Black History Month: Gwen Ifill on The Breakthrough

Gwen Ifill puts Obama's victory in broader context in The Breakthrough.

Gwen Ifill puts Obama's victory in broader context in The Breakthrough.


Beyond his historic run for the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama has been a boon for the publishing industry.

In addition to his two memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope,  and a campaign primer, there have been close to a dozen books about Obama, his prospects for election, and, since November, the meaning of his triumph.

Longtime journalist Gwen Ifill, who moderated the debate between then-Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has entered the fray, too.  Her debut book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, puts Obama’s victory in context with other post-civil rights generation African Americans who have won political office at local, state, and federal levels.

The Breakthrough is an accessible and engaging read.  Ifill begins in the introduction by recounting some of her initial experiences as a reporter in South Boston during the 1970s busing era.  Racial tension was so high that she would get daily dispatches from the school superintendent about what had happened rather than go to the school and the neighborhood.  From this starting point, of course, Obama’s victory to the highest office in the land is nothing short of remarkable, and, as Ifill notes in the book, was inconceivable for many, many African-Americans.

His success has not come without a struggle-a fact that would not surprise Frederick Douglass, even if the source of some of the challenge would.  The section on Obama’s election, for instance, talks about the generational tension between folks from the civil rights era who would both at times tell the younger generation they could not understand what they had been through nor, in some cases, could the conceive of Obama’s victory being possible. 

One of the many interesting anecdotes that shows this latter point occurs when venerable activist Andrew Young says that Obama would make an excellent candidate for president-in 2016.  Ifill also shows the public disputes that emerged between Jesse Jackson, Sr. and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. at different points during the campaign as examples of that trend, too.

Ifill’s campaign recap includes a chapter onthe isssue of race and gender as manifested through the contest between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.  Ifilll argues that Obama did a balancing act about his race, but ultimately tried not to make his campaign about his race.  Clinton, on the other hand, cited her gender as a source of electoral difficulty, particularly when her once seemingly  inevitable maruch to the nomination started to falter.   This chapter is particularly interesting because it shows the divisions within the black community before Obama’s campaign gained steam, and how both black men and women who had supported Clinton switched sides as the campaign progressed.

Ifill also examines the issue of black identity, which emerged through the question of whether Obama was ‘black enough’?  One of the book’s most enetertaining nuggets comes from comedian Dick Gregory, who asked at an event sponsored by Tavis Smiley  how African Americans could embrace Bill Clinton as the ‘first black president’ and then question whether Obama was sufficiently black. 

 Obama is a major figure throughout the book, but Ifill’s spends full chapters on other black elected officials like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama.  Young, talented, and black, to paraphrase Lorraine Hansberry, these politicians are illustrative of a deeper trend, Ifill maintains-the electoral success of the post-civil rights generation.

Beyond these chapter length portraits of individuals, Ifill also has intriguing chapters about black political dynasties like the Fords of Tennessee and the Patersons of New York, and, near the end of the book, of other individuals who have had electoral success. 

The Breakthrough is a breezy survey of the community from which Obama comes and that was critical to his November victory.  Remarkably timely-Ifill includes scenes from the election night, like the elder Jackson shedding tears at Chicago’s Grant Park-and full of insight, the book, Ifill’s first, is a helpful step in placing Obama’s election in a broader cultural context.

Ifill also deserves credit for her analysis of Obama’s racial balancing act, which consisted of being perceived as suffciently but not excessively black by black and white voters, respectively.  She shows some of those calculations at the convention, for example, where Obama’s half-sister who is Indonesian appeared, while his half-sister who is Kenyan did not.  She similarly effective in noting that being elected is not the same as governing, pointing out repeatedly how Patrick’s tin ear and Booker’s lack of ties within the Newark community have impeded their abilities to enact their legislative agendas. 

Although it is not a work of history, the book is a bit thin on historical background beyond the civil rights era and an occasional Frederick Douglass quote.  More basically, she concentrates more on the number of elected officials rather than on voter turnout, which can be a more accurate indicator of the community’s political health.   While this did rise significantly during Obama’s election, on the whole voting in elections and other indicators of civic participation have declined in black and other communities during the past decades.

Still, there is no mistaking the monumental significance of Obama’s victory and the existence of a growing number of black officials, a number of whom like Patrick have been elected by a majority of white voters, throughout the country. 

Ifill posits at the book’s conclusion that the day may come when enough black officials have been elected that a subsequent victory will not be considered consequential.  That may well be true, and, if it happens soon enough, we will be able to credit her with her accurate prediction.


2 responses to “Black History Month: Gwen Ifill on The Breakthrough

  1. Though I haven’t read The Breakthrough, it sounds like the kind of book that’s not too heavy or would come off as dogmatic–which just happens to be the kind of read I’m looking for at the moment. Timing is good!

    Still, I’m intrigued by this new generation of black politicians, their experiences and what bearing they might have on politics and the political process in this country, pre and post- Obama. Indeed, there was always this measure of “blackness” as an undercurrent during the campaign. What does this truly mean? What will it continue to mean?

    I’m going to give it a try. Thanks!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Stephanie, for your post. You raise some important questions and I look forward to hearing your thoughts after you read the book! I’m glad that the timing worked for you, too.

      Regards to Eric and Max, and enjoy your week away from CRS! We’ll see you on the Cat-side when you return.


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