Dreams From My Father – what does his book tell us about Obama’s presidency?

January 19, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Imagine someone a bit like dozens of social movement and NGO activists who you’ve worked with over the years. Raised across three continents; a spell of community activism that tempers romanticism with hard knocks; all this interspersed with wrestling with the sense of identity to make sense of being of mixed race, the absent father, and all that moving around. What sort of president would that person make? We’re about to find out.

I’ve just finished Dreams from my Father and like everyone else, was blown away by its intelligence and openness. Amazing to have the early years and inner world of a US president so exposed from day one. What pointers does it give for Obama’s likely predispositions on foreign policy and development?

His extended visits to his family in Kenya were real insider experiences – he got out from the cities to the villages, and into people’s houses and lives. His father (who he barely knew) epitomised the hopes and disappointments of independence, going from Big Man to embittered drunk as his tribe (the Luo) was marginalised by the Kikuyus. His grandfather was a servant to the Brits – Obama quotes excerpts from his passbook, with comments from his various colonial employers. Don’t expect too much instinctive sympathy for the ‘Mother Country’. On aid and development issues, he is attuned on issues of governance, corruption and the culture of poverty and exclusion (from both Kenya and Chicago’s South Side).

On globalisation, his years in booming Indonesia, declining Chicago, and marginalised Kenya left him with a fine-grained appreciation of the creative destruction at its heart – in some lovely writing he imagines Jakarta’s booming garment factories in turn succumbing to post-industrial decay, like Chicago before it, as the eye of the global economic storm moves on.

From his time in Chicago he appreciates the role and difficulties of social activists – the sparsely attended meetings and failed initiatives, the need to identify where the energy is in any given community and to organize around felt needs, the vital role of the churches, and the complex and contradictory motivations and characters of many leaders. He explores the subtle causes of black (especially male) exclusion, both internal and external , with extraordinary insight.

And he writes like a dream (this book was published in 1995 and written before he went into politics, presumably when he could not afford to be tempted by a ghost writer). Imagine any other president with the experience or the ability to write this:

‘During my very first days in Chicago, I had seen the knots of young men, fifteen or sixteen, hanging out on the corners of Michigan or Halsted, their hoods up, their sneakers unlaced, stomping the ground in a desultory rhythm during the colder months, stripped down to T-shirts in the summer, answering their beepers on the corner pay phones: a knot that unravelled, soon to reform, whenever the police cars passed by in their barracuda silence.’

Powerful writing. Interesting times.

January 19, 2009
Duncan Green