For many ignorant years of my life, Barack Obama was a distant figure.
I had a healthy amount of respect for his achievements (though admittedly I wasn't quite sure what any of them were), but I knew that he was revered by the people around me and that was good enough for me. On ya mate, you've done good, what a nice guy.
It turns out that my own safety and stability in Australia bred ignorance and complacency.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama sits on a picnic blanket in the sun. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2021.
Why this book?
I picked up this book because of the buzz surrounding its publication, but also because of election hype. Like countless others, I'd spent years watching the news and wondering how a democratic society could have failed so many people. How had racism, exclusion and misogyny become the centre of American politics?
Hoping that Barack could shed some light on the situation, I hit the reserve button on my library's list and sat back, getting ready to twiddle my idle thumbs – but it was ready for me within a day. I couldn't believe it: this chunky book was about to hit the hands of a very unsophisticated reader. I didn't know the first thing about the US, so I definitely didn't feel qualified to read this.
But that's one of the most amazing things about books. If they're written well, the experiences of incredible humans can be accessed and understood by someone like me.
This brick of a book taught me so much – and I felt so much as I read. So many times, I had to put it down and stare out of the window, or blubber away inconsolably to my partner about the state of humanity.
Barack Obama's words were hopeful: something that we don't see very much of at the moment.
Obama's approach to the presidency was to elevate those that needed elevation, listen to those that needed an ear, and fight for those that needed to be fought for. His writing is soulful, technical, professional and honest – and at times, super funny. He seems to be one that lives for his family, his country and a good chuckle.
Something I respect about A Promised Land is the extent to which Obama refused to hide; there was definitely something humble about his account, especially when things went wrong in his presidency, or when people suffered as a result of his choices. Not once did the book shy away from responsibility, whether it was describing a global catastrophe, personal hardship or political missteps.
In this video, Barack Obama speaks on his memoir with the Washington Post. Video: YouTube, 2021.
When I was a kid, I had a very simplified version of things in my head: if I was President/Queen/rich/famous, I would help the needy and focus less on the already privileged. Easier said than done, apparently; Obama explains the political situation, the balancing act that all presidents walk between satisfying the people that support their stance and changing the minds (often painstakingly) of those that don't.
It's not a game anyone can win, but Obama's determination and belief in the potential of America was absolutely inspiring. I feel that this message of hope survives, even through a pandemic, even through subsequent hardships.
If you're interested in politics, America, people or hope, this book is a good one. Every one of the 800 pages is worth it.
As always, thanks a bunch for reading with me.