Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

by Barack Obama


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In this lyrical, unsentimental, and compelling memoir, the son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American. It begins in New York, where Barack Obama learns that his father—a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man—has been killed in a car accident. This sudden death inspires an emotional odyssey—first to a small town in Kansas, from which he retraces the migration of his mother’s family to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life, and at last reconciles his divided inheritance.

Pictured in lefthand photograph on cover: Habiba Akumu Hussein and Barack Obama, Sr. (President Obama's paternal grandmother and his father as a young boy). Pictured in righthand photograph on cover: Stanley Dunham and Ann Dunham (President Obama's maternal grandfather and his mother as a young girl).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400082773
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 08/09/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 14,960
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 1010L (what's this?)

About the Author

BARACK OBAMA was elected President of the United States on November 4, 2008. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

Read an Excerpt

Preface to the 2004 Edition

Almost a decade has passed since this book was first published. As I mention in the original introduction, the opportunity to write the book came while I was in law school, the result of my election as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. In the wake of some modest publicity, I received an advance from a publisher and went to work with the belief that the story of my family, and my efforts to understand that story, might speak in some way to the fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life.

Like most first-time authors, I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication — hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. The reality fell somewhere in between. The reviews were mildly favorable. People actually showed up at the readings my publisher arranged. The sales were underwhelming. And, after a few months, I went on with the business of my life, certain that my career as an author would be short-lived, but glad to have survived the process with my dignity more or less intact.

I had little time for reflection over the next ten years. I ran a voter registration project in the 1992 election cycle, began a civil rights practice, and started teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. My wife and I bought a house, were blessed with two gorgeous, healthy, and mischievous daughters, and struggled to pay the bills. When a seat in the state legislature opened up in 1996, some friends persuaded me to run for the office, and I won. I had been warned, before taking office, that state politics lacks the glamour of its Washington counterpart; one labors largely in obscurity, mostly on topics that mean a great deal to some but that the average man or woman on the street can safely ignore (the regulation of mobile homes, say, or the tax consequences of farm equipment depreciation). Nonetheless, I found the work satisfying, mostly because the scale of state politics allows for concrete results — an expansion of health insurance for poor children, or a reform of laws that send innocent men to death row — within a meaningful time frame. And too, because within the capitol building of a big, industrial state, one sees every day the face of a nation in constant conversation: inner-city mothers and corn and bean farmers, immigrant day laborers alongside suburban investment bankers — all jostling to be heard, all ready to tell their stories.

A few months ago, I won the Democratic nomination for a seat as the U.S. senator from Illinois. It was a difficult race, in a crowded field of well-funded, skilled, and prominent candidates; without organizational backing or personal wealth, a black man with a funny name, I was considered a long shot. And so, when I won a majority of the votes in the Democratic primary, winning in white areas as well as black, in the suburbs as well as Chicago, the reaction that followed echoed the response to my election to the Law Review. Mainstream commentators expressed surprise and genuine hope that my victory signaled a broader change in our racial politics. Within the black community, there was a sense of pride regarding my accomplishment, a pride mingled with frustration that fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education and forty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we should still be celebrating the possibility (and only the possibility, for I have a tough general election coming up) that I might be the sole African American — and only the third since Reconstruction — to serve in the Senate. My family, friends, and I were mildly bewildered by the attention, and constantly aware of the gulf between the hard sheen of media reports and the messy, mundane realities of life as it is truly lived.

Just as that spate of publicity prompted my publisher’s interest a decade ago, so has this fresh round of news clippings encouraged the book’s re-publication. For the first time in many years, I’ve pulled out a copy and read a few chapters to see how much my voice may have changed over time. I confess to wincing every so often at a poorly chosen word, a mangled sentence, an expression of emotion that seems indulgent or overly practiced. I have the urge to cut the book by fifty pages or so, possessed as I am with a keener appreciation for brevity. I cannot honestly say, however, that the voice in this book is not mine — that I would tell the story much differently today than I did ten years ago, even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research.

