Some Additional Thoughts on Jane Sutcliffe’s Biography of Barack Obama

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay on a children’s biography of Barack Obama written by Jane Sutcliffe. I read about this book through an article expressing outrage over the book because of several allegedly racist and outrageous claims made within the first few pages of the book. I went to Amazon and read a few pages of the book while also comparing it to another biography Sutcliffe wrote on Ronald Reagan. I came away disappointed in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt by Sutcliffe to eliminate Obama’s family from the narrative of his childhood and posed several questions for readers to consider when choosing historical biographies for elementary classrooms.

I took a “digital break” over Thanksgiving and stayed away from Exploring the Past for about a week, but I read a very fine piece from fellow scholar and emerging historian Andrew Joseph Pegoda on his take of Sutcliffe’s book. Much to my initial surprise, Andrew came away impressed with the book and did not take any offense to it. He took the time to purchase and read the book all the way through and concluded that within the larger context of the book, Sutcliffe actually portrays Obama as a young boy without a father for most of his life, leading to many uncertainties about his personal identity but ultimately a drive to succeed in life. Most importantly, Andrew reminds us (myself included) that context matters. To wit:

Context matters. Actually reading the book before having any opinion matters. And the drama around this book is a good reminder for all of us, including myself, that two passages do not represent an entire work. The book simply tells the story of Obama’s life. It opens with details about his childhood, family, and early school days. It talks about his “coming of age” events and starting college. It talks about how he worked long and hard from being somebody no one knew to somebody many people knew. It talks about his rise to becoming president. That’s it.

It’s safe to say that I probably overreacted to a sensationalist news article without digging deeper for the larger context of Sutcliffe’s argument. I went through the same pages again and definitely see Andrew’s point of view. Nevertheless, I still think the one passage I found offensive on page 11 is sloppy writing. Sutcliffe refers to “the black characters [“Barry”] saw on tv” as influencing him to act tough, curse, and perhaps even trying drugs in the future. While that all may true (I don’t know), I still think the wording on that could lead to misunderstandings within young students. Not all African Americans behave that way on the television today and that wasn’t the case when Obama was a boy. Andrew’s persuasive piece forces me to retract my claim of the book being “blatantly racist,” but I still think the page 11 passage holds the potential to perpetuate old stereotypes and misunderstandings about African Americas. Likewise, I still find it interesting how Sutcliffe’s portrayal of Reagan doesn’t seem to make any attempt to show any personal crises or identity issues within him, even though I’m sure such issues may have emerged at some point in his life. Ultimately I’d like to see if there are other children’s biographies of Obama that are used in elementary schools and compare those with Sutcliffe’s to see how they interpret Obama’s childhood.

I consider this exercise a lesson learned on my part. I think sometimes it’s easy for me to get riled up about controversial topics in the classroom. I often read articles through twitter, engage in lots of online conversation, and sometimes write blog posts on the spur of the moment. I believe the questions I posed in my last post should be taken under consideration, but I now realize with much regret that I was mistaken in some of my interpretations of Jane Sutcliffe’s biography. Sometimes it helps to wait an extra minute and do some extra digging before writing out my thoughts online.