Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election represented not just a milestone in terms of American history, but a new stage in the nation’s enduring struggle over race. It was an issue that Obama had to deal with throughout the campaign, not just from whites but from blacks as well, as he faced charges that he was not “black” enough. In this book David Remnick, the editor of New Yorker magazine, offers us a study of Obama’s life within the context of the issue of race. In it, he addresses not just the issues that he faced over the course of his life, but how in many respects they reflect the broader challenges that African Americans and whites faced in an era of dramatic change in the notions of race and equality within the nation as a whole.
The issue of race emerged early for Obama. Growing up in Hawai’i, he experienced a very different type of racial environment than elsewhere in America, one with far greater racial diversity and far less overt animosity, than was the case on the mainland at the time. It was in that unique environment that he first wrestled with the issues of his self-definition, a struggle that continued throughout his college career, first in Los Angeles, then in New York City. By the time he graduated, he was a man comfortable with his own identity and the role he wanted to play within the larger community. Remnick’s account here is traditionally biographical in its scope, drawing considerably upon Obama’s own memoir, but adding to it with the subsequent reporting. He maintains this approach through much of his post-collegiate career, through his time as a community organizer, law school student, and attorney and budding politician. It is with his election to the United States Senate that the focus narrows to the twin issues of Obama’s presidential run and the intertwining of his political aspirations with race.
By the time Remnick reaches the end of his book – with the election of Obama to the White House, he has given readers a well-researched and perceptive look at both Barack Obama’s life and the role of race within it. While not comprehensive, it is one of the best and most complete biography of the 44th president that we are likely to have for some time, and one that subsequent studies will rely upon for the wealth of information it provides. Anyone wishing to learn about Barack Obama would do well to start with this clearly written and dispassionate look at Obama, both for the insights it offers into him and for its analysis of a critical dimension of his life and career.