“Who are you?” is probably one of the easiest questions in the world to answer – responses would vary based on the many yardsticks of personal identification in society – “I am a lawyer”, “I am an accountant”, “I am a feminist”, “I am a vegetarian”, “I am a Muslim”, “I am a Christian”, “I am liberal”, “I am conservative”, “I am black”, “I am white”, “I am mixed”, “I am gay”, “I am straight” – There are a million possible terms by which to identify oneself with, and if just one does not suffice, it is very possible to pick these tags in multiples in order to attempt giving a finite meaning to your person for anyone curious enough to wonder or inquire.
In Dreams From my Father by Barack Obama, the answers to questions in the range of identity are not as easily put together as something like “I am a magician” or “I am a dancing pilot who skis”. In this book, the lines of definition are not blurred but stretched and explored for depth and self-realization and actualization. The answer to the question(s) of identity here hold more gravity and thought than points of identification like profession, religion, orientation or habit. For Barack Obama, the answer (or the answers) to his question of identity laid in different places, in the midst of variegated people, circumstances and across oceans.
Barack Obama is one of the most important men – ever, for very obvious reasons. His importance is an amalgam of personal, or internal factors, and external, or contributed causes. In the introduction to the book, Obama deliberately leaves the labelling of the book to the reader, giving the possible tags of autobiography, memoir, or family history.
This, in a way, is the first pointer to the theme of ambiguity of true identity which the book is saturated with.
The book is divided into three parts – Origins, Chicago and Kenya. The first part is a cross-section of Obama’s beginnings. In fact, if this part was titled “Beginnings”, rather than “Origins”, it wouldn’t take much away from the essence of the stories in this part. The stories told in this part explain the roots of Obama’s habits, ideals, characteristics and most importantly, his desire to find… or create who he truly was. Across the length of the book, Barack Obama is tossed around the globe by the winds of race, marriage, love, passion and curiosity. He was the bi-racial product of a defiant, and hitherto forbidden union between his father – also named Barack Obama – a Kenyan erudite who travelled from the farmlands of Alego in Kenya to the shores of Hawaii in search of higher education and his mother – Stanley Ann Dunham, a Caucasian woman with overt anti-segregationist sentiments (which was a huge deal at the time). With a skin tone which was noticeably different from his immediate family members (bar Obama senior who was physically absent for most of Obama’s life), it was inevitable for questions concerning origins and identity to sprout up in Barack’s young mind. Add the fact that he had to move to Indonesia for a small chunk of his childhood as a result of his mother’s remarriage, young Barack must have felt like a blend of various factors, leaving the unspoken question of whether this made him special, or strange.
As a young man on his own, Obama spent his time creating meaning for himself through one factor that would turn out to be very significant to his future endeavours – leadership. Dreams From my Father was published thirteen years before Obama achieved what he is generally esteemed for, which is becoming the first African-American and black president of the United States. Prior to that, he served communities in Chicago as a community organizer, lawyer, and public speaker. He was president of the Harvard Law Review of the prestigious Harvard University, then served as a senator in the state of Illinois.
Leadership was a very persistent theme in Obama’s adult life, and the second part of the book – Chicago did well to tell about the beginnings of his identity as a leader and the dynamics that contributed to the leadership icon he has grown into.
In Chicago, he climbed the ranks as a community organizer, uniting people to work together to solve social problems amongst the people who looked just like him in the hardscrabble parts of Chicago. He would perform this duty as a result of his understanding of the need for a change amongst the black people in these areas and perhaps something more – the desire to create an image for himself in the midst of an existence riddled with many ambiguities. Indeed, this venture could be regarded as a success story, or part of a success story, not only in view of the numerous challenges and victories being an organizer brought but also in view of the bigger picture with the triumphs at the senatorial and presidential levels and the impact his name has come to stand for in the lives of people.
This profound, self-searching autobiography takes you on a stroll down memory and history lane through the third part – Kenya. This part of the book does present the chronicled narrative and what his actual origins have to do with who he is and who or what he represents. Obama uses a trip to his native home of Kenya to gain a deeper understanding of his person and the hitherto latent heritage of his people.
With pleasant (and sometimes unpleasant) interaction with rarely seen and never seen family members, wistful journeys and unforgettable stories of history, the journey home could be described as a pilgrimage of introspection. The journey home was an eye-opener to harsh realities and new responsibilities for Obama and the lessons learnt on Obama’s journey to Kenya can apply to every one of us, literally and figuratively. Literally speaking, one can take Dreams From my Father as a reminder that the place where we come from is just as important as the place we are at currently and where we are going. It is a call for people to endeavour to discover more about their backgrounds and the history of their people in order to gain a deeper-rooted personal identity. Figuratively, the journey home could mean an introspective look into one’s life.
It requires you to look into the past and pinpoint the occurrences and realizations that form who you are as an individual. It requires you to gaze into the abyss that is the past, and find the connections to your present as well as your future in light of the bigger picture. Through the journey home and the authoring of this autobiography, Obama found his identity through his origins – both literally and figuratively.
What identity is for the author, we can only identify to a level which is limited by the scope of his public persona (which the book adds to) and small revelations but the truth remains that personal identity (as the name implies) is largely personal. One can present a thesis on it, grant interviews, publicly discuss it and even write an entire autobiography detailing the struggles of finding and creating it but one can never completely portray the length and breadth of your person. The understanding of your person is largely a sole privilege. The great thing about understanding yourself is that, although the full experience can’t be completely shared, the impacts of such a self-discovery can be seen and felt and this is where the bigger picture falls in.
Barack Obama’s identity as a half-caste, African American, cigarette smoking, alcohol consuming, passionate, community-serving, family-uniting leader of a man helped him shape himself into the maverick of a man he is today and the lessons in his life are deposited in Dreams From my Father for anyone who cares to read it. The trail of achievements Barack Obama leaves behind to serve as a motivation to millions of people who share similar racial and conditional identities with him and this tidal wave of inspiration is a result of a well-sought out personal identity.