What has changed, of course, dramatically, decisively, is the context in which the book might now be read. I began writing against a backdrop of Silicon Valley and a booming stock market; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; Mandela — in slow, sturdy steps — emerging from prison to lead a country; the signing of peace accords in Oslo. Domestically, our cultural debates — around guns and abortion and rap lyrics — seemed so fierce precisely because Bill Clinton’s Third Way, a scaled-back welfare state without grand ambition but without sharp edges, seemed to describe a broad, underlying consensus on bread-and-butter issues, a consensus to which even George W. Bush’s first campaign, with its “compassionate conservatism,” would have to give a nod. Internationally, writers announced the end of history, the ascendance of free markets and liberal democracy, the replacement of old hatreds and wars between nations with virtual communities and battles for market share.

And then, on September 11, 2001, the world fractured.

It’s beyond my skill as a writer to capture that day, and the days that would follow — the planes, like specters, vanishing into steel and glass; the slow-motion cascade of the towers crumbling into themselves; the ash-covered figures wandering the streets; the anguish and the fear. Nor do I pretend to understand the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still. My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.

What I do know is that history returned that day with a vengeance; that, in fact, as Faulkner reminds us, the past is never dead and buried — it isn’t even past. This collective history, this past, directly touches my own. Not merely because the bombs of Al Qaeda have marked, with an eerie precision, some of the landscapes of my life — the buildings and roads and faces of Nairobi, Bali, Manhattan; not merely because, as a consequence of 9/11, my name is an irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous Republican operatives. But also because the underlying struggle — between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us — is the struggle set forth, on a miniature scale, in this book.

I know, I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago’s South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammeled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder — alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware — is inadequate to the task. I know that the hardening of lines, the embrace of fundamentalism and tribe, dooms us all.

And so what was a more interior, intimate effort on my part, to understand this struggle and to find my place in it, has converged with a broader public debate, a debate in which I am professionally engaged, one that will shape our lives and the lives of our children for many years to come.

The policy implications of all this are a topic for another book. Let me end instead on a more personal note. Most of the characters in this book remain a part of my life, albeit in varying degrees — a function of work, children, geography, and turns of fate.

The exception is my mother, whom we lost, with a brutal swiftness, to cancer a few months after this book was published.

She had spent the previous ten years doing what she loved. She traveled the world, working in the distant villages of Asia and Africa, helping women buy a sewing machine or a milk cow or an education that might give them a foothold in the world’s economy. She gathered friends from high and low, took long walks, stared at the moon, and foraged through the local markets of Delhi or Marrakesh for some trifle, a scarf or stone carving that would make her laugh or please the eye. She wrote reports, read novels, pestered her children, and dreamed of grandchildren.

We saw each other frequently, our bond unbroken. During the writing of this book, she would read the drafts, correcting stories that I had misunderstood, careful not to comment on my characterizations of her but quick to explain or defend the less flattering aspects of my father’s character. She managed her illness with grace and good humor, and she helped my sister and me push on with our lives, despite our dread, our denials, our sudden constrictions of the heart.

I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book — less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. I won’t try to describe how deeply I mourn her passing still. I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Provocative . . . Persuasively describes the phenomenon of belonging to two different worlds, and thus belonging to neither.”
—New York Times Book Review

“Fluidly, calmly, insightfully, Obama guides us straight to the intersection of the most serious questions of identity, class, and race.”
—Washington Post Book World

“Beautifully crafted . . . moving and candid . . . this book belongs on the shelf beside works like James McBride’s The Color of Water and Gregory Howard Williams’s Life on the Color Line as a tale of living astride America’s racial categories.” —Scott Turow

“Obama’s writing is incisive yet forgiving. This is a book worth savoring.”
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

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Dreams From My Father 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 423 reviews.
owldog More than 1 year ago
This is a great book to show the true nature of our President. It was written years ago before he entered politics. It was written by request. A publishing company offered Obama the opportunity to write an autobiography after they heard of his election as the first African American President of the Harvard Law review, a relatively conservative publication, and also heard about the interesting life story he had.

