I read Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” a few weeks ago while traveling to and from the west coast. Turns out our new president has a way with the written word, as well as the spoken, and I found the book an evocative story of a young man coming of age and coming to terms with his heritage and complex identity.
There are many things I could comment on, but what most struck me were various quotes from his mother: “If you want to grow into a human being, you are going to need some values.”
Straight talk: “If you didn’t like the shirt I bought you for your birthday, you should have just said so instead of keeping it wadded up in the bottom of your closet.”
Independent judgment: “Just because all the other kids tease the poor boy about his haircut doesn’t mean you have to do it too.”
Honesty, fairness: “The parents of wealthier students should not give television sets to the teachers and their children should take no pride in the higher marks they may have received.”
I also found his mother’s thoughts on guilt interesting, though I might call it the feelings produced by an “active conscience” instead of guilt: “…the one trick my mother always had up her sleeve, that way she had of making me feel guilty. She made no bones about it either…. ‘A healthy dose of guilt never hurt anybody. It’s what civilization was built on, guilt. A highly underrated emotion.'”
Other values struck home as well: “Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you.”
There is no getting away from the reality that a memoir is a one-way conversation. The author reveals what he wills and conceals what we know not of his thoughts and feelings. With that caveat, I must admit to having been——perhaps charmed is the best word? I finished the book feeling that I knew Barack (see, on a first name basis!), that we had been friends. (At 451 pages, that’s bonding. 457 pages if you count the excerpt at the end from “Audacity of Hope.” It’s a long way back from California to Gainesville, Florida.)