MUST-READ: DAVID SAMUELS INTERVIEWS DAVID GARROW, BIOGRAPHER OF BARACK OBAMA – David Garrow is among America’s most celebrated civil rights historians, author of “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “Bearing the Cross” (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography) a landmark history of abortion rights, “Liberty and Sexuality”.
(Tablet Magazine, 3 August 2023, no paywall), journalist and feature writer David Samuels introduces David Garrow’s 2017 biography of Barack Obama, “Rising Star”, and provides the condensed transcript of two recent, long interviews with the historian at his home in Pittsburgh.
Samuels opens the scene with Garrow’s analysis of Obama’s account in his book “Dreams from My Father” of his breakup with his longtime Chicago girlfriend, Sheila Miyoshi Jager, whom he twice asked to marry him.
A student of the celebrated University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, Jager is today a distinguished academic and Professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio.
In “Dreams”, Obama describes a passionate disagreement between the couple following a play by African American playwright August Wilson, in which the young protagonist defends his incipient embrace of Black racial consciousness against his girlfriend’s white-identified liberal universalism.
Yet what Garrow documented, after tracking down and interviewing Jager, was an explosive fight over a very different subject.
In Jager’s recollection, what set off the quarrel that precipitated the end of the couple’s relationship was Obama’s stubborn refusal to condemn Black racism.
“Whose version of the story is correct? Who knows”, writes Samuels. “The bridge between the two accounts is Obama’s emerging attachment to Blackness, which required him to fall in love with and marry a Black woman. In Obama’s account, his attachment to Blackness is truthful and noble. In Jager’s account, his claims are instrumental and selfish; he grants particularism to the experience and suffering of his own tribe while denying it to others.”
For anyone who is interested in understanding the real Barack Obama, both the man and the predominant, behind-the-scenes DC political operator that he appears to have become since leaving office in 2016, this article is a gripping must-read.
As Samuels muses, “That Obama might enjoy serving as a third-term president in all but name, running the government from his iPhone, was a thought expressed in public by Obama himself, both before and after he left office. In 2015 he stated to Steven Colbert: ‘I used to say if I can make an arrangement where I had a stand-in or front man or front woman, and they had an earpiece in, and I was just in my basement in my sweats looking through the stuff, and I could sort of deliver the lines while someone was doing all the talking and ceremony. I’d be fine with that because I found the work fascinating.’”