A must-read for anyone interested in Obama or politics, on the right, left or center. I recommend the hard cover. The ink and paper is not toxic smelling and the print is easy to read. It is a better deal than the paperback for the money. Great gift. Gave one to my mother and brother who are both republicans and they enjoyed it.
bluetulip18 More than 1 year ago
Obama writes even better than he speaks, if you can believe it. As if his eloquence in speech wasn't enough, the man knows how to lay down some seriously beautiful words on paper. And what often struck me as campaign rhetoric before (like his ideas about "change" and "hope"), I now think he honestly believes in, after reading this very frank memoir. According to him, affecting "change" is also a very personal journey, in which he's constantly trying to find a society in which someone like him can truly belong.

Though he harbors similiar doubts about what it means to be a black man in America like Ellison and Wright, Obama never goes down Invisible Man or Bigger territory. He learns to accept all aspects of his experience, from his childhood overseas to his at-times frustrating run as a community organizer in Chicago to a final enlightening and deeply moving moment in front of his father's grave in Africa.

Obama's search for identity (and the perspectives he's gained through his ties to Indonesia and Kenya) will speak to anyone who straddles more than one culture - whether through race, upbringing, or simply from living on other shores.
Guest More than 1 year ago
He idolizes a blackfather who deserted him, but seems to ignore a white mother responsible for his greatness.
Denny-S More than 1 year ago
Quite frankly, I really didn¿t like this book that much. In fact, it was almost painful to read at times. I mean, it was really well written, I like Obama's writing, but it just seemed to lack a force to drive the story forward. There was no action or suspense that made you want to read more. In other words, it was kind of boring.
It¿s a very emotional story, Obama gets deep into his thoughts and feelings, and by the end of the book you start to understand him. The problem is, the emotion isn¿t reached until the end of the book. For the first half of the book, I could barely even understand what the conflict was. Plus, the emotions are all mixed together with a lot of unnecessary information. The book is almost like a bad biography at times.
The story is separated into three parts: Origins, Chicago, and Kenya (or, as I like to call them, Confusing, Boring, and Slightly Interesting, since the story does get better at the end). The first part jumps around to several different time periods in Obama's life, making it very hard to understand what¿s going on. The second part has a lot of thought and philosophy in it, but it also has a lot of boring and random information. The third part is pretty good; it¿s understandable, full of emotion, and, for the first time in the book, enjoyable to read.
But the book isn¿t all bad. Obama¿s writing still is pretty unique, and I find it to be very effective. He uses some cool punctuation in his sentences that add variety to his writing, and is good at using his broad vocabulary in the writing. There were a lot of times that I didn¿t have a clue what some words meant, and I have a fairly decent vocabulary. All in all, Obama is a good writer.
Now, I am a high school student, and this book is more of an adult book. So, that might be why I don¿t particularly like it. But still, I¿ve read more adult books before, and I liked, and understood, them. But, for whatever reason, I really just don¿t like this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I got it at the library and read the book because of all the buzz and adoration the author was receiving lately. I found it a sad memoir about a little boy always longing for an absent father. Psychologically speaking, Mr. Obama follows a typical path for those that have absent fathers at a young age. The author barely discusses a mother on whom he seems to have emotionally turned his back, as well as his elders in Hawaii. That doesn't speak well to me of his respect and admiration for the women or elderly in his life. There was not much mention of his time in Africa or what he did there. I found that odd since he was desperate to get there. There's a bit of mystery shrouding his experiences there that left me wanting to know more. It also seemed Obama has never outgrown idealizing his absent father and still puts this major deadbeat Dad on a pedestal. There is almost like a buried anger there at someone looking for an outlet. Overall, I did not care for the book. I felt it attmpted to manipulate the reader into feeling a certain way about the author. It is as if who he is is not who he is, but rather crafted by his psyche as who he wants us to see now.
lizann More than 1 year ago
I've admired Barack Obama's intelligence and leadership abilities for years, but it wasn't until I read this book that I realized the depth of his experience.

