The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick
David Remnick’s tale of Barack Obama’s journey to the White House is an epic endeavour, says Patricia Williams
- Patricia Williams
- The Observer, Sunday 2 May 2010
David Remnick’s exhaustive investigation of President Barack Obama‘s journey to the White House takes its name from the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was there that the confrontation known as “Bloody Sunday” occurred, one of the most significant turning points in the American civil rights movement. In the spring of 1965, a young black freedom rider named John Lewis led hundreds of citizens in a march for voting rights in Selma. When they reached the bridge, they were met by police who blocked their way. Rather than retreating, the marchers knelt down to pray. But the officers, as well as posses of “deputised” white citizens, attacked the crowd, wielding truncheons, bats and boards.
That, of course, is the most literal reference invoked by Remnick’s title. The larger metaphor is captured by the photographs that grace the book’s dustjacket: inside the front cover is a picture of Alabama police in riot gear advancing on Lewis and the marchers; on the back cover is a long shot of the Capitol building, bedecked in bunting, and ringed by a crowd numbering more than a million, as Barack Obama, almost indistinguishable in the centre of this remarkable instantiation of Martin Luther King’s vision of a “beloved community”, took the oath of office as president of the United States.
Even that very moving metaphor of a bridge as an arc of time doesn’t entirely capture the scope of Remnick’s endeavour. The structure of the book resembles nothing less than an epic, likeThe Aeneid, or a morality tale, like Pilgrim’s Progress. This is not to say that The Bridge is a romantic or necessarily lyric rendering of Obama’s life. Remnick’s prose is studious and encyclopedic, the dedicated, somewhat removed voice of the tireless investigative journalist. But he doesn’t need to infuse the tale with writerly flourishes: his subject’s trajectory is extraordinary enough; and Obama’s greatly appealing public persona renders the reader hungry for the kind of detail that Remnick provides. Curiosity alone carries one through such obscure matter as a lengthy description of Obama’s mother’s doctoral dissertation on indigenous Indonesian ironmongers.
Barack Hussein Obama Jr was born in 1962, three years before Bloody Sunday. As the world well knows by now, his father was an exchange student from Kenya who abandoned his mother when he was quite small, and who eventually returned to Nairobi, where the violence and turmoil of the day dashed his political aspirations, leaving him a bitter, ruined alcoholic. While his son’s book, Dreams From My Father, renders the image of this man a large and influential one, Obama met his father only once after his infancy. It is the imagined father with whom Obama wrestles throughout his life, the ghost who drives his quest for grounding.
Obama’s mother, on the other hand, is the key to his practical negotiation of that quest. She is the smart, curious risk-taker who embodies a certain kind of adventurous American spirit not always appreciated in its time or place. She is the white woman who doesn’t think twice about marrying a black man in an era when such unions were outlawed in almost half of the states. She is the child of “plain-speaking” Kansan parents, “bloody Kansas”, as it was known, being a place that is highly symbolic of the civil war’s rending of the Union, since it was deeply divided by battles in the 1850s about whether it would become a slave state.
Remnick’s presentation of Barack Obama positions him as the most successful manifestation to date of the continued peristalsis of the civil rights movement as it ripples through American society. As with every previous moment in the civil rights story, however, Obama’s presidency has been met with a backlash expressed in the crudest of terms. In 1965, John Lewis’s march was prompted by insuperable barriers placed in the way of African Americans’ rights to vote: hefty poll taxes, and civics exams and literacy tests with questions such as “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” Similarly, during the 2008 campaign, rightwing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh publicly disputed Obama’s ability to have written his autobiography: “There’s no evidence he has any kind of writing talent … I would like him to be given a test on his own book.”
Remnick astutely points out how this language echoes the experience of escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose narrative had to be “authenticated” before whites could believe he was able to express himself so well. Douglass’s book was entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself – the latter part of which title necessitated the interrogation and, ultimately, the formal endorsement of white citizens including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and lawyer Wendell Phillips.
The contemporary iteration of this demeaning of African American intellect is the Tea Party movement, the noisiest and most troubling vehicle of opposition to Obama’s presidency. Just a few months ago, after Remnick’s book went to press, former Congressman Tom Tancredo declared that Obama was only elected because “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country”.
