When you think about it, most people at the age of 35 are still building their life experience, not writing about it. But Barack Obama isn’t just an ordinary individual. He would eventually become America’s first black President and succeed in reforming national health care, an elusive challenge since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His “memoirs”, or more accurately “inner journey”, were written in 1995  by a man pausing and taking stock of his life. Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in Hawaii where he was born, and then for a few years in Indonesia where his stepfather lived. He met his Kenyan father only once, when he was 10 years old. Then when he was 20, his father died.

His memoirs start off a bit awkwardly, as if he doesn’t know where to start, so why not at the beginning? He draws us into the world of a small black child with a white mother and grandparents, an average dysfunctional family without the financial fortune  to coddle or spoil its children. His loneliness as an only child, his solitude as a black student in a white school. The questions he asks himself about his place in the world, whether he is white or black, who he is and what he aims to achieve in life recur on every page. It’s a sad and difficult narrative but Obama doesn’t give in to sentimentality or self-pity. He states the facts, poses the problems, and goes in search for the answers. His writing gathers momentum progressively, as his eloquence.

But his words are far from just rhetoric. Obama wasn’t a dreamer chasing grandiloquent illusions about a father he hadn’t known and idealized. His issues are down to earth, about coming to terms with being both black and white living in America. And what he can do to bring together divergent communities, if not toward harmony, then at least self-sufficiency?

Obama had a college diploma in pocket and the key to a promising future. Yet he chose to work as an “organizer” in Chicago’s south side to provide basic needs to poor inner city residents against a tide of exodus to the suburbs. His efforts were like that of a lonely man out in the desert clamoring into the wind and all that came back were dry dust and tumbleweeds. Yet he persevered for several years and obtained tidy results. Obama didn’t just pull himself up from the bootstraps, he pulled up entire communities through hard work and sheer will.

Before embarking on law school at Harvard, Obama visited Kenya to put together the puzzle of his life and reconcile himself with the spirit of his dead father. Going back to the patriarch’s roots, he pieced together the story of  a man who had great dreams of doing good for his country but somehow failed himself and his family. He speaks without condescension, judgment, or resentment. Again, he just states the facts and the lessons learned.

And one of  those lessons was that small and great things can be achieved not through miracles or wishful thinking or grand acts of valor, but simply with “honest, decent men and women who have attainable ambitions and the determination to see them through.”

“Dreams from my Father” is commendable work of grace, elegance, and thoughtfulness from such a young man of great potential. Barack Obama didn’t know then that he would one day become President of the United States.

Dreams from my Father
Barack Obama
480 pages

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