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A Promised Land summary

Barack Obama

The first memoir of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States

4.6 (405 ratings)
33 mins

What is A Promised Land about?

A Promised Land (2020) is the first volume of the memoirs of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. The memoir chronicles Obama’s journey from teenage Honolulu ne'er-do-well to Chicago community organizer and on to one of the most beloved – and mistrusted – figures in American history.

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    A Promised Land
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    A Political Awakening

    Barack Hussein Obama was a nice enough kid. Born in 1961, he grew up with his mother and grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii. But neither his mother nor his grandparents would ever guess he’d end up in public office – let alone become president. He was a mediocre student and an adequate basketball player. The only thing he really paid close attention to was partying. 

    But at some point in high school he started asking questions his grandparents couldn’t answer, like why were most professional basketball players Black, but none of the coaches? Why did people his mother considered good and decent struggle so much financially? To answer these questions, he turned to books.

    It was this voracious reading habit that gave him a halfway decent sense of politics when he landed at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, in 1979. In college, he kept up with his reading, but mostly to impress girls. He read Foucault to engage with the elegant bisexual who wore all black. He studied Marx to impress the lithe socialist from his dorm. It didn’t get him very far with the ladies, but it did teach him a few things about political theory.

    When he transferred to Columbia, he became obsessed with the idea of politics in practice. All this political carrying on meant he wasn’t much fun to hang out with – and the few friends he had didn’t hesitate to tell him so. But he was fine being alone with his ideas. He just needed somewhere to go to put them into practice. 

    Upon graduation, he took a job in Chicago, working with a group trying to stabilize communities adversely affected by steel plant closures. This work finally got his head out of the theory books. It forced him to listen to real people, to hear their real problems. It also helped him understand his identity as a mixed-race Black man.

    Still, he wasn’t satisfied with the effect he was having. Change was coming too slowly. He wanted more power, power to shape budgets and to guide policy that could have a real impact on these communities. He decided to apply to Harvard Law School – and he was accepted. The next fall, he moved to Boston to begin the next stage of his journey.

    But, as it turns out, Obama’s law-school experience was a lot like his undergraduate experience. He spent all his time reading about civics. But this time, he was better rewarded for it: he was elected head of the Harvard Law Review; he got his first book deal; and high-paying, high-status job offers came pouring in. 

    These offers were gratifying, but Obama ended up taking a different route.

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    Best quote from A Promised Land

    To be known. To be heard. To have ones unique identity recognized and seen as worthy. It was a universal human desire, I thought, as true for nations and peoples as it was for individuals.

    —Barack Obama
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    About the Author

    Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, and the first nonwhite man to be elected to the nation’s highest office. His other books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, are international best sellers and have been translated into dozens of languages.

    Who should read A Promised Land?

    • Anyone wanting to understand modern American politics
    • Lovers of deep-dive biography
    • Those looking to learn college-age Obama’s strategy for picking up girls

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