It’s Fall, 2008. Barack Obama is running for president, and I’m attending a mostly all-white secondary school. My classmates debate about how Obama could win and then, after the election, why he did. “Black people voted for him just because he’s black” is a common sentiment.
On a nearby street, the owner of a local Jamaican restaurant plasters a poster of Barack on the front door. At my home, CNN is burned into the TV screen. We feel the tide change. Twelve years later, as I grasp Obama’s memoir—A Promised Land—I realize I hold history.
Memoirs are known for their brutally honest retelling of a subject’s personal life. Even so, I’m shocked, pleased, and a little overwhelmed by the sheer transparency Obama provides readers with. In a matter of pages, he goes from a child in Honolulu to a Harvard law student with the immediacy of first-person narration and, at times, the candour of an omniscient third party.
In this whopping 700-page memoir, Obama offers us a magnifying glass and a mallet, examining his presidential actions and chipping away at the hidden intentions behind them. Is Obama unafraid of our judgment or comfortable enough with his own flaws? I’m not sure. Is he too familiar with duplicity and the dissemination of moral acts? Probably.
Obama may thank the media for that. We learn how, when the lights fall and cameras turn on him, he feels the media frenzy can be unnecessary and overwhelming. Whether it’s misleading video clips or misquoted clickbait titles, Obama sees the weight the media has on American viewers. He’s unafraid to admit that Donald Trump’s false birtherism conspiracy, and the media’s attention to it, caused growing pains for his second term campaign.
On the other hand, Obama appreciates the media as a persuasive tool. He explains how during the United Nations Global Summit, leaders from China were dodging his requests to meet. Obama told them he would go public about their reluctance. The media, and its power to damage reputation, compelled the Chinese leaders to change their minds and meet with him.
At many stops along his journey, Obama affords his accomplishments to his team. From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to former vice-president and president-elect Joe Biden, Obama honours their tenacity and hard work ethic. With humour and unrelenting adoration, he depicts his wife, Michelle Obama, as steady and deeply supportive, and his children, Malia and Sasha, as energetic and curious.
Throughout his memoir, Obama keeps his tone friendly, letting jokes slip in. During more serious moments, like losing his mother, he keeps his emotions raw and unflinching. He links his calm demeanour to his Hawaiian upbringing, his care for global poverty to his mother, Ann, and his enjoyment of literature to his grandmother, Toot. They, alongside various non-profits and churches, all shaped him for public service before governance.
With empathy and concern, Obama opens up about the blow of the recession, Somalian pirates taking Captain Philip and his crew hostage, letters from unemployed Americans, the BP Oil spill, and the DREAM Act failing to go through the Senate. And that’s just scratching the surface of this memoir, volume one of an intended two-part series.
Obama’s eloquent prose and stream-of-consciousness style helps readers understand his mind and his methods of handling troublesome people. Through the written word, the former president captures the hope we dream to see become reality. A Promised Land encourages us to pursue more, open our arms, and to find a better future for one another.