This is an engrossing book that is well written. It also lends a significant amount of insight into the life and experiences that brought Barack Obama to this place in history.
ajunatnyc More than 1 year ago
All presidential candidates should have to write a book of this caliber to run for office. This is a vivid, deeply affecting portrait of the next possible leader of the free world. His writing is great and his experiences make him stand out from other politicians. I sincerely hope people read this to learn more about this great man.
songbirdlite More than 1 year ago
I can't tell you how many times I've spoken to someone who wasn't sure what they thought of Obama, or perhaps they were even dismissive of Obama. Then, they told me, they'd read this book. They came out of it with a whole different feeling for who and what Obama is. Anyone who has the least interest in the world around us today, will be glad they did -- if they pick up this book and give it a read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've had the privilege to meet Barack Obama, and to read Dreams From My Father several years ago. For those who have just discovered Barack after his convention keynote speech, what you saw was only the 'tip of the iceberg.' This is an immmensely talented, complex, intelligent and inspiring man on so many levels. As eloquent as his speech was, his book is equally so, and offers insights into how, as he put it, 'the skinny boy with the funny name' has evolved. I can only hope there will be many more books from Barack, who promises to be one of the most exciting politicians of the 21st century.
claude60 More than 1 year ago
President Obama's memoir "Dreams from My Father "was an absorbing and interesting read for me It was well written and gave a thoughtfull, amusing look back at his childhood an early years as a community organizer He was able to laugh at some of his youthful misadventures and at the same time giving us a serious look at his African heritage I found the book to be more interesting and rewarding than I thought it would be.
adoringfrida More than 1 year ago
I was drawn into the story of Obama's life, from his childhood in Hawaii and in the poor nation of his step-father, through his years of questioning his identity and purpose in college, and into his work with Chicago's poor before he went to law school. Having read this book, I have confidence in the President to understand Americans on every level, I read of his integrity throughout his life, and without any religious overtones, he gives a glimpse into his spiritual journey. I recommend this book to anyone interested in a deeper understanding of our new president. Very good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dreams from My Father provides remarkable insight into Senator Barack Obama's struggle for identity and ultimate reconciliation with his place in his family and society. The book chronicles the experiences that inform the President-elect's vision and policies, at the same time as it provides a beautifully written memoir of self-discovery.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not a book I would pick up or consider buying, I received it as a holiday gift and found it to be a satisfying enjoyment. The memoir genre is extraordinarily diffifult to master, and Barrack Obama is a master of this art. His stories of growing up and reflection gave me a sense of hope, that there are still powerful writers such as himself among us. The memoir is a good read for students, scholars, and all those who would like to live life with a larger understanding of being American.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I decided to read Mr Obama's book after I heard him speak at the DNC. I was thoroughly impressed by his ability to draw a clear and artful mental picture with his words. This book transported me to the various places he had been and allowed be to be present as the events unfolded. The book is candid and a must read for anyone living in America and especially anyone fighting with personal identity. This book is sicere and comes from the heart.I read it from 6pm to 6am (with two breaks) I was spellbound. SPLENDID!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Don't voice your political opinion here just review the book not the man. Not to mention some of you are getting a little extreme.
See_Jane_Read More than 1 year ago
A fabulous memoir and a brilliant man! Obama offers some very honest reflections on his life and the meaning of race in America. Fascinating! A much more personal work than "The Audacity of Hope" which felt like a campaign ad.
dke More than 1 year ago
