Book Review: The American Journey of Barack Obama, Time-Life Magazine (2008)

December 17th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

A gorgeous coffee table book; nothing more, nothing less.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I’ve long been a fan of the Time/Life glossy pictorial hardcovers (e.g., the Time Annual Year in Review and Life Album: Pictures of the Year series), so when Life’s THE AMERICAN JOURNEY OF BARACK OBAMA became available through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, I jumped at the chance to review a copy. Though I’m not an Obama voter – I supported Kucinch in the primaries, McKinney/Clemente in the general election – I found myself moved by the historic nature of his campaign (and victory) nonetheless. In particular, the photos and speeches which came out of the 2008 campaign cycle have proven poignant and inspirational; considering previous Life volumes, I hoped that this book might capture some of the more memorable campaign moments.

Since THE AMERICAN JOURNEY OF BARACK OBAMA is largely a work of photojournalism, let’s start with the photographs. TAJOBO is a gorgeous, colorful book, filled to the brim with photos: Obama/Dunham and, later, Obama/Robinson family snapshots; photos of Barack Obama during his college years; pictures taken throughout Obama’s political career; candid shots of Barack and Michelle with children Sasha and Malia; and, of course, a number of photos from the campaign trail, including a few stills of the Obamas working the daytime talk show circuit. If you followed the 2008 elections, no doubt you’ll recognize some of the more iconic photographs, such as the one of Obama, leaning back in an office chair, with a phone nestled snugly between ear and shoulder, feet propped up on a desk – showing two very beaten, worn soles.

Sadly, Life only includes a few photos of Obama’s supporters, taken during his speeches and rallies; of the shots they do include, most are of the stadium-sized crowds, rather than of individual supporters. For me, these have been some of the most moving and emotional images from the campaign trail: seeing African American children and adults interact with Obama and react to his speeches. It’s a shame that Life didn’t feature more of these photographs.

In regards to the biographical text of TAJOBO, the book is primarily divided into five sections: Roots, Boyhood, A Young Man on the Rise, Chicago and Washington. The biographical section is largely laudatory, as you might expect; after all, one purchases Life pictorials for the photos – the hard hitting journalism, not so much.

The final section, Aspects of Obama, features twelve essays from “fine thinkers” (while I probably take in more CSPAN than your average American, none of the names ring a bell), with the goal of examining how Obama is viewed “by the black man and the white, the cultural anthropologist and the historian, the northerner and the southerner, the immigrant and the foreigner, the woman who suffered when Hillary got beat.” While this section practically begs for an essay critical of Obama – just one, mind you! – the editors at Life wouldn’t hear of it. Likewise, the specter of racism is discussed in depth, as it should be – as I noted above, this was a historic election cycle. However, 2008 was notable not just because it saw the first African American presidential candidate on a major party ticket – but because he was competing against the first viable female candidate in the Democratic primaries. Just as race(ism) was at the forefront in 2008, so too was sex(ism) – but the misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton and her supporters (and later, Sarah Palin and her supporters), is barely given a nod. But again, I expected as much when I requested the book from LT; a masterpiece of political journalism, TAJOBO is not.

To be fair, THE AMERICAN JOURNEY OF BARACK OBAMA doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive biography or exhaustive journalistic endeavor. Rather, it’s a pretty book, meant to commemorate the first African American President of the United States. (I somewhat doubt that Life would have released THE AMERICAN JOURNEY OF JOHN MCCAIN, had Obama lost the election, you know?) In this, the editors at Life largely succeed; and yet, because Obama’s American journey is also a journey shared by the many people of color who supported Obama, campaigned on his behalf, braved harsh weather and crushing throngs in order to hear him speak, and celebrated with him when he won the election, I can’t help but feel as though more of the photos in this (photo)essay could have – should have – been dedicated to them: “Yes WE Can.”

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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