7 Takeaways From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s NYT Book Review Of Obama’s New ‘A Promised Land’ Book

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
7 Takeaways From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s NYT Book Review Of Obama’s New ‘A Promised Land’ Book. “A Promised Land” by former President Barack Obama is displayed in the window of a New York bookstore, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

President Barack Obama’s new record-breaking memoir, “A Promised Land,” was recently the subject of an in-depth review by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an award-winning and critically acclaimed Nigerian writer. Adichie, the recipient of several fellowships and honorary degrees, teaches writing workshops to aspiring writers. She has been lauded for her work ranging from short stories and novels to non-fiction. Here are 7 takeaways from Adichie’s New York Times book review.

1. Obama is a fine writer

Adichie starts her review by acknowledging what many already know: Obama is a fine writer. It is, in fact, her very first sentence. She then details exactly why she chose to open her review this way.

“It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid,” Adichie says. “His focus is more political than personal, but when he does write about his family it is with a beauty close to nostalgia. … His language is unafraid of its own imaginative richness.”

2. Obama is guarded and does not show enough emotion regarding certain topics, the book review says

While Obama’s writing is beautiful, he avoids delving too deeply into his emotions, according to Adichie.

“And yet for all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove. It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, emotion itself is tamped down,” she writes in her book review.

Despite Obama being his very own worst critic, his memoir doesn’t provide much of what the best ones do – “true revelation,” Adichie said.

3. David Axelrod actually came up with Obama’s iconic ‘Yes We Can’ campaign slogan

In his memoir, Obama reveals that the slogan which became a rallying cry and led him to victory actually came from his adviser David Axelord. Obama admitted he first thought it corny, Adichie recounts in her book review.

“That rousing rallying cry of the Obama campaign, ‘Yes We Can’? It was Axelrod’s idea, which Obama thought corny, until Michelle said it wasn’t corny at all.”

4. Obama wishes politics weren’t so polarized by partisan loyalties

In “A Promised Land” Obama writes about the political process as an outsider looking in, even after his two historic terms as president. One of the things he dislikes is placing party loyalties over the needs of the people.

“He wishes things were different,” Adichie wrote. “He wishes that Senate confirmations were not made difficult merely to embarrass the administration in power, that issues important to ordinary citizens were not overlooked because they do not have expensive lobbyists roaming the halls of Congress on their behalf, that senators were not bullied into voting a certain way, as Olympia Snowe was by Mitch McConnell when he threatened to strip her of her committee ranking post unless she backed away from supporting Obama’s bill.”

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5. On the subject of race, Obama doesn’t say as much as he should

Though Obama addresses race in his memoir, Adichie wrote that she feels he did it in a way that intentionally avoids offending white people. In her book review, she posits:

“But it is on the subject of race that I wish he had more to say now. He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offense. Instances of racism are always preceded by other examples that ostensibly show the absence of racism. And so, while we hear an Iowan supporter say, ‘I’m thinking about voting for the nigger,’ we see many nice Iowans who just care about the issues. The racist incident is never allowed to be and breathe, fully aired out, unmuddied by that notion of ‘complexity.’ Of course racism is always complex, but complexity as an idea too often serves as an evasive device, a means of keeping the conversation comfortable, never taking the full contours of racism to avoid alienating white Americans.”

6. Obama recognized that the pragmatic way to win the presidency was to be cautious because he is Black

In her book review, Adichie also posited that Obama’s memoir reveals he knew he had to be pragmatic in his campaign to avoid offending people because he is Black. He was even told to be cautious not to delve too deeply into Black issues by a trusted advisor.

“Obama recognizes, during his run for president, that while special-interest politics — by ethnic groups, farmers, gun-control enthusiasts — is the norm in America, it is only Black Americans who practice it at their peril. To focus too much on ‘Black issues’ like civil rights or police misconduct is to risk the backlash of whites. During the Iowa caucus, Gibbs tells Obama, ‘Trust me, whatever else they know about you, people have noticed that you don’t look like the first 42 presidents.’ In other words: We don’t need to remind them that you’re Black. What goes unsaid is that were Blackness politically benign, then it should make no difference if voters were reminded of it. There is something so unfair about this and yet one realizes that the approach was probably the most pragmatic, the only way to win, much as pragmatic brings with it a foul smell,” Adichie continues.

7. Obama should be bolder in communicating without apology the perils of being Black in the U.S.

Adichie is also among those who criticized Obama for being too neutral when it came to addressing Black issues.

“Yes, his assumed foreignness, his unusual parentage and name, played a role in the reception he got, but if his were a white foreignness, if his father were Scandinavian or Irish or Eastern European, and if his middle name were Olaf or even Vladimir, the demonizing would not be quite so dark. If he were not Black he would not have gotten so many death threats that he was given Secret Service protection very early in the primaries; long before he even knew he would win he already had bulletproof barriers in his bedroom,” Adichie wrote.

She added near the conclusion of her book review:

“During Obama’s presidency, I would often say, accusingly, to my friend and argument-partner Chinaku, ‘You’re doing an Obama. Take a damn stand.’ Doing an Obama meant that Chinaku saw 73 sides of every issue, and he aired them and detailed them and it felt to me like subterfuge, a watery considering of so many sides that resulted in no side at all. Often, in this book, Barack Obama does an Obama. He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue.”