This week’s A Promised Land write-up comes from Slanted Spines’ first ever featured contributor, Bryant R.! Recently, he listened to Barack Obama’s latest memoir, and offers his stunning insight here. Please enjoy!
A Promised Land
Over the years, I have learned so much from the Obamas.
In 2019, I listened to Becoming by Michelle Obama and absolutely loved her account. Michelle was able to offer insight behind her own life story as well as a very open and transparent recollection of her relationship with Barack throughout their younger years and into his presidency. I enjoyed hearing about their lives as told from Michelle’s point-of-view, and her voice added a personal touch of authenticity that left me curious to know more about the Obamas. It was a reminder that the President and First Lady, for all their infamy and political status, are still just as human as the rest of us. I found myself fascinated by their life, not just in the White House, but leading up to it. I enjoyed reading about Michelle’s upbringing in Southside Chicago, and the struggles she faced as a black woman trying to make a name for herself while in law school, and I particularly enjoyed reading about how she met Barack and how their friendship grew into a relationship, and later, a family. I loved Becoming, mostly because of how perfect Michelle was as a storyteller. It was amazing how I could find myself laughing at parts, teary-eyed at others, and overall, happily hopeful that my life could one day be chronicled in a similar fashion.
I finished Becoming with a hunger to learn more about the Obamas and Barack’s presidency. I felt like I knew one side of the former president, but I yearned to know more about him as a person. I was excited when I first heard about A Promised Land. I knew it was a book that I had to have on my shelf. I had read An Audacity of Hope in college, and it inspired a younger me to strive toward leadership and community outreach. Now that I was older and had a better understanding of American politics and the context of Barack Obama’s presidency, I knew A Promised Land was something I had to read. Still, after Brittany and I were both gifted a copy of the 27-chaptered, 700+ page compendium, it sat on our shelf for six months. I think I was mostly intimidated by the size of the book. When I first picked it up, I shuffled through the pages, my eyes picking out individual words or phrases that I recognized like Hurricane Katrina, the DREAM Act, Deep-Water Horizon, or Al Qaeda. I stopped at breaks in the pages to look at the collections of pictures taken by White House photographer David Katz. I wanted to read this book. But I also wanted the same experience that I had reading Becoming. I read the first few pages and decided that I needed to get the audiobook and hear the words in Barack’s own voice.
The audiobook is a little over twenty-nine hours. The book is broken up in seven parts. Part one, The Bet, tells the personal story of a young Barack Obama growing up in Hawaii, eagerly striving to find his place as he developed his education and defined his political aspirations. While listening, I appreciated the detail in his descriptions and the emotional reflections he shared throughout the beginning of the book. I was surprised to become privy to such striking memories, such as the story of his mother’s passing during his first state legislature race, or the tension between Barack and Michelle’s marriage as he prepared for his race for U.S. Senate. Michelle had spoken of these events in her book but hearing them from Barack confirmed the reality of the situations and shared the shadowed side of campaigning and holding office–that is, the burden it places on you and your family and the conflicting morality of choosing between autonomy and a life of civic duty.
One of my favorite moments of the book comes after his loss to Bobby Rush in his first congressional race. I understood and admired his humility in questioning whether his decision to run was derived from his willful optimism and selfless ideals of changing the world, or “to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not” (p. 38). It’s one of those stories that reminded me that failure is a part of the process. And that we’re not always going to make the best decisions or get what we thought we wanted.
A Promised Land is full of wisdom and insight in this manner. As I listened through it, I found myself reminiscing on my own past life events as they related to the narrative. I’d remember events, like where I was during the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Or, I’d be reminded of the collective feelings of anger and anguish during the 2008 recession and even during the election. I was just graduating high school when Barack Obama had been elected and although I didn’t vote in the election, I followed it closely and can still remember the moment when he was announced as President of the United States. It was an incredibly emotional experience for me, and I teared up at just the thought that it was possible that I, a young black man, could one day be the President, too. This isn’t to say that I was always the biggest fan of Obama. I remember walking around campus with a sign reading Yemen Lives Matter and being very critical of his redeployment of troops to Afghanistan among other policies. But the book also helped me understand in more realistic detail the nature of politics and the presidency. It showed me how difficult it really is to be the President and to reform decades-old policies and to platform for systematic change across multiple institutions.
This book is supposedly the first volume of his presidential memoirs. It ends just after his recount of the U.S. Navy Seals raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound in May 2011 that saw the death of America’s #1 most wanted terrorist at the time. I’m eagerly awaiting the next memoir because I was more politically aware during his second term and even spent some time working on the 2012 campaign.
I don’t know if I’ve stated this enough, but I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good memoir, or anyone interested enough in Obama’s perspective of the American political climate during the 2000s. The narration by the author added to this experience in my opinion, but if you do happen to find yourself with a physical copy, there are wonderful pictures taken by Katz that capture many of the moments described by Obama in the book and help to put a face to the many names or people that he mentions. For this, I’m grateful to have had access to both mediums. As I reflect on how meaningful this memoir was to me, I feel a lingering sense of hope and inspiration, which invigorates me towards creating a better community and country for myself and others.
Thanks for reading.
Bryant R., a longtime supporter of Slanted Spines, is a man of many skills–a writer, producer, designer, musician, and well-informed comics enthusiast. In college, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English while participating in many student organizations, such as UNICEF and Invisible Children. After his collegiate studies, he worked for several years as a manager at a local restaurant, where he eventually served as General Manager. This year, he made a career shift and now works as a Technology Manager in the Apple department of a campus Barnes & Noble. In his free time, he improves Brittany’s life exponentially through his unconditional encouragement and quintessential amazingness.
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