“I am something of a dreamer”—so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of Dreams from My Father, the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. He shared two of his own dreams in that book, each appearing at a key point in the story and each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father. Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values. As he prepares to deliver his Democratic convention address on August 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide the deeper psychological context for this singular moment in his Presidential campaign.
The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It’s very long (more than 500 words), and Obama said it helped him express the profound grief he had not yet consciously acknowledged in his waking life. It started with him on a spectral bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test[s] our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.
The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”
Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the thin, pale man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, “’Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but the old man declined and told his son he should go. The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him—and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”
We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But we can make at least two general observations about its form and content. First, this is a good example of a “visitation dream,” meaning a vivid, highly memorable type of dream in which someone who is dead appears as if they were alive. Visitation dreams are widely reported in history, from the ancient civilizations of Egypt and China right into the present day. Abraham Lincoln had them, and so did Lyndon Johnson. They are usually regarded as important messages of guidance or warning, and their strong emotions and physical sensations often carry over from sleep into waking. Obama’s dream fits this pattern perfectly.
Second, no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness. Just as Gestalt therapists interpret all elements of a dream as embodiments of some aspect of the dreamer’s own psyche, Obama recognized he was both the judge and the lawyer, both the jail and the promise of freedom.
He narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.
The second dream came during the last leg of that journey, on a train to “Home Squared,” his family’s village in rural Kenya. Obama and his half-sister Auma were traveling to the village together. During the train ride she told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash through the forest, stumbling through the dense foliage and finally collapsing in exhaustion:
“Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask. The lifeless eyes bored into me, and I heard a thunderous voice saying only that it was time, and my entire body began to shake violently with the sound, as if I were breaking apart. . . .”
Here is a classic chasing nightmare, a vividly rendered fight/flight scenario filled with misfortune, vulnerability, and dread. The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.
If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past—personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.
Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion. His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him. Even though they’re dead, they’re still real.
This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume. To judge by the lessons he says he learned in Dreams from My Father, he knows from personal experience the impossibility of making a radical break with the past. His dreams were part of a broader developmental process by which he came to understand the essentially conservative virtue of respect for one’s ancestors. Critics who portray him as a bomb-throwing anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those of his liberal supporters who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather an accurate reflection of his deeply-held conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to the changing circumstances of the present.
When Obama speaks to the Democratic national convention on August 28, most people will listen to what he says about the future. But equally important will be his effort to honor the legacy of the past, particularly the enduring influence of the powerful ancestors who haunt his dreams.
[This essay first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, August 17, 2008, the “Insight” section p. G-9. Obama’s own dreams set the stage for the broader phenomenon of people’s dreams about him.]