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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Man on a Mission Comes to Term With His African Roots : DREAMS FROM MY FATHER: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama ; Times Books $23, 383 pages

August 07, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A sharp eye and a generous heart distinguish this memoir by Chicago civil rights attorney Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a black African father and a white American mother and who became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Its generosity is what strikes us most. A number of recent books, from Kody Scott's "Monster" to Nathan McCall's "Makes Me Wanna Holler," have expressed the anger of young African American men in an era when nobody listens to them much anymore, except to condemn rap lyrics and justify spending ever more money on prisons; when the half-mythical Angry White Man calls all the political shots.

Obama, too, had his share of painful experiences, even in Indonesia, where his mother remarried after his father left her to return to Kenya. As a small boy reading a copy of Life magazine in the U.S. Embassy library in Jakarta, he saw photos of black people who had burned their skin with caustic chemicals to appear white. Being black, he realized, must be a terrible affliction.

And at a prep school in Honolulu--"my first experience with affirmative action"--Obama found that he had no choice: In the eyes of even that supposedly tolerant society, to be half-white was to be black all the way.

By Page 77, after teen-age years of dope-smoking and alienation, he has reached the familiar conclusion that "we were always playing on the white man's court, by the white man's rules. . . . The only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal, into a smaller and smaller coil of rage."

But the book doesn't end there. Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles. He worked as a community organizer in Chicago's Altgeld housing project during the false dawn of Mayor Harold Washington's tenure. After the death of his father--whom he remembered only through a brief meeting at age 10, when their paths crossed in Hawaii--Obama journeyed to Kenya to "come to terms with the Old Man" and his African roots. His legal career followed.

"Dreams From My Father" is not only, in the author's words, "a boy's search for his father and . . . a workable meaning for his life as a black American." Obama is anything but a solipsist; he is always looking beyond himself, at family, community, the wider world.

He is a polished writer, with a novelist's skill in describing a place or a person and framing a scene. What his eye sees--often critically--his heart forgives: a compelling double vision.

Obama sees, for example, that even well-intentioned whites are crucially ignorant of the black experience; that black student radicals are often just confused young people who adopt a militant pose because they lack any other identity; and that "black nationalism" in an economy dominated by whites is likely to be disappointed.

But he also has a knack for intuiting the "dreams" that make people what they are. He gives his American grandfather credit for wishing he had been actively anti-racist. He traces his African grandfather's rigidity to the moment when the grandfather ran away from his village as a teen-ager at the turn of the century and returned in white man's clothes and was shunned as "unclean."

He sees that his father--a Harvard-trained economist who fell out of favor with Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta--was hopelessly torn between cultures, and that both his parents, in their short-lived marriage, were committed to a '60s spirit that was as brave as it was naive.

So vividly does Obama portray other people, male and female, that his own story proceeds almost underground. He doesn't dwell on his success in school, work and relationships. Yet it represents, given his inner struggle and the social conditions he describes, a considerable achievement. We see that it owes something to the idealism he inherited from both sides of his family--this is, in fact, the central thesis of "Dreams"--but ultimately it must remain a mystery to those less gifted in life.

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