Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama

Posted December 6th, 2007 by

Not long ago, my cousin Katrina Browne (producer/director of Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North) told me she’d read Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. My wife Lindi also read it. They both loved it. I found that I have an interesting connection to Barack Obama as an author, beyond the fact that for each of us our first book is a memoir. My literary agent, Lauren Abramo, works for Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in New York. This same agency represented Obama with his first book. I finished reading it last night.

For those who don’t know, Dreams from My Father is Obama’s story of being the child of an African man from Kenya, and a white woman from the United States and trying to find his place in the world. It’s candid, revealing, and occasionally unsettling in the journey he includes us in as readers. As a white man, I appreciate reading his heartfelt words as he reveals what it feels like to be a black man in America. One key to breaking down the tall, thick barriers of race, culture, and class that divide us is to be willing to listen and learn what the life of “the other” is like.

There’s no way he’d be able to write this book today. His handlers would say, “Too provocative… not safe… too revealing for a presidential candidate.” I’m glad it was published in 1995, long before he became a U.S. senator and candidate for president. Insight into Obama’s character and personality are revealed in ways far too rare in presidential politics.

I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had in July 2001, at the end of our first week of filming Traces of the Trade in Bristol, Rhode Island. My cousin (7th cousin, actually) Holly Fulton drove me back to the airport in Boston for my flight home. I recorded our conversation. It doesn’t appear in my book, so here you go:

As we drove, Holly asked, “Alright, in our lifetimes, what do you think we will see first, a black person or a woman in the Oval Office? I believe we will, but I don’t know which will be first.”

“Vice President, not President, probably,” I replied.

“No. I’m talking Oval.”

“I’ll be shocked if we have either. But then, nobody ever thought we’d have the Berlin Wall down in our lifetimes either.”

“I disagree,” said Holly. “I think we’ll see it in our lifetimes.”

“I don’t remember what I was reading,” I said, “some article that somebody brought about Douglas Wilder when he ran for president in 1992. Someone did a blind profile. They told people the qualifications of something like the top eight people running for President and asked them to pick the best one based on the qualifications, no names or faces attached, just the qualifications. Pick one. And Wilder wins. Then they put names and pictures with the resumes. Boom. He comes in dead last. From first to last. Because he’s black.”

I can’t remember where I read the article, and I haven’t been able to find it since, so I have no evidence to back up what I said during this conversation with Holly in 2001 or even vouch for the accuracy of my words in the last paragraph. I include this exchange only in order to share my belief at the time: I truly never imagined that either a woman or an African American person would be elected president in my lifetime.

How quickly things change. Regardless of how you may feel about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, the fact that one of them may be, and, I believe, likely will be, our next president, gives me hope that other things can change. Other barriers can be removed. What I could not imagine in 2001 may well happen in 2008. What else can we imagine?

4 responses to “Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama”

  1. James says:

    That's an interesting study that you describe, Tom.

    Of course, the social scientist in me wants to suggest that race was probably only a small part of the difference made when names and pictures were added to the resumes. These weren't hypothetical candidates, they were real presidential contenders. I suspect the voters switched their support, once they knew the names, to candidates they'd heard of, had favorable impressions of, and had heard were leading contenders. Wilder was touted as a minor candidate, and he was mostly unknown to voters outside Virginia.

    Today, for instance, if that study were done with the Democratic candidates, I would expect the leading contenders to be Biden and Richardson, who have the strongest resumes. Clinton and Obama, with less impressive experience on paper, would be near the back of the pack. Add in the names, and the female and black candidates would, of course, shoot to the top, where voters put them now in surveys.

  2. Tom says:

    I have no doubt that you're correct, James, which leads me to another interesting conundrum related to the elective process. Many voters say they want to know more about the candidates, their true thoughts, honest feelings, position on the issues of the day, but at the end of the day people tend to vote for people "they'd heard of, had favorable impressions of, and had heard were leading contenders" rather than the candidate that may actually share more of their beliefs and/or positions.

  3. James says:

    I couldn't agree more, Tom. However well-intentioned voters may be, at the end of the day they do tend to follow certain cues, mental shortcuts to figuring out who they'd support if they invested more time in learning about the candidates. And there are significant disadvantages to taking one's cues about candidates from the mass media's campaign coverage.

  4. […] I read Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from my Father in late 2007. As I wrote then, I found it “candid, revealing, and occasionally unsettling in […]

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