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.”