This is a long overdue read. I can’t explain why I didn’t pick it up earlier, or why I decided to read it now.
It blew me away, though. It’s well known that Obama is an excellent orator, but I had not realized just how good of a writer he is (and the former does not always mean the latter, though it seems to also be true of Martin Luther King, Jr.). I highly anticipate the books he’ll write after he leaves office. One example of his stellar writing, far above and beyond what I expect of any politician:
Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear the desperation creeping out of his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other end explained why Thursday wasn’t good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps’s heavy sigh after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a cardplayer who’s deep in the hole.
He published this memoir in 1995, then recorded the audiobook (with a new foreword) in 2005. In that foreword, he alludes to his rapid political ascent since the book was first published – and his most notable accomplishment by then was election to the U.S. Senate. His presidential campaign was not yet on the radar.
I hadn’t realized he won a Grammy for the audiobook, but yes, he did. I see why, though – he puts a lot of life into his reading, including his teenage quotations (if you ever wanted to hear a POTUS say “sorry-ass motherfucker,” this audiobook is for you).
Given his unusual upbringing, there’s a lot more to this memoir than the average person’s (even long before the start of a successful political career). Topics include:
- His grandparents’ backgrounds, both maternal and paternal (what he was able to learn of the latter, anyway)
- His mother’s character, including the difficult circumstances of his parents’ union. He’s quite frank about the details he learned later in life, including his father’s previous and subsequent marriages, and all the half-siblings he met in Kenya.
- His early years in Indonesia; what he learned from his step-father Lolo, and of poverty and limitations to individual charity; his mother’s determination to give him an American education, specifically the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders
- Back in Hawaii, his decision to stay there for high school even when his mother returned to Indonesia; how he befriended the few other black boys in his high school, and his earliest experiences encountering and pondering on racism
- His first years in college in LA, with his growing awareness of racial politics and the discovery of the power of his own voice
- His years in NYC, finishing college, acquiring a youthful cynicism and arrogance, and trial period working for a financial firm before deciding to give up an easy career and path to wealth for something more meaningful
- Arriving in Chicago, learning the difficult work of community organizing
- His connections with his Kenyan relatives, decision to visit, and all he learned there
Scattered throughout these different focuses are observations of race, both in America and abroad. Racial tensions around him as well as within him, as he struggles to fit generalizations about black vs. white with his love for his mother and the grandparents who raised him – and yet, he has to come to terms with how his grandmother is not exempt from feeling afraid of the black man at the bus station with her.
His insight and nuance in these explorations took my breath away. Whether you think they are individually right or wrong, simply the fact that he put so much thought into them took my breath away. I can see why, in another book I read recently (Americanah), the protagonist reads this book in 2008 and is blown away by the idea that this man could be President of the United States.
He’s been restricted by his office, these last eight years, but he’s still such a young man, relatively speaking. He has decades left, and I look forward to how he’s going to spend them – including what he’ll write next.