Book Review: ‘A Promised Land,’ by Barack Obama

About the Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested by a white officer as he tried to break into his own home, Obama considers his view as “more particular, more human, than the simple black-andwhite morality tale.” He argues that the police overreacted in arresting Gates, just as the professor overreacted to their arrival at his home, which feels like the kind of facile equating that is usually the forte of the racially naïve. Both sides were bad, as though both sides are equal in power. (And yet he learns from internal polling that the single incident that caused the biggest drop in support among white voters throughout his entire presidency was the Gates incident.)

There is a similar loftiness, if not a mild condescension, on the subject of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church the Obamas sporadically attended in Chicago, whose fiery sermon criticizing American racism became a scandal during Obama’s campaign. Obama writes of his “rants that were usually grounded in fact but bereft of context,” and suggests that anger about racism was out of place in a congregation of wealthy successful Black people, as though class in America somehow cancels race. Of course Obama has a fine-toothed understanding of American racism but perhaps because of his unique parentage and history, he has cast himself as the conciliatory middle child, preferring to leave unsaid truths that might inflame, and insulating those said in various layers of cant.

He is brooding still about his infamous description of the rural white working class — “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” — because he hates to be misunderstood, which is reasonable enough. He has empathy for the white working class and was after all raised by a grandfather with working-class roots. But in clarifying his position he writes, “Throughout American history, politicians have redirected white frustration about their economic or social circumstances toward Black and brown people.” It is a strange act of abdication of responsibility. Is white working-class racism merely the result of evil politicians hoodwinking hapless white people?

And so when he writes that John McCain never displayed the “race-tinged nativism” common in other Republican politicians, one wishes that there were more fully-fleshed examples of those, in a book that sometimes seems to conflate a sophisticated take on race and a dismissive one.

To reset the debate on the health care bill, Obama addresses a joint session of Congress. As he corrects the falsehood that the bill would cover undocumented immigrants, a little-known congressman named Joe Wilson, red with fury (racist fury, in my opinion), shouts “You lie!,” and in that moment he is partaking in that age-worn American tradition of a white man disrespecting a Black man even if that Black man is of a higher class. Obama writes that he was “tempted to exit my perch, make my way down the aisle, and smack the guy in the head.” His downplaying of the matter at the time is understandable — he is a Black man who cannot afford anger — but now, in this recounting, that he writes of his reaction using the childlike language of a hypothetical smack is bewildering. What does it mean to be publicly insulted, the first time such a thing has happened to a president of the United States addressing a joint session of Congress?

Yes, his assumed foreignness, his unusual parentage and name, played a role in the reception he got, but if his were a white foreignness, if his father were Scandinavian or Irish or Eastern European, and if his middle name were Olaf or even Vladimir, the demonizing would not be quite so dark. If he were not Black he would not have gotten so many death threats that he was given Secret Service protection very early in the primaries; long before he even knew he would win he already had bulletproof barriers in his bedroom.

And what does the “protective pessimism” of so many Black Americans, people convinced he would be killed for daring to run for president, say about America’s imaginative poverty on the subject of Black people? Why does Obama feel lucky to be in the White House with a middle name like Hussein? Why were we crying when he won?

During Obama’s presidency, I would often say, accusingly, to my friend and argument-partner Chinaku, “You’re doing an Obama. Take a damn stand.” Doing an Obama meant that Chinaku saw 73 sides of every issue, and he aired them and detailed them and it felt to me like subterfuge, a watery considering of so many sides that resulted in no side at all. Often, in this book, Barack Obama does an Obama. He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue. Early in their relationship Michelle asks why he always chooses the hard way. Later she tells him, “It’s like you have a hole to fill. That’s why you can’t slow down.” Indeed. Here, then, is an overwhelmingly decent man giving an honest account of himself. It is now normal to preface any praise of a public figure with the word “flawed,” but who isn’t flawed? As a convention it feels like an ungracious hedge, a churlish reluctance to commend the powerful or famous no matter how well deserved. The story will continue in the second volume, but Barack Obama has already illuminated a pivotal moment in American history, and how America changed while also remaining unchanged.