When I heard the title of former President Obama’s 2020 memoir, my first thought was that I read a book with that title years ago. Then I recalled that the book I read was titled The Promised Land. President Obama’s memoir is titled A Promised Land.
Recalling the topic of the book I read years ago, the promised land was a place, a physical location. It was the destination of so many Black migrants from southern states. Some of my own family migrated from the Mississippi Delta, first to Memphis and then on to Chicago, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. These cities, by word of mouth, promised a decent wage for hard work and some semblance of respect that should be due to any ordinary human being. Journeying north on the rails of faith, my family and others like them had an abundance of trust and optimism.
Former President Obama’s book, A Promised Land, is not about a place or physical destination. It is a concept about the “possibility of America” held by people in a national community where moral ideals promise opportunity, freedom, and equality for all. In the preface to his recent book, Obama writes:
Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and equality before the law apply to everybody, or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few? (xv)
Whether The or A Promised Land, both offered false promises to people who trusted and looked to a future with optimism. In the North, some of the poorest Black people never found the good job, while others lost their jobs when unemployment began to rise; they faced housing discrimination and were without recourse when their children were abandoned to resource-starved schools. They never expected to be fenced off in areas called ghettos. Though no longer sharecropping at the mercy of poor farmers, a caste system was still firmly in place in this “promised land.”
The reality of America as a promised land is an illusion held by people who do not realize that they are suffering from a delusion about “their” country. A multiracial democracy has never been the vision for this America, as history so clearly records. And when the trusting and optimistic call attention to promises made, they are met with reactionary violence and threats by those determined to create an unambiguous America that clearly defines whose freedom and equality before the law is meant to apply.
False promises prevail.