Much like its author, Barack Obama’s first memoir defies easy categorization. In some stores, it’s shelved with autobiographies, while others place it in African-American history. Of course, now it’s simply American history. First published in 1995, it is one of the few presidential memoirs written before the subject was burdened with the self-consciousness of a man aiming for the nation’s highest office, or the completion of a presidency, when every word is subject to the tint of political hindsight.
But even if Obama hadn’t ended up in the White House, Dreams from My Father would still be a compelling and beautifully written American story about the son of a black man and a white woman, his search for his African father and how he found a “workable meaning for his life as a black American.” It’s a portrait of a man who breaks the mold yet reveres the rules. We see the boldness of someone who could walk away from a career as a well-paid financial analyst in New York City for a low-paid and often frustrating community-organizer job in Chicago. But we also get a sense of Obama’s other, more passive side, the guy who got a contract to write a book about race while still at Harvard Law School and who then chose to become an academic rather than an activist — a professor of constitutional law, rather than, say, a civil rights lawyer. In the end, whether you read this book through the prism of politics or as a coming-of-age tale, it’s important and illuminating.