“Everything You Wanted to Know About Barack Obama,” The Root, 8 April 2010.
David Remnick’s exhaustive–and exhausting– biography of Obama is a textbook for the ages.
On the day he had officially proclaimed United States Census Day 2010, President Barack Obama ticked off a box marked “Black, African American or Negro.” Though the form provided space for him to write in the story we know so well by now–Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii, Hyde Park–he chose the simpler, less divisive route.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker since 1998, has thoughtfully animated Obama’s journey toward that single checkmark in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, a sprawling and densely reported new biography of the man who has faced such choices at every turn of his brief life.
That The Bridge is compulsively about race is not surprising; the first public iteration of this book came in the days after Obama fulfilled the racial dreams of generations of Americans, black, white, and other. “From Harlem to Harvard, from Maine to Hawaii–and even Alaska–from ‘the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire … [to] Stone Mountain of Georgia,’ as Dr. King put it, each of us will always remember this moment, as will our children, whom we woke up to watch history being made,” wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr., in an essay for The Root on Obama’s election. Remnick, a Washington Post alumnus who has written books on Russia and Muhammad Ali, had been studiously silent throughout the campaign season. Suddenly, two weeks after Obama’s win, a 7,000 word treatise on “The Joshua Generation: Race and the Campaign of Barack Obama” sprang, as from the head of Zeus, into an issue whose cover featured a brightly burning Lincoln Memorial.
In the essay, Remnick narrates how Obama “explicitly inserted himself in the time line of American racial politics.” He focuses less on the raw political science of electing a black president, and more on “the nature of his quest for identity.” According to Remnick, “to be black was, for him, as much a matter of aspiration as of inheritance. It was an identity he had to seek out and master. When Obama shared his adolescent reading with some African-American friends, one told him, “I don’t need no books to tell me how to be black.'”
The Bridge picks up the thread begun in that essay, chronicling Obama’s life in the post-civil rights “Joshua Generation,” explaining what Obama discovered that he could not find in books: How one “becomes” black in America. The title of the book is crucial–and essentially about race. In a literal sense it refers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, where in 1965, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. and dozens more black activists furthered the cause of voting rights with their blood, and where, in 2007, Obama walked, having made his first use of the biblical formulation that yoked him to the old guard of abolitionists and civil rights pioneers, and to the Old Testament story of liberation embraced by his former pastor and mentor, Jeremiah Wright. But the bridge is also a symbol of translation, the subtle arithmetic that Obama has consistently performed, adding white liberals, bombastic preachers, black nationalists, lunchbucket Democrats, conspiracy theorists, skeptical conservatives and smitten youth into his “yes we can” coalition.
Much of Remnick’s achievement in The Bridge stems from his “flood the zone” method of reporting: He speaks to Obama’s teachers at Punahou high school in Hawaii, colleagues at the small business consulting firm that first employed Obama after college, early political allies in Chicago, and the highest ranking folks in the Obama White House. If one wants to visit the crummy apartments of Obama’s “monastic” time at Columbia University, Remnick provides the addresses. If one wonders what a young Obama sounded like discussing philosophy while “chooming” (Hawaiian slang for smoking marijuana), Remnick has the tape. And despite the diversity of sources and fluency of narrative, it is easy to divine the single question that Remnick posed, again and again: “What do you make of Obama and race?”
The answers vary, but center on Obama’s self-creation as a black man. “Black identity was not given to him–he sought it,” says Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law professor who taught Michelle and Barack Obama. “He never had that sense of a family being socialized to subservience,” says Salim Muwakkil, a liberal radical from Chicago who spent hours discussing the black arts movement with Obama in the 1980s. Mike Kruglik, another Chicago organizer, watched as his friend “willed himself to be part of the community and then defend it.” Rep. Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who handed Obama his first political spanking in a 2000 race for Congress, saw him as puppet for white liberal elites in Chicago, who nevertheless “didn’t deny his African American identity.” Imitating Obama’s stride for Remnick, Rush says “Barack’s walk is an adaptation of a strut that comes from the street. There’s a certain break at the knees as you walk… He’s the first President of the United States to walk like that, I can guarantee you that!”
