Født: 4. august 1961
Født: 4. august 1961
I’m about to join a conversation with some of Africa’s most promising young people: 200 Obama Foundation Leaders from 44 countries. These young leaders are already changing their communities for the better and stand poised to lead the continent toward a brighter future.
This week, I’m traveling to Africa for the first time since I left office – a continent of wonderful diversity, thriving culture, and remarkable stories.
I was proud to visit sub-Saharan Africa more times than any other sitting President, and I’ll return this week to visit Kenya and South Africa. In South Africa, the Obama Foundation will convene 200 extraordinary young leaders from across the continent and I’ll deliver a speech to mark the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Kenya, of course, is the Obama ancestral home. I visited for the first time when I was in my twenties and I was profoundly influenced by my experiences – a journey I wrote about in my first book, Dreams from My Father.
Over the years since, I've often drawn inspiration from Africa's extraordinary literary tradition. As I prepare for this trip, I wanted to share a list of books that I’d recommend for summer reading, including some from a number of Africa’s best writers and thinkers – each of whom illuminate our world in powerful and unique ways.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A true classic of world literature, this novel paints a picture of traditional society wrestling with the arrival of foreign influence, from Christian missionaries to British colonialism. A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
A chronicle of the events leading up to Kenya’s independence, and a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationships.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Mandela’s life was one of the epic stories of the 20th century. This definitive memoir traces the arc of his life from a small village, to his years as a revolutionary, to his long imprisonment, and ultimately his ascension to unifying President, leader, and global icon. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history – and then go out and change it.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the U.S. and the UK, raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.
The Return by Hisham Matar
A beautifully-written memoir that skillfully balances a graceful guide through Libya’s recent history with the author’s dogged quest to find his father who disappeared in Gaddafi’s prisons.
The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes
It’s true, Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people for eight years in the White House.
Today is World Refugee Day.
If you've been fortunate enough to have been born in America, imagine for a moment if circumstance had placed you somewhere else. Imagine if you'd been born in a country where you grew up fearing for your life, and eventually the lives of your children. A place where you finally found yourself so desperate to flee persecution, violence, and suffering that you'd be willing to travel thousands of miles under cover of darkness, enduring dangerous conditions, propelled forward by that very human impulse to create for our kids a better life.
That's the reality for so many of the families whose plights we see and heart-rending cries we hear. And to watch those families broken apart in real time puts to us a very simple question: are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together? Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?
Our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others, to say “there but for the grace of God go I,” is part of what makes us human. And to find a way to welcome the refugee and the immigrant – to be big enough and wise enough to uphold our laws and honor our values at the same time – is part of what makes us American. After all, almost all of us were strangers once, too. Whether our families crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we’re only here because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, how our last names sound, or the way we worship. To be an American is to have a shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve the chance to become something better.
That’s the legacy our parents and grandparents and generations before created for us, and it’s something we have to protect for the generations to come. But we have to do more than say “this isn’t who we are.” We have to prove it – through our policies, our laws, our actions, and our votes.
I’m often asked what I’m reading, watching, and listening to, so I thought I might share a short list from time to time. There’s so much good writing and art and variety of thought out there these days that this is by no means comprehensive – like many of you, I’ll miss “The Americans” – but here’s what I’ve been reading lately. It’s admittedly a slightly heavier list than what I’ll be reading over the summer:
Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging, by Alex Wagner
I once wrote a book on my own search for identity, so I was curious to see what Alex, daughter of a Burmese mother and Iowan Irish-Catholic father – and a friend of mine – discovered during her own. What she came up with is a thoughtful, beautiful meditation on what makes us who we are – the search for harmony between our own individual identities and the values and ideals that bind us together as Americans.
The New Geography of Jobs, by Enrico Moretti
It’s six years old now, but still a timely and smart discussion of how different cities and regions have made a changing economy work for them – and how policymakers can learn from that to lift the circumstances of working Americans everywhere.
Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen
In a time of growing inequality, accelerating change, and increasing disillusionment with the liberal democratic order we’ve known for the past few centuries, I found this book thought-provoking. I don’t agree with most of the author’s conclusions, but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.
“The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” by Matthew Stewart, The Atlantic
Another thought-provoking analysis, this one about how economic inequality in America isn’t just growing, but self-reinforcing – and what that means for education, health, happiness, even the strength of our democracy.
In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, by Mitch Landrieu
A few years ago, I eulogized the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was slain by a white supremacist in his church in Charleston, South Carolina. And I’ll never forget something Clem said while he was alive: “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” That’s something Mitch takes to heart in this book, while grappling with some of the most painful parts of our history and how they still live in the present. It’s an ultimately optimistic take from someone who believes the South will rise again not by reasserting the past, but by transcending it.
“Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life,” by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, RAND Corporation
The title is self-explanatory, but the findings are very interesting. A look at how a selective sorting of facts and evidence isn’t just dishonest, but self-defeating to a society that has always worked best when reasoned debate and practical problem-solving thrive.
Over the past few days, the first class of Obama Foundation Fellows gathered to get to know each other and share what they’ve learned from their inspiring work. From Minnesota to Mali, these 20 leaders have dedicated their lives to building a better world. I can’t wait to learn from each of them and watch their impact grow as they work together and with us over the next two years.