Book Review

Obama holds mirror up to his presidency

promised

Former US President Barack Obama's new book "A Promised Land" is seen in a bookstore in Washington, DC, on November 17, 2020. AFP PHOTO

Summary

  • The pros of this text reads like a script of a Hollywood series.
  • Obama is a gifted writer, with intermissions that set the stage for the next phase of his life story in the book.
  • The preface is littered with thoughts rooted in personal conviction and reflections of a life past, how he became interested in grassroots activism not just “navel-gazing over action”.

The first of two volumes of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land was arguably the most anticipated book of 2020. Beginning with a preface, “I began writing this book shortly after the end of my presidency,” strikes a familiar refrain from the recent events of the world’s most powerful nation.

The former US president readily admits “I don’t come from a political family” in his biography, that his mother and grandparents were “never noisy in their patriotism”. He makes mention of his Kenyan father briefly stating matter-of-factly, “Since I didn’t know my father, he didn’t have much input.” He goes on to write about his upbringing in Honolulu, Hawaii, the influences of his grandparents, how he “noticed my mother paid for her intellectual freedom with chronic financial struggles and occasional personal chaos”, “but I did find refuge in books.” His mother instilled the habit of reading early in his childhood. Every time he said he was bored she would reply “go read a book then come tell me something you learned.” A habit he credits as the reason he went to college.

The pros of this text reads like a script of a Hollywood series. Obama is a gifted writer, with intermissions that set the stage for the next phase of his life story in the book. The preface is littered with thoughts rooted in personal conviction and reflections of a life past, how he became interested in grassroots activism not just “navel-gazing over action”. Barack’s deeply held a belief of what America was, could become, and this became the driving force of his interest in community organising in Chicago’s predominantly Black working-class neighbourhoods. The reflection of Martin Luther King Jnr’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is replayed by the first Black man to hold the highest office in America in the Chicago he grows to love as, “the city changed the arc of my life”. You could say the title crystalised from this thought “But the idea of America, the promise of America: this clung to me with a stubbornness that surprised even me.” And he then continues into the United States Declaration of Independence that states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” a reflection of his articles of faith in the nation of his birth, and actions during time in office.

A Promised Land captures the reasons, back room dealings of the events that played on the gallery of the world’s stage, with funny stories, anecdotes, interactions, reflections and quotes from his journals and public documents of the time. Obama writes about his trip to Kenya as Illinois senator, where the media and public focused on his every move in the wall to wall coverage, which he describes as “over the top” and with the Masai Mara as the only place he was able to escape the commotion.

Barack writes of his differences to Joe Biden, his former vice-president, and who was elected in last year’s November election to the White House.

Given the threats on “Renegade”, Obama’s Secret Service code name, Barack needed this man with 30 years’ experience in the Senate and Washington, to be by his side, as Biden’s only concern being he wanted “to be the last guy in the room on every major decision” a statement that boosted Barack’s hopes of leaving the country in safe hands in case anything were to happen to him then. Apt, given that’s what he has now become, the man with whom the buck stops, the 46th President of the United States. Somali terrorists affiliated with Al Shabaab were suspected of trying to attack Barack’s inauguration. Thankfully he writes, nothing happened.

Through Obama, the reader gets to understand the American electoral process, the challenges associated with vying for public office, the strain on family by his constant absences, fixing a broken economic system, fighting extremism and terrorism both at home and abroad, killing Osama bin Laden, building diplomatic ties with the Kremlin and Tehran, and just how history will judge him.

A Promised Land, is one man’s account of historic events, a book they will use to judge his actions on the promise he made to his mother’s land. The moral arc that inspired Obama through the lives of Martin Luther King Jnr, and others who spoke life into him like the late Senator Edward Kennedy, is one that is reflected in the current happenings of that country.

Did Obama make America, and the world a better place? This book tries to answer that in his own words.