Barack Obama: A Promised Land (Crown/Penguin Random House, 2020)

So is it true, Barack, that you are going to be our first African president of the United States? Ah, that would make us all verrry proud!” – a playfully mischievous Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner 1984, and Chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, 1996-1998   

At 768 pages, Barack Obama’s A Promised Land is only the first released of a two-volume memoir (Obama had originally planned a single volume at some 500 pages), this one including his run for the US Senate and covering the first term, January 2009 to January 2013, of his presidency.

Released simultaneously on 17 November 2020 in English and 18 other languages (Danish included) out of a planned 24 announced by Penguin Random House, the book has been praised everywhere as a brilliant political and personal memoir, but also for its literary qualities.   

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah, Knopf 2013) in her long review in The New York Times writes: “Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read,  … , the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid.”

Race and inheritance. Once describing his family to Michelle Obama as “a mini-United Nations” Barack Obama’s father was a Black African economist from Kenya, his mother a white American anthropologist from Wichita, Kansas. They met at the University of Hawaii, married, but soon divorced. And Obama has family in Hawaii, mainland U.S.A., Kenya, Indonesia (his mother married again to a Javanese, and he has an Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro), and elsewhere.

Even as he called his first book Dreams from My Father, subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance (Times Books/Random House, 1995), Obama senior was largely absent from his son’s life: “When I was ten, he travelled from Kenya to stay with us for a month in Honolulu. That was the first and last I saw of him,” the book in part a meditation on the absent parent.

There would be the occasional letter from Kenya, but it was his strong-willed and opinionated mother, Ann Dunham, who was “the single constant” in his life. “Go read a book,” she would say. “Then come back and tell me something you learned.” And, especially after his mother’s death from cancer in 1995, she was only 52, there was his maternal grandparents, in particular his beloved grandmother, Madelyn ‘Toot’ Dunham, and their ethos of work, paying the bills, and reading the newspaper (“It’s part of being a well-informed citizen,” ‘Toot’ would tell the young Barack).

Growing up in part on Hawaii and in Indonesia, Obama was early on confronted by the “fluid state of identity … that mark our modern life.” A lot of questions centered on race: “What did that girl from school mean when she said she didn’t think of me as Black?”  

And in the preface to A Promised Land, hoping to inspire young people considering a life of public service, Obama writes: “My career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain my mixed-up heritage and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life.”

A more perfect Union. The preamble to the original US Constitution of 1787 begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …,” and Barack Obama is a firm believer in the idea of building a more perfect union and the concept of American exceptionalism – with an important qualification:

“As a young man, I chafed against books that dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism … That America fell perpetually short of its ideals, I readily conceded. The version of American history taught in schools, with slavery glossed over and the slaughter of Native Americans all but omitted – that I did not defend. But the idea of America, the promise of America, this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me.”

Whereas the Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1776 stated that “all men are created equal,” the Constitution of 1787 declared that “all other persons’ (read: slaves – like slavery a word carefully avoided in the text) should be counted as three fifth of a person,” not that they could vote, but to determine how many seats a slave state should have in the House of Representatives.

Causing Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice (from 1967 to 1991), in a speech May 6 in Maui, Hawaii, reprinted in Ebony, September 1987, under the title The Real Meaning of the Constitutional Bicentennial, to say this about the contradiction between guaranteeing liberty and justice to all, and denying both to Negroes:   

“When the Founding Fathers used this phrase (“We the people”) in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens. The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a Civil War, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government … we hold as fundamental today.”

“No one is listening.” On the first pages of his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Crown/Three Rivers Press, 2006), the then senator Barack Obama describes the following scene:    

“Except for the few minutes that it takes to vote, my colleagues and I don’t spend much time on the Senate floor … By the time … the clerk starts calling the roll, each of the senators will have determined – in consultation with his or her staff, caucus leader, preferred lobbyists, interest groups, constituent mail, and ideological leanings – just  how to position himself on the issue.”

Arguing his/her case before casting the vote, the speaker will be addressing a nearly empty chamber: “In the world’s greatest deliberative body, no one is listening.”  

How did it come to this? Obama takes us back to Lyndon Baines Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – causing LBJ to predict that it would lead to the conservative South’s wholesale abandonment of the Democratic Party – and affirmative action. The Moral Majority, establishing the religious right as a force in American politics, with its opposition to gay rights, women’s rights and abortion. The Tea Party movement’s advocacy of tax cuts financed by cuts in social security programs, including opposition to a national, partly tax financed health care system. And the emergence of divisive social media and right-wing media outlets like Fox News.   

And then there was Republican senator John McCain’s ‘soccer mom’ running mate in the 2008 presidential election: “What became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about … It was, of course, a sign of things to come.” 

And by the time Barack Obama took office, the split between Democrats and Republicans was complete, Senate republican majority leader Mitch McConnell declaring in 2012 that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for president Obama to become a one-term president.”

Experiment in democracy. It is all there in Barack Obama’s big book, lovingly dedicated to Michelle, Malia and Sasha, and in his own words:    

His baptism into “grassroots” politics as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago; becoming president of the Harvard Law Review; his run for a Senate seat in first Illinois, then Washington, D.C.; the 2008 presidential election; wrestling with a global economic crisis; the fight (with Ted Kennedy) for the Affordable Care Act; battling climate change; immigration and the “Dreamers”; guns; Donald Trump’s rising influence in the Republican Party and the ‘birther’ issue; Jeremiah Wright; filibusters and gerrymandering; terrorism and the taking out of Osama bin Laden; Iran; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Syria and  the Arab Spring; the Nobel Peace Prize, a.o.  

And there is the case of African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested for “breaking into” his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “It was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life.”

LET US LOOK, finally, at the idea of America as an experiment in democracy. The American national motto is “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one), and in his preface to his memoir, dated August 2020, Obama writes: “And so the world watches America – the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice – to see if our experiment in democracy can work.” Living up to its creed.  

In the American context this means, first of all, coming to terms with the still unresolved issues of race and inequality. Difference is a given. Learning to live together with diversity is the test.

Taking the long view. In a sense this memoir, A Promised Land, picks up where his first two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope left off, Barack Obama – just a few months before a presidential election that could go either way – taking the long view, still dreaming and having the audacity to hope for that more perfect union promised, if not in the Constitution as it was originally written, then perhaps as it evolved through the several subsequent amendments moving it closer to the ideals put forth in the famous words of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

UFI // 21 January 2021                                                                                                                   

Note: Even if I go back and write about books I have read before this one (and as usual dating the article the day I finished reading the book), this article about the memoir of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States of America, is also the 44th article that I am posting on my website.