Dreams from My Father

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Dreams from My Father is a 1995 autobiographical work by Barack Obama.


Dreams from my father : a story of race and inheritance (1st ed.). New York: Times Books. 1995-07-18. LCC E185.97.O23 A3 1995. ISBN 081292343X. 
Dreams from my father : a story of race and inheritance (1st pbk. ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press. 2004-08-10. LCC E185.97.O23 A3 2004. ISBN 1400082773. OCLC 55534889. 
From an improbably short span it seems that my father fell under the same spell as my mother and her parents; and for the first six years of my life, even as that spell was broken and the worlds that they thought they'd left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been.
Strange how a single conversation can change you.
With our eyes closed, we uttered the same words, but in our hearts we each prayed to our own masters; we each remained locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.
  • They know too much, we have all seen too much, to take my parents' brief union — a black man and a white woman, an African and an American — at face value. When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race [white] at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am.
    • p. xv.
  • At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man.
    • p. 5.
  • I would not have known at the time, for I was too young to realize that I was supposed to have a live-in father, just as I was too young to know that I needed a race. From an improbably short span it seems that my father fell under the same spell as my mother and her parents; and for the first six years of my life, even as that spell was broken and the worlds that they thought they'd left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been.
    • p. 27.
  • With Lolo, I learned how to eat small green chill peppers raw with dinner (plenty of rice), and, away from the dinner table, I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy). Like many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths. He explained that a man took on the powers of whatever he ate: One day soon, he promised, he would bring home a piece of tiger meat for us to share.
    • p. 37.
  • "My grandfather, see, he's a chief. It's sort of like the king of the tribe, you know...like the Indians. So that makes my father a prince. He'll take over when my grandfather dies."
    "What about after that?" one of my friends asked as we emptied our trays into the trash bin. "I mean, will you go back and be a prince?"
    "Well...if I want to, I could. It's sort of complicated, see, 'cause the tribe is full of warriors. Like Obama...that means 'Burning Spear'..."
    As the words tumbled out of my mouth, and I felt the boys readjust to me, more curious and familiar as we bumped into each other in the line back to class, a part of me really began to believe the story. But another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie...
    • p. 63
  • "Miss Hefty has invited your father to come to school on Thursday. She wants him to speak to the class."
    I couldn't imagine worse news. I spent that night and all of the next day trying to suppress thoughts of the inevitable: the faces of my classmates when they heard about mud huts, all my lies exposed, the painful jokes afterward. Each time I remembered, my body squirmed as if it had received a jolt to the nerves.
    I was still trying to figure out how I'd explain myself when my father walked into our class the next day...
    "We have a special treat for you today," Miss Hefty began. "Barry Obama's father is here, and he's come all the way from Kenya, in Africa, to tell us about his country."
    ...He had been speaking for some time before I could finally bring myself back to the moment. [...] When he finished, Miss Hefty was absolutely beaming with pride. All my classmates applauded heartily.
    • p. 69
  • Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.
    • p. 76.
  • I had learned not to care. I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though...
    • p. 93.
  • Strange how a single conversation can change you. Or maybe it only seems that way in retrospect. A year passes and you know you feel differently, but you're not sure what or why or how, so your mind casts back for something that might give that difference shape: a word, a glance, a touch.
    • p. 105.
  • Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah? How could we judge other men until we had stood in their shoes?
    • p. 117.
  • The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.
    • p. 124.
  • Organizers didn't make any money; their poverty was proof of their integrity.
    • p. 135.
  • Still, there was something about him that made me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white...
    • p. 142.
  • "... seemed like we'd always be second-class citizens." "Plantation politics," the man with the newspaper said. "That's just what it was, too... A plantation. Black people in the worst jobs. The worst housing. Police brutality rampant. But when the so-called black committeemen came around election time, we'd all line up and vote the straight Democratic ticket. Sell our soul for a Christmas turkey. White folks spitting in our faces, and we'd reward 'em with the vote."
    • p. 147
  • With our eyes closed, we uttered the same words, but in our hearts we each prayed to our own masters; we each remained locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.
    • p. 163.
  • That's what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.
    • p. 190.
  • It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself.
    • p. 219
  • The king is overthrown, I thought. The emerald curtain is pulled aside. The rabble of my head is free to run riot; I can do what I damn well please. For what man, if not my own father, has the power to tell me otherwise? Whatever I do, it seems, I won't do much worse than he did.
    • p. 220.
  • ...maybe once you stripped away the rationalizations, it always came down to a simple matter of escape. An escape from poverty or boredom or crime or the shackles of your skin.
    • p. 277.
  • I’d been feeling this way all through my stay in Europe – edgy, defensive, hesitant with strangers. I hadn’t planned it that way. I had thought of the layover there as nothing more than a whimsical detour, an opportunity to visit places I had never been before. For three weeks I had traveled alone, down one side of the continent and up the other, by bus and by train mostly, a guidebook in hand. I took tea by the Thames and watched children chase each other through the chestnut groves of Luxembourg Garden. I crossed the Plaza Mayor at high noon, with its De Chirico shadows and sparrows swirling across cobalt skies; and watched night fall over the Palatine, waiting for the first stars to appear, listening to the wind and its whispers of mortality. ¶ And by the end of the first week or so, I realized that I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine. I felt as if I were living out someone else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites. I saw like a hard pane of glass. I began to suspect that my European stop was just one more means of delay, one more attempt to avoid coming to terms with the Old Man. Stripped of language, stripped of work and routine – stripped even of the racial obsessions to which I’d become so accustomed and which I had taken (perversely) as a sign of my own maturation – I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there.
    • p. 301.
  • And if you say to him that he's serving the interests of neocolonialism or some other such thing, he will reply that yes, he will serve if that is what's required. It is the lucky ones who serve; the unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs; many will drown.
    • p. 315.
  • What had I expected my little lecture to accomplish? My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of a racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody's fault necessarily. It was just a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life.
    • p.s 347-348.
  • Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in my confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father's before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced.
    • p. 429.
  • I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain. My questions were my brothers' questions. Their struggle, my birthright.
    • p. 430.
  • The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power — and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition. But that's not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.
    • p. 437.
  • What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?
    • p. 438.
  • All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we've done to make so many children's hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass — what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we've always done — pretending that these children are somehow not our own.
    • p. 438.

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