An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2011

Race & Inheritance in Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father

Glenda R. Carpio

When and how did Barack Obama's now well-known “hope” mantra take shape? Carpio's essay explores this question through close readings of key passages from Obama's autobiography. It is nearly three hundred pages into the autobiography before the phrase “the audacity of hope” appears, at the end of the “Chicago” section. Obama has just been accepted to Harvard Law School and has yet to take his first trip to Africa to find his paternal family when he hears the phrase from his infamous ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The essay places this moment from the “Chicago” section in the context of the entire autobiography to illuminate why, for Obama, it takes audacity to hope that we can transcend America's history of racial conflict. In the process, the essay reveals Obama's dark view of race relations in America before he became the symbol of a supposedly post-racial America that he is now.

GLENDA R. CARPIO is Professor of African and African American Studies and of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. She is the author of Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (2008) and is working on a new book, tentatively titled Ambivalent Alliances: Black and Latina/o Fiction in the Americas.

There is no getting over race–at least according to the Barack Obama of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995). The Obama that emerged during the primaries and through the 2008 presidential election tells a different story, both because Obama had to change his position in the decade between the publication of his autobiography and his remarkable rise in politics and because his “hope” mantra has been diluted and taken out of the context in which it first appeared. Obama’s now infamous ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is the source of the phrase, “the audacity of hope.” In Dreams, the Wright sermon in which Obama first hears the phrase comes at the very end of the long third section, “Chicago,” just after Obama has been accepted to Harvard Law School and before he takes his first trip to Africa to find his paternal family.1 We are nearly three hundred pages into the text at this point, having been presented with plenty of evidence for Obama’s dark view of race relations in America. Only in this context can one understand why, for Obama, it takes audacity to hope that they will change for the better.

Writing for the National Review, Michael Gledhill also notes the difference between the Obama of Dreams and of the presidential race; however, he makes a number of facile conclusions. He writes that, while “Obama is touted as a post-racial statesman who sees beyond the narrow issue of white versus black,” in his autobiography he is, “to the . . .


  • 1In the sermon, Wright uses the phrase “the audacity to hope,” which Obama later changes to “the audacity of hope.”
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