Obama, Fatherhood, and “Dreams From My Father”

We love our men; we love our fathers. You keep our families strong, and you’re the first example of manhood we see as children. No one has endured what you have over the centuries, but overcoming those challenges has made you the strongest men on earth. Now, we need your strength and your vision to rebuild our communities and our families, and to save our children, too.

Ten years ago, I read President Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, which was originally published when Barack Obama was in his early 30s. In it, he spoke of his diverse lineage and racial identity; his troubled youth, the larger-than-life image of his absent father, and his quest to find the meaning of manhood and of his life. In his story, I saw glimpses of the principles our ancestors have used to endure for millenniums: faith, hope, hard work, determination, and love, principles any young person could grow from and any country would thrive through.  

Not long ago, I listened as the President told the backstory of his troubled youth at a conference for men and boys of color at the White House. I wondered if his story was being used in schools, or if the educational system had made his autobiography required reading. If not – especially with the importance of embracing and uplifting American youth of color – then we can certainly start today.

Below is a list of nine principles of fatherhood drawn from “Dreams From My Father” which can help provide the tools needed for parents, mentors, and teachers of African American children, principles which helped shape our president into the man he has become:

The Obama family worships at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Virginia on Easter, 2016.

The Obama family worships at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Virginia on Easter, 2016.

  1. Place God at the center of your family. The Christian faith has played a pivotal, inseparable, role in the African American journey in the United States, and in the ideals and beliefs of the country as a whole. President Obama was raised by his mother, who was raised in a strong Christian household; he and First Lady Michelle Obama also raise their daughters in the Christian faith. Barack Obama realized that the Bible’s stories are our stories too[1]; belief in the Bible’s truths mends the spiritual chain broken by our enslavement, and gives our children a stable foundation from which to build.


  1. Accentuate the positive. The National Center for Biotechnology Information recently revealed the results of a study which concluded that positivity is good for your health, and also increases your abilities[2]. These principles are also central to Christian belief. Barack Obama’s family painted a picture of his father as brilliant and confident, even in his absence. Surround your children with positive energy. Speak positively about them, your spouse, and their possibilities.


  1. Teach them the power of giving back. Barack Obama displayed at an early age a heart for helping others, and it became the focus of his life’s work. Doing for others out of love increases our power spiritually, and is one of the foremost principles of the Christian faith[3].  
OBAMAfamilythrobk copy

Barack and Michelle Obama with daughters Malia and Sasha, in the early days of parenting.

  1. Teach resilience and determination. Many of us remember growing up with the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”[4].  Throughout the book and throughout his life, Barack Obama, when faced with obstacles, overcame them by consistently reevaluating his  strategies. We can start by allowing our children to witness our own determination in our work, our marriages, and our relationships with them.


  1. Be proactive about education. “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom,” said George Washington Carver. Yet, “Without individual memory, a person literally loses his identity,” says historian William McNeil. “The changing perspectives of historical understanding are the very best introduction we can have to the practical problems of real life”[5]. We know that acquiring degrees and trades are important, but central to our success is the knowledge of our African ancestry, and we cannot wait for the schools to include our history in its curriculum. Not only did President Obama’s mother supplement his education by giving him additional lessons before each school day, his teachers also encouraged his thirst for knowledge of his African ancestry.


  1.  Limit television and media. Television is not a replacement for strong role models, nor for examples of virtue, integrity, or African American manhood. In fact, recent studies reveal just the opposite, that the media is a “significant contributing factor” in the undermining of our youth, and leads to a majority of society’s ills, including violence, hypersexuality, obesity, and poor health habits[6]. In his book, President Obama often reflected upon the demoralizing, diminishing effect the media had on him as an African American youth, and as President, he often asks families to turn off the television and turn back to reading and homework.

    A young Barack Obama with his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., in Hawaii, 1960's.

    A young Barack Obama with his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., in Hawaii, 1960’s.


  1. Travel with your children. Traveling gives children a wider perspective of the world and informs the vision of themselves as global citizens. President Obama experienced many cultures at an early age, but even if you can’t leave the country, start with traveling beyond your neighborhood, city or state borders.  


  1. Talk to your children; observe them. I noticed in the book that there was constant dialogue between Obama, his family, and  his mentors about life, identity, and purpose. Your observations reveal keys to your child’s purpose early in their life, and enables you to encourage them to pursue not what they want to do with their lives, but what they were born to do. “The safest place to be is in the will of God,” says Bishop Charles E. Blake.


  1.  Have hope. Barack Obama had family, mentors,  teachers, and community leaders who never gave up on him. If we have high expectations of our children, they will believe in themselves.


As Americans, we must see all children as our own, and not continue to allow fear and ignorance define us. We have much work to do to fulfill the promise America was founded on, but we, as a people, “have come a mighty long way”[7].  Even when we veer off-course, no matter how dire the circumstances, through faith and determination, we always manage to get back on track and overcome our greatest challenges.




  1. “Dream From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance”, by Barack Obama. August, 2004; Broadway Books.Pg. 294.  
  2. MayoClinic.org: “Positive Thinking: Stop Negative Self-talk” http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950National Center for Biotechnology Information http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156028/
  1. Matthew 7:11-12.
  2. William Edward Hickson.
  3. William NcNeil; historians.org. http://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/archives/why-study-history-(1985)
  1. Why Media’s Bad for your children- http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1864141,00.html
  1. “Mighty Long Way”; gospel lyrics by Joe Pace.

PHOTOS – Official Obama family photo by Pete Souza; Obama family worship, courtesy, Barack Obama on Twitter; Obama family photos.

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