The great achievement of The Bridge is the sheer voluminousness of its coverage. Sometimes I found myself mildly disagreeing with Remnick’s basing a particular conclusion upon the opinion of a particular rapporteur, but my take never differed substantially. This is testament to Remnick’s ability to report without adornment, in depth, and faithfully. He puts forth all the foundations for his sources’ opinions and meticulously unpacks their political bents and reasoning.
On rare occasions, however, Remnick does make presumptions that reveal his own invested world view – lapses that glare all the more prominently for the book’s general fairness and economy of tone. For example, in analysing Dreams From My Father,Remnick takes Obama to task for his account of an afternoon when he was nine, flipping through a stack of Life magazines in an Indonesian library, and discovering an image of a black man who had used chemicals to whiten his skin. Obama writes that his child-self felt “ambushed” by the sudden revelation that black people endured such things “in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person”.
During the presidential campaign, reporters tried to find an article in Life fitting that description and came up with none. According to Remnick, Obama now says “feebly” it might have been any number of magazines other than Life. But Remnick then goes on to proffer an alternative, and utterly unsubstantiated, supposition. Rather than exploring the logical explanation – that Obama saw an advertisement, not an article, about skin whiteners, Remnick muses about whether “It might have been that Obama was thinking of John Howard Griffin’s book, Black Like Me…” in which Griffin, “a journalist and burly white Texan” darkened his skin chemically and took a tour of the deep South “where he discovered the indignities suffered by men and women of colour”.
I confess I wanted to shake Remnick at this point; speak for yourself, buddy. Even assuming that Obama’s story is accurate only for its “emotional truth”, as Remnick puts it, Obama’s narrative is clearly that of a boy who feels betrayed when he realises he inhabits a body that some despise so much that they will deface themselves to escape the inescapable. In contrast, Remnick displaces Obama’s narrative with one about a white man who “discovers” there really is prejudice in the world. Griffin’s book, moreover, while well-meaning, has been widely criticised as a kind of “colonial tourism”, an effort to check out if the natives are telling the truth. This voice “from the other side” assumes a disbelieving stance. Wow! I guess they weren’t exaggerating after all! Skin colour makes a difference! Indeed, that implied requirement of “proof” or testimony from a reliable (non-black) witness contains an echo of precisely the kind of authentication required of Frederick Douglass.
Still, moments like this are small but jarring digressions. Remnick has pulled together a monument of a book, one large enough yet nuanced enough to provide useful insight into a man whose complexity and intelligence rank him among the most compelling figures in modern history. “Barack is the interpreter,” says his Harvard classmate Cassandra Butts. “To be a good interpreter means you need fluency in two languages, as well as cultural fluency on both sides … He has seen people in both worlds at their most intimate moments, when their humanity and imperfections shone through. His role is… in explaining one side to the other.” The arc of Remnick’s book examines that interpretive power mostly as a linkage between the sides in America’s black-white divide. But, as he demonstrates, Obama’s skill is in seeing the common elements that span all sorts of divides, whether these are ideological, linguistic, or of the psyche.
The book’s last chapter ends with a neatly circular reference to where the story began: with John Lewis, the leader of the march for voting rights and now a senior congressman in the House of Representatives. At the inaugural luncheon, “Lewis approached Obama with a sheet of paper and, to mark the occasion, he asked him to sign it. The 44th president of the United States wrote: ‘Because of you, John. Barack Obama’.”
The metaphoric epilogue to this remarkable story is no less than the future, writ large. The epilogue notes the rise of the Tea Party movement, the global economic crisis, and the domestic rancour. The Bridge went to press before the healthcare bill was passed last month – a moment, one hopes, that will not prefigure the opening chapter of its sequel. On that day, rightwing protesters attacked the offices of Democratic congresspersons, filled cyberspace with threats of violence against the federal government, and in a scene of particularly iconic and ironic shame, screamed racist epithets at John Lewis, now elder statesman, as he walked into the Capitol building to vote on the bill.
Patricia Williams teaches law at Columbia University.