Eric's Reviews > Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
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May 16, 09

Recommended to Eric by: Lotsa peoples
Recommended for: Anybody
Read in January, 2008, read count: 1

Dreams from My Father

I give this a superlative rating because of its clear statement of what it means to be black in a racialized environment, and because of Obama's ability to confront the complexities of his own biracial/multicultural heritage without succumbing to romanticism or denying any aspect of his heritage. He opts for a black identity for the same reason nearly all black/white biracials do -- a white identity isn't possible when you're his color and being white requires a dimmed awareness of the reality of race.

I need to explain this last sentence for the majority of people likely to read this. I’ll need to unpack it: why a white identity isn’t possible; what I mean by “his color” and what that means in the world of today; what I mean by a “dimmed awareness”; and what I see as the “reality of race”.

(Come to think of it, I’ve used other terms that really require examination: “black”, “racialized”, “biracial”, “multicultural”, “heritage”, “identity”, and “white”. All these terms partake of the qualities of “keywords”, as discussed by Raymond Williams, Tony Bennett, Ivan Illich, and others (search for my reviews of these texts). “Keywords” in this sense are words that come trailing strong connotations of significance, along with sets of overlapping but distinct, sometimes nearly contradictory, denotations gathered over time from usage in distinct contexts. The first characteristic — strong emotive value — makes them useful for sprinkling around in oral or written discourse to lend authority to what is said or the person saying it. The difference between keywords and“buzzwords” is that keywords actually carry histories of meaning and reference to demonstrable phenomena. This complexity makes them stumbling blocks, but also makes them hard to replace by anything that might be a synonym.)

“You black? What is you mix with?” — minimum half dozen students per year, for nearly two decades of teaching. These questions admit the legitimacy of my claim to black ethnicity, but query details of my heredity. In doing so, they implicitly decouple the biological and social conceptions of “race”, allowing “black” as an ethnic identity.

“Eric, I don’t get why you say you’re ‘black’. To me, you’re not black, at all.” — dozens of white people from my college days up to a few months ago. In order to enjoy or at least manage my interactions in whatever context they and I were interacting, it was incumbent on me — the black man — to get around their (mostly unconsciously held) stereotypes of blackness. I do this by accomodating their parochialism in speech and gesture: don't talk too educated, no jokes in black dialect, tone down my gestures.The comment is a backhanded recognition of my success. Depending on the circumstance, I could go on and help them (maybe) confront those stereotypes and, just maybe, inject historical, cultural, and biological data and insights. This is what non-whites (not just Afro-Americans) refer to when they talk about being “tired of educating white people.”

“They ain’t black!” — student in West Oakland, speaking of Haitian immigrant students. Meaning, of course, “They ain’t Afro-Americans, like me!”
“You ain’t black!” — same student, to me. Same meaning, mutatis mutandis.

Obama captures the essence of Whiteness on page 312: “It occurred to me that in their utter lack of self-consciousness, they were expressing a freedom that neither Auma nor I could ever experience, a bedrock confidence in their own parochialism, a confidence reserved for those born into imperial cultures.”
Well, that almost captures it. What distinguishes white Americans from Chinese, most Europeans, and others from imperial cultural backgrounds is the white Americans’ childish lack of historical context, of the fact that “white American” is an ethnicity. White Americans blithely tell you “I never think about race. I don’t think of myself as white.” You can’t imagine anyone of any other nation or ethnicity making such a statement (never mind whether it’s true or not.)


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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Mirkats (new)

Mirkats eric, this is the most cogent and helpful comment i've read on the subject. i thank you for it.


Eric Mirkats wrote: "eric, this is the most cogent and helpful comment i've read on the subject. i thank you for it."

Hey, Miriam!

Thanks for the attention!

I'm gonna try to find out how to change your sign-on name as it appears on my page, but I think the easiest way is for you to change it.


Devin that was nice :)


Devin Mirkats


Devin are shupid!!


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