Dreams From My Father is like walking with a friend while he is discussing his life with you. I so enjoyed reading about our President as an individual going through different stages of his life from young child to manhood; it gave me great insight into who he is as a person today. The perspective given is honest and truthful. There are times of great sadness,frustration, happiness and a great deal of learning along the way. The book is a tale of his search for who he is and in that sense is it a Universal story; One that each of us embarks upon in our own lives. For Barack Obama the trip entailed a visit to his roots, Africa, the home of his Father and meeting with a family and extended family he was not familiar with. Most important he met his father though their eyes and their stories rather than as the man he had met only once and conjured up in his mind. The journey begins with Barack as a child and ends with Barack as a Man, but it is the travel, the people on the road met, and his experience with them described on the pages of the book that makes the book such a valuable read. The words richly convey the people who have shaped his life in large and small ways. The Author devotes enough space to his time as a Community Organizer in Chicago to give the reader a great insight into exactly what and who he was dealing with at the time. As a parting note, I was out of town at a hotel when I finished the book and walked over to the Desk Clerk asking her if she would like to have the book to read and keep or pass it on. She jumped at the chance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an amazing book that even a highschool student could enjoy. It was not pedantic like some similar historic books and it gave a new perspective on race, family ties, and politics in general.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After finishing Barack Obama's first book (and what an achievement it is for a first-time author!), I was struck by what a lonely kid he must have been. Overcoming his "unconventional" childhood to achieve all that he has achieved is an inspiring story of intelligence and determination.
booksJT More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a provocative and enlightening book about his life. I am glad he shared his story with so many. Hopefully we will walk away with some inspiration from an eloquent speaker. I appreciate the way the book was setup with a timeline of his life. I recommend this book to everyone who might be interested in learning about the man. (Barack Obama)
amberitha More than 1 year ago
Dreams from My Father provides insight into the mind and heart of a remarkable man who seeks to learn more of a father he never really knew. The story is told with openness and authenticity. A fascinating read!
Rosjackwil More than 1 year ago
Though I had a hard time getting into the book, once I was 20 to 30 pages in, I was hooked. Obama has a gift for prose and this is an inspiringly honest and touching story. This book made me step back and review my life and what I had "given back" to the community. His search for a way to make a difference is phenomenal. It provided a solid background and appreciation for what was behind his presidential campaign. Two aspects of Obama's life that really stuck with me include his mother's dedication to his education during his years in Indonesia via the 5:00 a.m study sessions, and her willingness to let him go to ensure he had a strong educational background. You kind of sense this unselfish love in his relationship with his wife and daughters. Secondly, the story of his visit to Africa to get to know his family is incredible in how it reveals so much of how culture can enoble us at the same time it it places us in a strait jacket. His insight into the human condirion is shaped by his multi-cultural experience. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking personal fulfillment as well as anyone interested in understanding more about our first African American president.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book gives you a very clear insight into not only Barack Obama's own life and upbringing, but of what it means to be an African/American, an African, a mix og black and white, and the questions and doubts many people still face everyday! He seems to have a genuine heart and also a taste for fun. A wonderful man, with a good set of values! May God help him do a great job!
momJN More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. I often get bored reading biographies or autobiographies, but this time I didn't. It was an interesting read. It was nice to learn more him.
lizlazarideswhite More than 1 year ago
When I picked up "Dreams from my Father", the first thing that came to mind was this was another "political" book. After reading the first page in BN, I decided to go ahead and buy the book. Came home, sat down and started reading Barack Obama's book and quickly realized that this was a book about the life of a little boy born into two different worlds of culture - His Mother from Kansas and his Father from Africa.Not about politics or even about being a minority,it was sharing his life as a child and about becoming the man that he is today. A very powerful, moving book written by Obama telling his life story about the family who helped mold him into the wonderful man that he grew up to be. Just an inspiring book to read . I highly recommend "Dreams from My Father" lizlazarideswhite