Reading the Memoir of our President-Elect
Posted by: Misha Stone
When my book group discussed Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, in 2004, we had no way of knowing that the author would become the 44th President of the United States.
It made me wonder how book groups picking up the book now will read it, how Obama becoming the first African American President will give their reading a very different freight.
In revisiting my notes on the book, where I collated my questions, copied out salient quotations and made note of life occurances and progressions, I was struck once again by the smooth, thoughtful writing style and the clarity of thought that shines through in this memoir.
Barack Obama’s book is largely a narrative about the absence of his father, a theme he evoked again and again on the campaign trail. It also is about the people who raised him, his mother and grandparents, and how he assessed and internalized their essential characters. Here is a passage contrasting his grandmother and grandfather, with whom he grew up:
According to her, the word racism wasn’t even in their vocabulary back then. “You grandfather and I just figured we should treat people decently, Bar. That’s all.”…She’s wise that way, my grandmother, suspicious of overwrought sentiments or overblown claims, content with common sense. Which is why I tend to trust her account of events; it corresponds to what I know about my grandfather, his tendency to rewrite his history to conform with the image he wished for himself. (pg. 21)
On ‘Gramps’: always running away from the familiar; “his character would have been fully formed, I think—the generosity and eagerness to please, the awkward mix of sophistication and provincialism, the rawness of emotion that could make him at once tactless and easily bruised. His was an American character, one typical of man of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price, and whose enthusiasms could as easily lead to the cowardice of McCarthyism as to the heroics of World War II. Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end to disappointment.” ( pg. 16)
Throughout the memoir, Barack Obama explores again and again what it meant to him to grow up biracial, and all that he had to account for in order to come to his own sense of himself.
Perhaps if we had been living in New York or L.A., I would have been quicker to pick up the rules of the high-stake game we were playing. As it was, I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere. (pg. 82)
In revisiting some of the questions that I asked my group at the time, I wondered how they might change if the book were being discussed now. Some of them are broad enough to work, others may be less important. Here are a few:
- “I learned long ago to distrust my childhood and the stories that shaped it.” (from Introduction) What does he mean here? What does it mean, then, for Obama to tell his story?
- What are the major themes of the memoir and how are they illustrated?
- Why was the memoir written? How was it arranged?
- Is this a warts and all memoir, or not? Why?
- Obama was not a politician when he wrote this memoir, but in revisiting it in his new introduction, he notes that he wouldn’t tell the story so differently now, “even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research.” What did you think about this assessment?
- Why does Obama write about his father? What does he discover as he does?
- After visiting Kenya, the question of family comes up. “What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it just a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?” (327)—How do you think Obama defines this? What does his book say? He says he has not reached a definition, but drawn circles around himself…
- What did you learn about race in this memoir? How did race shape Obama’s identity?
I would love to hear about how book groups may be discussing this memoir now, and if so, what they are finding.