By Washington Osiro
How does one review a book that has already been reviewed by one Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – in the New York Times no less? How do they review the first volume of a reported two-part volume – the opening one currently under review being about fifty pages south of eight hundred pages?
How do they? They do so one word, one chapter, and one part at a time. Mercifully, “A Promised Land” only has seven parts. This allows one to read it in palatable doses.
SPOILER ALERT: Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land” is even better than advertised. It is better than his first book, “Dreams From My Father.” Renowned historian Doris Kearns (“A Team of Rivals”) and writer Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns” and most recently “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent”) were among the book’s pedigreed reviewers during its infancy, and the quality of the end product is unmistakable.
For the book’s initial release, Crown Publishing has reportedly printed just under six million copies – 3.4M for the domestic market and another 2.5M for foreign readers. With a suggested selling price of $45/each, the book’s potential success makes the reported $65M Penguin Random House paid the former First Couple for their respective memoirs a basement bargain.
(Michelle’s “BECOMING” sold a reported 14 million copies of which 8M were sold stateside and in Canada.)
FULL DISCLOSURE: Anyone who has followed my writing knows that I have been in the tank for America’s 44th President – since my then-5-year-old son watched Wolf Blitzer officiously announce that his network CNN projected California’s fifty-five Electoral College votes for the “junior senator from Illinois” and with that, Obama was poised to become the first non-white male president-elect in the office’s two hundred and thirty-two-year history. The absolute giddiness of this America is dutifully captured in Parts Two and Three of the book.
I read “A Promised Land,” having witnessed, in 2016, America’s embrace of Donald Trump AND thankfully, its rejection, on November 3rd, of the man’s four years in office. In a fortuitous but charmed twist of irony, Americans replaced Trump, Obama’s successor, with Biden, Obama’s vice-president. I (thus) find it unrealistic and unreasonable to expect my (or any) review of the just-released tome to be uninfluenced, even if ever so slightly, by the euphoria of the last two weeks: A near-6M vote repudiation of Obama’s successor BY Obama’s deputy!
In response to Ms. Adichie’s all-world review, I wrote that:
“I am so glad that along with my son and his United Nations of classmates, we were able to juxtapose, in real-time, the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Instead of relying on history and the ease with which it can be distorted to define the two presidents – #44 & #45 – these young adults/now voters came of age knowing as their POTUS/FF – Obama, Michelle, Malia, & Sasha. They bore witness to the very qualities Ngozi Adichie elegantly writes about while simultaneously seeing, also firsthand, their exact opposite in the current President and those around him. The power of that real-time comparison, between two men with vastly different backgrounds – socio-economic, racial, and cultural – has been a masterclass in what’s possible.”
I am sorry, but it is impractical to read Obama’s memoir without contextualizing it thus.
The way I see it, Barack H. Obama’s run for the presidency and his post-presidency life is forever linked to two individuals whose conduct, gravitas, and being are opposites of America’s 44th president. His foray into and exit out of America’s presidential politics are bookended by Sarah “Hopey Changey” Palin (p262) at the beginning and Donald “The Donald” Trump (p672) towards the end. It is a juxtapositioning that is as baffling in its oddity as it is revealing of America, of Americans, and politics in general. Along the way, readers are treated to the now-well-worn rendition of the love and respect the man has for one “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side.” It is a love and respect America’s first non-white male chief executive has for and of women in general – even though one can interpret his dismissive “You are likable enough” dig at his then-party primary rival Hillary Clinton or the previously-mentioned disparagement of the undercard in his 2008 race against John McCain as less-than-respectful if not outright sexist.
Somewhat plausible, such criticism would also be a stretch and one in search of an elusive target. I would also direct these critics to Obama’s begrudging respect (pg.169-170) of the same Palin he dismisses AND the man’s masterclass takedown of the sexist and misogynistic culture of hip-hop. Having been raised by a single mother, Obama’s love and respect for his wife and two daughters – who came of age during his two terms in office – is unquestionable. This fact, combined with a husband’s and father’s commitment to be home for dinner, every day, in a White House he also opens to Marian Lois Robinson, his widowed Mother-in-Law, puts a fine point on the adage “Behind Every Successful Man is a Successful Woman” – several women in his case! Is it any wonder that Barack Obama dedicates “A Promised Land” to the three most important women in his life: Michelle, Malia, and Sasha?
