Dreams from My Father: on Principles & Values

Mother attacked for playing with a black girlfriend

One day my grandmother Toot came home to find a crowd of children gathered. As Toot drew closer, she could make out the sounds of mirthless laughter, the contortions of rage & disgust on the children's faces. The children were chanting, in a high-pitched alternating rhythm: "Nigger lover! Dirty Yankee!" The children scattered when they saw Toot, but not before one of the boys had sent the stone in his hand sailing over the fence. There she saw the cause of all the excitement: my [white] mother and a black girl of about the same age lying side by side in the grass, their heads propped up on their hands in front of one of my mother's books. The two girls seemed perfectly serene beneath the leafy shade. It was only when Toot opened the gate that she realized the black girl was shaking and my mother's eyes shone with tears. The girls remained motionless, paralyzed in their fear, until Toot finally leaned down and put her hands on both their heads.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p. 18 Aug 1, 1996

Be strong or be clever and make peace

My stepfather Lolo said, "Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They're just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man's land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man's woman is pretty, the strong man will take her. Which would you rather be? Better to be strong. If you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always."
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p. 37 Aug 1, 1996

Guilt is a luxury that not everyone can afford

My stepfather Lolo said, "Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford. Like saying whatever pops into your head." Mother didn't know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn't know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy. That possibility negated anything she might say to Lolo; it was the unreachable barrier between them.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p. 42 Aug 1, 1996

Racism wasn't merely the cruelty involved, but arrogance too

The older woman in my grandparents' apartment building who became agitated when I got on the elevator behind her & ran out to tell the manager that I was following her; her refusal to apologize when she was told that I lived in the building. Our assistan basketball coach, a young, wiry man from New York with a nice jumper, who, after a pick-up game with some talkative black men, had muttered within earshot of me and three of my teammates that we shouldn't have lost to a bunch of niggers; and who, when I told him to shut up, had calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that "there are black people, and there are niggers. Those guys were niggers." It wasn't merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn't know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p. 75 Aug 1, 1996

Biracial heritage has caused identity crisis

As I imagined myself following Malcolm X's call, one line in his book stayed me. He spoke of his wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother at some uncharted border.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p. 80 Aug 1, 1996

There is some hope of eventual reconciliation between races

If Malcolm X's discovery toward the end of his life, that some whites might live beside him as brothers in Islam, seemed to offer some hope of eventual reconciliation, that hope appeared in a distant future, in a far-off land. In the meantime, I looked to see where the people would come from who were willing to work toward this future and populate this new world.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p. 80 Aug 1, 1996

Poverty of political organizers was proof of their integrity

In the months leading up to graduation, I wrote to every civil rights organization I could think of, to any black elected official in the country with a progressive agenda, to neighborhood councils & tenant rights groups. When no one wrote back, I wasn't discouraged. I decided to find more conventional work for a year, to pay off my student loans and maybe even save a little bit. I would need the money later, I told myself. Organizers didn't make any money; their poverty was proof of their integrity.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p.125 Aug 1, 1996

Spent time in both Muslim and Catholic schools

In Indonesia, I'd spent 2 years at a Muslim school, 2 years at a Catholic school. In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell mother I made faces during Koranic studies. In the Catholic school, when it came time to pray, I'd pretend to close my eyes, then peek around the room. Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and 30 brown children, muttering words. Sometimes the nun would catch me, and her stern look would force my lids back shut. But that didn't change how I felt inside.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p.142 Aug 1, 1996

America's race and class problems are intertwined

Whether because of New York's density or because of its scale, it was only [there] that I began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America's race and class problems joined; the bile that flowed freely not just out on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia's bathrooms as well, where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes.
Source: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, p.254 Aug 1, 1996

  • The above quotations are from Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama, published August 1996.
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