Unlike the overwhelming majority of former political leaders who write their memoirs, America’s first Black president provides a critical self-examination, a message of empathy and authenticity at a moment when the United States needs it most.
He could have been a writer. Inspired by Toni Morrison, he had written a remarkable, introspective work, “Dreams from My Father,” describing the struggle for identity of a young mixed-race youth growing up in Hawaii. With the first volume of his memoirs as former president of the United States, Barack Obama commits a timely act of citizenship in a country damaged by four years of Trumpism and decades of a democracy running out of steam.
In a time of alternative facts promoted by a Donald Trump unable to acknowledge his defeat, America’s first Black president delivers an essential message, reminiscent of his writer friend, Marilynne Robinson: The purpose of writing is to give to the reader that which is most authentic about oneself; giving to others is to give meaning to one’s life. He engages in self-criticism, reflects on his relationship to power, on the mistakes he made in the White House that Franklin Delano Roosevelt “would never have made.” He promotes empathy in an America torn like never before.
The memoirs of former political leaders often reflect a desire to (re)write history. In a philosophical, dialectical argument, Obama unveils his doubts, his humanity. Beyond the millions he will earn for “A Promised Land,” the former president, who is close to Angela Merkel, dares to take a chance. But deep down he knows — after having himself been under attack by a nihilistic Republican opposition for eight years — that humanity and authenticity are unassailable. That’s his universal message.
Where Obama remains very American is in his unwavering belief — some would call it blind faith — in the exceptionalism of the United States: an optimism that translates into his admiration for the multiethnic Black Lives Matter movement, tomorrow’s America.