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Discussion Questions

Obama, Dreams from My Father, Part 1 - Discussion Questions

The questions below are designed to guide your reading, stimulate your thinking, and ground your discussion of the selection during Orientation Week.

Freshman Seminar instructors and discussion leaders may ask you to focus on selected questions, or they may post other questions than the ones below.

  1. Which of Obama's characters do you find most interesting?  Is it because you like or dislike, agree with or disagree with them?  Or do you have some other reasons for finding them most interesting?

  2. How typical are Barack Obama’s experiences, attitudes, and ideas about race?  Can you relate to them?  How do his ideas and experiences differ from people in the generations before him and other people in his generation?  Does what he writes have anything to say or teach to your generation?

  3. Power is a theme which comes up over and over again in the book.  What does Barack Obama think about power?  What does he think about people with power and without power?  Are there different kinds of power?  Is power always bad?  What do you think about power personally?  What are your experiences with gaining, having, exercising, or understanding power? 

  4. You already knew who Barack Obama was before you opened the book.  What does reading this book add to your attitude, your views, your understanding, or your evaluation of the current President? 

  5. What is a person or event that characters in the book view differently from each other?  How do their viewpoints differ?  Why do their viewpoints differ?  Who do you think has the more correct viewpoint?  Why do you think so?

  6. Why is it important for us to have stories and memories of people who were involved in our lives?  Are there some people who we really need stories and memories of, e.g., fathers, mothers?  What happens if people don’t have those stories? 

Chapter 1
  1. Why do you think Obama begins his memoir with him learning of his father's death?
  2. How does his father's absence from much of his life affect Obama?
  3. What roles did his other family members play in shaping Obama's youth, especially his grandparents, mother and stepfather? Were they typical of their generations?  Why or why not?
Chapter 2
  1. How did Obama feel about Lolo Soetoro’s back yard upon his arrival in Indonesia? Was Lolo correct in allowing him to watch a chicken being decapitated that evening?
  2. How does Lolo try to be a father to Obama? What lessons does Lolo try to teach him? What do you think Obama learned from his stepfather?
  3. How do Lolo’s and Obama's mother’s values differ? To what does Barack attribute those differences?
  4. Was it appropriate for Obama's mother to wake him up at 4 am in Indonesia to study? What sacrifices have you and your family made to further your education?
Chapter 3
  1. How did Obama’s first days at Punahou Academy go? Why do you think he reacts the way he does to Coretta? Have you ever reacted to another person in a way that made you ashamed afterwards? Why do you think people do such things?
  2. When Obama's father visits him in Hawaii, how does the man compare to Obama's prior image of him?
Chapter 4
  1. What role does Obama’s high school friend Ray play in helping Obama understand his identity?  
  2. Is it possible for any individual born of two ethnic origins to find a society in which he or she truly belongs? Think of recent authors who have struggled with similar issues: Amy Tan (Chinese), Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian), Louise Erdrich (Native American). Also consider the classics of African-American writers like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Richard Wright's Native Son, Toni Morrison's Beloved.
  3. Obama writes, "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere" (p. 82). How does he "slip back and forth" between his worlds, and is he ever successful at making them cohere?
Chapter 5
  1. Obama experimented with drugs and alcohol in high school and college. Why do you think he did so, and how do you think he avoided the fate of acquaintances whose lives were damaged by drugs and alcohol?
  2. What is Obama’s experience as a black person at a predominantly white college (Occidental)? Do you think he would have had a different experience if he had attended a historically black institution like Fayetteville State?
  3. How does Obama feel about people who call themselves multiracial? How do you think people should address their multiracial heritage?
  4. Obama had his first experience with political activism at Occidental when he got involved with the campaign to get the school to divest itself of investment in South Africa. What does he learn from this experience?
Chapter 6
  1. What do you think of the accommodations that Mr. Obama selected for his first night in New York City upon his arrival to study at Columbia University? What would you have done in this circumstance?
  2. What do you think prompted Barack’s acquisition of self discipline while in New York? How did this influence his later accomplishments in life? How or does this apply to you?
  3. Why do Obama and his mother react so differently to the movie “Black Orpheus”? Have you seen a movie in which you felt one group of people were treated in a stereotypical manner? What movie was it, and what was your reaction?
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