Everyone around Obama soon realized that the skin color that had for centuries been a political liability–what Valerie Jarrett called “the sleeping giant”–was, on Obama’s frame, an asset. Mark Alexander, a Seton Hall political science professor and brother to Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, wrote a memo in 2006 titled “It Can Be Done” arguing just that. Cassandra Butts, a law school friend, campaign counselor and now CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, remembers the 2008 South Carolina primary: “Afterward there was the victory rally and people were chanting ‘Race Doesn’t Matter! Race Doesn’t Matter!’ Intellectually I know that isn’t the case, but these people were so moved by this candidate that they were willing to suspend disbelief.”
Remnick is fluent and impeccably researched in topics from Javanese iron workers (the subject of Stanley Ann Dunham’s PhD thesis) to Alinskyism (the method of organizing communities that fascinated both Obama and Hillary Clinton). One learns as much about the Chicago of the 1980s as the Kenya of the 1950s that discouraged Barack Obama, Sr. into an early, sodden death.
But the author dwells on race, however elegantly and in depth, because it is a question with which he is not familiar. This produces, at times, a distance that Obama’s many associates must fill, and paths of inquiry–such as a sustained look at the one-drop rule–not taken.
In fact, for all of the analyses presented in the book, on the subject of race and inheritance (the subtitle for Dreams From My Father), no one speaks as clearly as the president himself. Take Obama’s eyewitness assessment, in the Chicago Reader, of Louis Farakkhan’s 1995 Million Man March:
Just as holding hands and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can’t find jobs and futures for the 50 percent of black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage…. Any solution to our unemployment catastrophe must arise from working creatively within a multicultural, interdependent, and international economy. Any African Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled… We must deal with the forces that are depressing wages, lopping off people’s benefits right and left, and creating an earnings gap between C.E.Os and the lowest-paid worker that has risen in the last 20 years from a ratio of 10 to 1 to one of better than 100 to 1.
It is easy to dismiss the 33-year-old’s insight as a type of please-all-people populism that avoids the controversy of Farrakhan himself. But Obama’s intuitive empathy for what he once called, in himself, “the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” presaged his shrewd and striking explanation of white grievance in his landmark oration on race in Philadelphia in March 2008.
It is also as accurate a template as we have for the operating principles of Obama’s first year as president. Since taking office, he has tackled the problems he outlined in 1995 with health care reform that benefits marginal workers, checks on executive compensation that aim to restore balance to the workforce, and a stimulus package that staunched the bleeding of the US economy and laid the seeds for better schools and jobs. While his administration has been critiqued, alternately, as socialist, overly cozy with Wall Street, radical and not radical enough, Obama’s basic, centrist political instincts actually deserve the term “post-racial.”
This is the world view that makes Fox news commentator Glenn Beck’s gleeful pronouncement that Obama “has a deep seated hatred for white people,” ring hollow for anyone paying attention. And in many ways, Obama’s fixation on economic sources of inequality is the continuation of King’s prematurely curtailed work on poverty during his late 1960s “Poor People’s Campaign.”
Remnick attributes this bridge-building instinct to both temperament and chronology: Obama has always been a natural mediator, a mixed-race olive branch to conservative and liberal ideologies, white and black culture. 2006’s The Audacity of Hope is “cool, polite, insistent on refusing the mud and assaults of the cable shouters and Internet haters, intent on winning over everyone.” But Obama was also “late”–born in 1961, come of age within a generation robbed of wars to fight, or rights to win. He had no choice but to take the best of history, and keep it moving. It turned out that history was black America’s.
Rep. John Lewis, who crossed from the Clinton camp to become an Obama believer, states the obvious: “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” But he also notes that Obama’s election is not the point. Walking around the mall on Inauguration day, 2009, greeting the crowds, he remembers: “I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Now the police chief is black.”
Though it is exhaustive, Remnick’s book is also exhausting–no less because the story of Obama is so well known. But The Bridge is written with a clear eye to history, indulging the sense that after 2012, 2016, or in 2061, there will be a need to know what happened, and how Obama came to be black, and why–and president at that. Students in our browning America will sit in rows and remember Obama’s “improbable journey” to the White House, in part because they cannot remember a world without him. Thus in every sense it is a textbook study of a man whose personal ambitions and talismanic properties earned him the right to make history in our time.