Dreams from My Father

'A story of race and inheritance', first published in 1995

In Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney comments on the public, speeches, conferences and readings that are part and parcel of his position as a poet of considerable international stature. Heaney remarks, 'For better or worse, I was never a person who preserved myself for my writing. In fact, I do believe that your vocation puts you in line for a certain amount of community service, so to speak'. 

The idea of the poet’s role as encompassing that of national commentator might, these days, seem a slightly antiquated notion; however, it is fortunate that Seamus Heaney is amenable to such a role. Our discourse can only be enriched by the unique blend of tact, modulation and thoughtfulness that he brings to his public commentary.

So, it made perfect sense for RTE’s Primetime to carry an interview with Heaney as part of its coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration on the January 20, 2009. Questioned about the new American president, Heaney emphasises that amongst Obama’s traits is a philosophical leaning.

In the Primetime interview Heaney cites a perfect example, when he notes that Obama 'said somewhere that he would like to change mere power into justice'. Heaney goes on to consider the position the writer of the formulation now holds, and the potentialities that may offer. Heaney arrived at this appreciation of Obama on the strength of the book Dreams from My Father, noting: 'since I read his book, the first book, Dreams from My Father, I think of him as a writer.'

Written in 1995, when Obama was a 33 year-old Harvard law graduate, the story that book recounts is by now well known: Obama’s childhood between Hawaii and Indonesia, an upbringing shared between his Kansas-born white mother in Indonesia and his maternal grandparents in Hawaii. His education at Columbia University, work as a community organiser in Chicago, then on to a law degree at Harvard. 

The theme is the legacy of his Kenyan father, who returned to Kenya when Obama was two and died when he was 22. That theme involves a constant search for place, for community, a struggle to negotiate the world as a black man of mixed ethnicity.

The latter section of the book describes a trip to Kenya, where Obama attempts to gain resolution of his issues of place and belonging from a trip to the ancestral home. Revelations about Obama senior at one point give a darker inflection to the memoir’s title when the son realises that: 'All my life I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost.' As the book progresses we realise there will be few definitive answers in Obama’s search, nor should there be.

The biography ends on Obama’s wedding day. During the celebrations, he considers his brother Roy, a recent convert to Islam and applauds the sense of purpose Roy’s beliefs have brought to his life, leaving him 'lean and clear-eyed'. By this stage, Obama is cognisant of the dangers inherent in narrow nationalism, in a self-definition that comes purely from ethnic grounds. He observes of his brother, 'The words he speaks are not fully his own' but appreciates that the conversion has given Roy 'solid ground to stand on' and trusts that he will, from that base, 'venture out and ask harder questions'. 

He concludes that his brother is too good and generous a person 'to find simple solutions to the puzzle of being a black man'. His observations seem to conclude, not altogether satisfactorily, an argument that runs through the book, of how to live as a black man in America.

The extent of Obama’s intellectual engagement with black nationalism and his extended consideration of the Nation of Islam may surprise readers with only a passing interest in the recent American presidential election coverage. Obama writes of his time in community activism in Chicago, noting that he felt: 'If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.' He repeats the caveat, 'If nationalism could deliver' and, at this stage in his career, apparently rejected black militancy as an option on the grounds of 'effectiveness and not sentiment'. While his position has changed, even by the end of this volume, it is still striking that there is now an American president who has internalised such areas of experience.

The bare biographical facts alone would make Obama’s election to the American presidency one of unprecedented symbolic import. However, the real potential of his Presidency, as readers of Dreams from My Father will be aware, lies in how deeply Obama appears to have meditated on and struggled with these facts. Seamus Heaney comments: 'any slogan that he utters, or any large prophetic or optimistic or aspirational statement he makes, comes out of a constancy of applied thought.' 

Obama’s thoughtfulness, what many commentators have noted as an unusual capacity for listening (and which Heaney characterises as a quality of his 'inwardness') is made apparent in this book. Such consistent, meditative and thoughtful awareness makes Obama’s high political rhetoric all the more credible. It also gives real grounds for hope.

In a central and important passage, set in inner-city Chicago, Obama notices a 'young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her'. The scene reminds Obama of the Djakarta markets which he now recognises as 'fragile, precious things', writing that the Indonesian people were 'poorer even than folks out in Altgeld', yet their lives were structured by 'a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe'. These habits and traditions lent their lives a 'discernable order', an order that the contemporary American inner-city lacked, and a lack which resulted in the desperation and incoherence of life in the housing projects.

Obama extends his meditation to encompass the likely fate of the Indonesian workers in the coming decades, 'their factories closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe'. Ultimately: 'The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete.' Their native belief system shattered, millions 'would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair'. 

The connections between global capitalism and the poverty of developing nations have been frequently made. It is startling, however, for them to be pointed out so forcibly, and lyrically, by a man who would go on to become the 44th American president.

Elsewhere, discussing the study of the legal system, Obama maintains an emphasis on social justice. He writes: '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 all that too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.'

Obama’s experiences of community organisation in Chicago’s housing projects are central to his biography. That he worked literally at street level and community hall level - experiencing maybe more set-backs than triumphs – was, for this reviewer, one of the memoir’s crucial revelations. Such are the experiences underlying both Obama’s sense of social justice and, in Heaney’s terms, 'any prophetic or optimistic or aspirational statement' that Obama might make.

From our vantage point, post-Obama’s inauguration, Dreams from My Father will increasingly be turned to as political memoir, for quotes to accompany political commentary, for biographical facts, and (inevitably) to highlight the compromises between early ideals and the contingencies of high political life and office. 

Given this, it is also worth noting the memoir’s sheer readability: it’s a page-turner and a well-constructed one. Biography is interspersed with meditations on community, social justice, and, predominately, black-white relations in America. The book skilfully intertwines its various threads: life in Indonesia is evoked superbly within one chapter, while Obama’s absent father appears periodically, often the focus of the narrator’s attention but integral to the fabric of the narrative throughout. 

The portrait of the absent father becomes more fully realised as the book progresses in tandem with the maturation of the son’s social consciousness. Not only is Dreams from My Father well organised and edited, but the language is never laboured and at times carries a graceful, lyrical charge. Writing of himself in his early twenties, Obama recounts:

'But at night, lying in bed, I would let the slogans drift away, to be replaced with a series of images, romantic images of a past I had never known… They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month … A county jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.'

Or, take his lyrical treatment of a more prosaic scene, the aftermath of a party:

'The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revellers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep.'

I picked up Dreams of My Father on the strength of Heaney’s Primetime interview which recommended the new American president as a writer. That was fairly late in the day; it had already reached the point where the ubiquity of the volume in bookshops and newsagents, the familiarity of the cover, made it feel already read, almost invisible. 

For those who have not read it yet, it is well worth doing so – for the read itself but also in considering the potential that exists for some form of change in American and international politics. Obama’s election is immediately welcome in signalling the end of the neoconservative policies that were a hallmark of the Bush era, but which extend back to Regan. 

While it would be naive to expect a comprehensive overhaul of American politics and international relations, the election results, coming at a time when global capitalism has arrived at a point of crises, nevertheless hold out the possibility for a degree of real and systemic change. The election of Obama at least signals a desire for the rejection of both the barbaric foreign policies and the inequities of domestic policies that characterised the Bush era. Dreams from My Father indicates the arrival of an American President who is thoughtful about the nature of power, rather than simply a man who has obtained it. 

Dreams from My Father
by Barack Obama is published by Canongate.

RTE’s Primetime interview with Seamus Heaney on the night of the American presidential inauguration can be viewed at: http://www.rte.ie/news/2009/0120/primetime.html

Ross Moore