BOOK REVIEW: Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama

Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama, (Paperback, 464 pages, Canongate Books, rrp £8.99, available £4.99)

On Tuesday I will go along to Queen’s University Belfast for an event, to be addressed by the United States Consul General, Susan Elliott, marking the inauguration of Barack Obama as her country’s 44th President.

While I have gone on record on this blog previously as an Obama sceptic, my hopes will be as high as anyone for his presidency, for how he might reinvent America and its place in the world. This book, at least for now, helps me set aside some of that scepticism.

We in Amnesty are like much of the world: we’re wondering what the next four years may hold and we’re busy reading the runes, reading between the lines of his appointments, his speeches and even what he doesn’t say, to determine the likely shape and direction of his Administration, it’s foreign policy and its approach to international human rights law.

If we want to know where someone is going, it’s useful to know where they have come from, what are the events and who are the people to have shaped them.

That is why Dreams From My Father is an important book and, undoubtedly the reason – combined with Obama’s charisma – it has become such a phenomenally successful international best-seller.

This is part life-story, part exploration of the race issue in modern America and part search for Obama's African roots and personal destiny.

Obama traces his early years in Hawaii and Indonesia, his later years as a community organiser in Chicago and finally his personal odyssey through Kenya to re-establish his link with his long-absent and now dead father and his extended African family.

What shines through this book more than anything else is Obama’s intelligence, honesty and personal empathy: all qualities to be prized in a political leader.

But this is a human rights blog, so what does it tell us about his likely approach to human rights as the world’s most powerful politician?

Not much. At least, at one level.

This book was first published in 1995, written by Obama as a thirty-three year-old, before he had embarked on a political career (even if he had already started to contemplate one) and does not contain any policy prescriptions. If you’re looking for that, then seek out his 2004 manifesto for change, The Audacity of Hope.

Yet, in another way, we find out much about Obama’s attitude to rights and their abuse.

The racial politics of America, its roots in the oppression of Africa and its present-day impact on the lives of millions of ordinary Americans, marks this book like a scar from start to finish. For Obama, racial prejudice and the effects of discrimination are not abstract concepts, they are lived realities for the African-American community. His prescription is not self-pity or anger, but hard work and the power of activism and the law to change lives.

His arrival as an American boy in Jakarta, with his mother and Indonesian step-father, in the wake of the CIA-supported bloody coup which overthrew nationalist  President Sukarno, meant that Obama soon became aware of corruption, American power and how people are people, whatever their nationality or religion.

From his years as a community organiser in Chicago, we learn of Obama’s commitment to challenge not just poverty, but apathy too and the acceptance that injustice should ever be tolerated.

With his large extended family in Kenya, Obama knows and shows that people outside America’s borders – even the poorest and least powerful – matter too, because they are his people also.

This book is a beautifully told story of searching. If Obama’s presidency lives up to this early promise as a story-teller and a student of the world, then the next four years could be an exciting period, not just for his country, but for us all.

Strongly recommended.

Meanwhile, if you want to encourage the new President to make the most of his first 100 days to stand up for human rights, watch our great new campaign video  and take action here.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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