Comparative Book Review: Obama’s Dreams from My Father and Colin Powell’s My American Journey

Colin Powell and Barack Obama are two African-Americans who despite a number of obstacles, displayed perseverance and reached the pinnacle of American politics. While they both obtained extremely prestigious positions in government with Powell serving as Secretary of State under George W. Bush and Obama becoming the first African-American President, the journeys they took differed greatly. Obama chronicles this journey in his 1995 self-penned autobiography Dreams from My Father, while Powell recounts his life with help from Joseph E. Persico in the 1995 book My American Journey. I believe it is important to note that both of these books were written before massive events in each of their lives. Dreams from My Father was written when Obama was still only a state Senator in Illinois, long before he even contemplated running for President. My American Journey was written prior to Powell’s appointment as Secretary of State, the first African-American to hold the position and his infamous speech in front on the United Nations regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which undoubtedly altered the public’s perception of him. While the themes of these books are different, Powell and Obama share refreshingly honest tales, especially for politicians, that give the reader an insight to the making of two great American politicians.

Obama and Powell took different approaches to telling their story and as such, the styles are slightly contrasting. Obama’s story had a more compelling narrative and is more about life, a coming of age story of a man in search of his true identity while Powell’s reads almost like an insider book, delving into the inner workings of the United States militant politics. When these were both written, Obama was merely a state senator while Powell was already a 4-star general and had first-hand experience with the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. Due to this, Powell’s story was far more historical than Obama’s and focused on what happened once he arrived at the higher reaches of American politics while Obama illustrated a deep exploration into how he became who he is or was at the time and how he formed his identity.

While they were both well written, Dreams from My Father was definitely more of a page-turner as Obama displayed an infallible command of the English language and it read more like a novel than an autobiography. While My American Journey certainly wasn’t poorly written, I would describe it as more interesting and informative than gripping. Because both Obama and Powell were active in politics when these biographies were written, there is definitely neutrality that is reflected in the books. I thought Obama seemed a bit cautious and made a conscious effort to stay unbiased, while Powell, despite making clear his belief in the role of government, also seemed too even-handed almost to a fault. Far too often, Powell simply presented the reader with the facts on a number of events including the U.S. rescue mission in Somalia, the Persian Gulf War and the Iran-Contra affair, but refused to insert his own opinion on the situation, which I thought could have provided very interesting insight. With that being said, both My American Journey and Dreams from My Father were extremely honest portraits, especially compared to other political biographies I have read in the past.

As mentioned prior, the themes of Dreams from My Father and My American Journey differ but there are certainly parallels in the content of both books. The overwhelming theme in Dreams from My Father is the search of identity and a sense of belonging as well as the theme of family. Coming from a mixed marriage, Obama never quite felt like he belonged in a white American community, even at a young age. He leads the reader through his search to find his identity and in turn a feeling of acceptance. For Powell his identity was never in question. He was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrant parents who were both Black and he grew up in the South Bronx in an almost predominantly Black neighborhood, far different than Obama’s upbringing in Hawaii. In spite of this, Powell makes a very clear insistence throughout the book that he identifies himself as an American first, rather than a member of a racial subgroup.

The most prevalent themes of My American Journey are leadership, family, personal responsibility and undoubtedly the premier theme, the American Dream. Powell’s story is an embodiment of the opportunities America affords as he grew up relatively poor, got into trouble as a child, struggled through college with a C average, only to join the ROTC and later attain the greatest honor in the military. Like Obama’s mother and grandparents, Powell’s parents stressed the important of personal achievement and education. Like Powell, Obama also got into a bit of trouble in what he describes as a “party” lifestyle at Occidental College before getting his act together. Both My American Journey and Dreams from My Father share the theme of unbridled optimism towards the future.

Dreams from My Father conclusion is almost like a beginning, a beginning of Obama’s new life with his bride and it is just dripping with themes of family as his older brother Abongo helps guide him on an anxiety-filled wedding day. Powell concludes My American Journey with a much more general declaration, filled with optimism regarding the future of this country, his fervent patriotism, his love for America and his unwavering belief in the opportunities it has granted for people like himself. As continued evidence of Dreams from My Father being the stronger narrative and transcending the autobiography label, Obama’s conclusion has clear poetic undertones while Powell, as he was throughout his book, remained practical and re-assuring.

Both Colin Powell and Barack Obama had to overcome hurdles to achieve success and they made history as Obama became the first African-American President and Powell became the first African-American appointed as Secretary of State and as a result the first to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. My American Journey and Dreams from My Father are both fascinating biographies that cover themes ranging from the search for identity, the American Dream, family and optimism. While there were certainly differences in themes, style and conclusions, there were many similarities in the content and the approach of both books.

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