Seemingly the eternal optimist, there are times I wish Obama would rip off the band-aid and expose, at length and in its full ugliness, the unbridled racism, bigotry, and xenophobia that drove his many detractors while scaring Michelle and making the then-senator from Illinois the earliest recipient of Secret Service protection (p136-137) in the history of American Presidential campaigns. Having observed, in real-time, the hatred the man and his family endured, I found as enabling, Obama’s measured and thoughtful OR dismissive tone whenever the incidents reared their ugly heads. Yes, John McCain spoke out against the racist and bigoted tone of his mostly white supporters (pg. 195). However, I must wonder whether a full-throated rebuke of these supposedly un-American behaviors (by Obama and the country’s leadership) would have blunted the birtherism birthed candidacy of his successor Donald Trump. As I wrote on Barack’s Facebook wall, I understood some of the tough choices he had to make during his two terms in office, but jeez, I wish the man would have just said “Eff It” and trumped his many bigoted haters.
It is this optimism that Obama has about America’s trudge towards the “perfect union,” i.e., towards “a promised land” that provides the book its title. It is also this ode to “American Exceptionalism” that has been exposed by the current admin as tenuous and wanting in its altruism.
In yet another review in the Times, Jennifer Szalai argues that Obama is forced to strike a tonal balance that is “all but unavailable to him as the first Black president.” This is the same threading of the needle Michelle alludes to in her blockbuster “BECOMING” when she writes that upon assuming the presidency, the first black First Family had to “be twice as good to get half as far.” (p295) Michelle’s observation is a truism whose urgency has now been confirmed beyond any doubt by the performance and conduct of her husband’s successor. In retrospect, it is a reality that makes Janet Napolitano’s 2009 warning that white supremacists were America’s most significant domestic terrorist threats now appear prescient and tame given how the threat metastasized into a shameless fixture and narrative of the current White House.
As a professional in the biotech/med device world that is chockful of intellectual property (IP) induced NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), I fully appreciate the intelligence and national security sensitivities the Oval Office saddles its occupants, past and present, with. However, Barack Obama was and remains a tad too gracious if not deferential to the system atop which the office seats – almost to a fault. A lot of his smackdowns or critiques of political opponents or violators take time to sink their teeth into their intended targets and by then, it is too late for their impact to be felt – okay, maybe not in Sarah Palin’s, Vladimir Putin’s, or Lindsey Graham’s case. It is a graciousness that has not sat well with the likes of Cornell West and the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party or with me. Somewhat related, it bears noting that “A Promised Land” reads like the Rorschach Test that has been Obama’s life since his now-memorialized keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. In the book’s 700+ pages, I saw qualities that continue to endear Obama to millions around the world. In his gut-wrenching response to the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, the world saw the compassionate being and father brought to tears by the ghastly tragedy. Conversely, some saw in his reaction and response, an anti-2nd Amendment adherent using the tragedy to gin up support against gun ownership! In his self-admitted “worst foreign policy mistake,” Americans (and members of NATO) saw a president committed to the Trans-Atlantic security partnership even as folks in the Middle East and Africa saw an America still bent on regime change – in countries with oil reserves and independent/nationalistic leaders!
Unsurprisingly, “A Promised Land” barely mentions Kenya or Africa. The book briefly mentions South Africa and its transition from Kgalema Motlanthe to Jacob Zuma but that’s it (pg.337). It also touches on Rwanda and Libya (p657) all within the context of US Foreign Policy – as it should. That Obama’s post-presidency memoir barely mentions the country or continent where his late father was born does not surprise me. The man, his Kenyan (Luo) roots notwithstanding, is an African American in every conceivable way. Yes, he is aware of his heritage, and it gives him a mooring most African Americans do not have. However, Obama was raised by a white American mother with help from his white American grandparents – in America and Indonesia. As mentioned in my memoir WUODHA, Obama was elected to lead America; to solve the country’s problems. He has never held elected office in Kenya or Africa. The unspoken undertone that their “cousin” or “son” Obama “owed” Kenya and Africa anything OUTSIDE the framework of the oath he swore to uphold, i.e., to serve the interests of the United States, remains as naïve as it is unrealistic. It is also a reflection of the self-serving ethos endemic among African politicians.
Given where “A Promised Land” ends, in 2010, it is not inconceivable to see a more extensive write-up of the phenomenon that was Barack Obama’s successor Donald J. Trump in the second volume of 44’s memoir. As a primer for Vol. II of Obama’s memoir, let me recommend a 20-minute investment watching the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD). The event is an annual gathering of America’s top news personalities and her politicians (including the President), who then proceed to poke fun at themselves and at one another. The event petered off when Donald Trump took office in 2017. Most observers point to Obama’s absolute roasting of Trump as one of the main impetus for the man’s pursuit of the presidency AND his relentless efforts to erase his (Obama’s) legacy once he became the country’s 46th president.
This chain of events perfectly tees up Obama’s second volume, one I am already looking forward to, a week after reading Volume I.