authorial voice and a keen eye for telling details, Obama takes readers from his boyhood memories of Hawaii to his grassroots efforts to help African Americans in Chicago to his search in Kenya for a solid connection with the father he barely knew.
This book ends in a spirit of genuine, well-earned affirmation, but it may be as interesting for the questions it raises as for the ones it answers. It also suffers at times from hints that this public-minded man writes too self-consciously before a reading public. Overall, though, the book certainly establishes its talented, socially committed author as a person to watch, in both literary and political spheres—thirty-five-year-old Obama won the state of Illinois’ Thirteenth District Senate seat in March of 1996.