THIS IS WHAT AMERICA LOOKS LIKE
My Journey From Refugee to Congresswoman
By Ilhan Omar
275 pp. Dey Street. $27.99.
“I am still trying to figure out where I fit in,” Omar writes in the prologue to her memoir. During her childhood in Somalia, her four years in a Kenyan refugee camp and her adolescence in Minneapolis, Omar felt at odds with her peers: as a tomboy, as the child of parents from two different Somali clans and as a teenager caught between American dating culture and family expectations of modesty. Adulthood brought more barriers to belonging. Somali elders in Minnesota opposed Omar’s entry into politics, deeming it an unsuitable venture for a woman. After she won her first political campaign — “the most painful and joyous thing I’ve ever done outside of giving birth” — a fellow legislator mocked her hijab. “This Is What America Looks Like” is the origin story of a leader who, finding no set path that would take a person like her to the places she wanted to go, was forced, and free, to chart her own.
The memoir offers breathing room for Omar, who has been the target of racist attacks and whose history-making tenure in Congress has been marked by disputes with colleagues, especially over their support for Israel, in the claustrophobic confines of Twitter threads. Her efforts to deter further outrage are evident throughout the book, which barely touches topics that have inflamed her critics. (She explains her criticism of Israel by quoting from a 2019 op-ed she published in The Washington Post.) But, with unrepentant recollections of schoolyard brawls with bullies, Omar bolsters her image as a scrapper constitutionally incapable of backing down. “Fighting didn’t feel like a choice,” she writes. “It was a part of me.”
The hardships Omar has endured in her adopted home country, which she recounts in unsparing detail, make a strong argument for the value of diversity in public office. Unfamiliar with the landscape of American higher education, she enrolled in an unaccredited college that didn’t give her adequate financial aid. Later, she struggled to cope with an unplanned pregnancy and her role as her family’s sole breadwinner and caregiver. These are common experiences in this country, but ones that remain unfamiliar to a large majority of federal legislators. The Somali-American congresswoman who fled a war zone overseas may be more representative of the average American than her colleagues who’ve lived here since birth.
SAY IT LOUDER!
Black Voters, White Narratives, and Saving Our Democracy
By Tiffany D. Cross
240 pp. Amistad. $23.99.
A free press works as a pillar of democracy only to the degree that it reflects the society it covers. So argues Cross, a political analyst, in this lively memoir and polemic, which traces the history of white media from Southern newspapers that facilitated lynchings in the early 20th century — precursors to Breitbart, Cross says — to the CNN newsroom she entered in the early 2000s, where white colleagues bonded over cultural references she didn’t share. Cross insists that, by ignoring Black perspectives and misrepresenting Black lives, the American press has never fully served its purpose as a driver of informed civic engagement. “If, as The Washington Post declares, democracy dies in darkness, it also dies in whiteness,” she writes.
“Say It Louder!” doesn’t offer much in the way of original reporting. Instead, Cross aggregates several generations’ worth of media trends — under-covering voter suppression, blaming the victims of police killings for their own deaths — to show how the industry has failed to earn Black Americans’ trust. Cross’s straight talk might be hard for some news editors and pundits to hear, but she makes clear that it’s in the country’s best interest for them to listen: In 2016, hungry for public voices that reflected and affirmed their lives, Black voters were especially vulnerable to Russian social media postings aimed at keeping them home on Election Day.
While Cross’s sense of the media’s impact on individual candidates may be exaggerated, her proposed solutions are practicable and wise. Pollsters should retire the imprecise concept of “the Black vote” with larger sample sizes and more disaggregation of Black respondents; journalists should spend less time parsing the “full-on minstrel show” of Black Trump supporters, who make up a vanishingly small proportion of Black voters. As for politicians, Cross’s book could be a wake-up call for those whose careers hinge on Black support — including Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who in May said Black voters “ain’t Black” if they’re still deciding between him and Trump. The way Cross tells it, taking Black voters for granted is the fastest way to lose them: “Black people are not loyal to any particular political party; Black people are loyal to ourselves.”
SHE WILL RISE
Becoming a Warrior in the Battle for True Equality
By Katie Hill
304 pp. Grand Central. $28.
Hill, a former congressional representative from California, has written her political manifesto as a battle plan. In this impassioned introduction to the gender inequities of 21st-century America, women are warriors, the battlefield is our lives and the mission is a policy agenda somewhat myopically aligned with bills Hill supported during her months in Congress. Early in “She Will Rise,” Hill grapples with the possibility that her resignation — in response to the publication of intimate photos of her with a campaign staffer — will discourage other young women from entering politics. (Hill maintains that her estranged husband leaked the photos; he claims he was hacked.)
Despite the strides made against de jure sexism in the past century, Hill argues, women’s lives remain hemmed in by policies — and, in some cases, a lack thereof — devised by men. Her solution is simple: “We should vote for women … *gasp* BECAUSE THEY ARE WOMEN.”
Her whirlwind recap of past feminist movements can be reductive, and her liberal use of the first-person plural — “when we are assaulted … our minds are already warped to the point that we are afraid it’s our fault if a man hurts us” — suggests a commonality of experience at odds with contemporary feminist thought. But if Hill’s intended audience is politically disaffected young women who could be nudged into action by a dismal cascade of data points, “She Will Rise” makes a decent primer. Hill heads off familiar lines of skepticism with frank explanations for why some women need abortions later in pregnancy, why rape survivors don’t always file police reports and why women often stay with perpetrators of domestic abuse. The last is a struggle Hill knows well; her personal revelations ground that chapter’s statistics in the urgency of real life.
Yet her self-reflection doesn’t extend to the scandal that prompted her book. Hill brushes off her relationship with the staffer as a “gray area” that can’t be explained in the “zero-tolerance” terms of the #MeToo movement, and insists that her husband constrained her social circles so completely that her campaign was her only outlet for intimacy. Her unwillingness to call her relationship with the staffer what it was — an unambiguous ethical violation — is all the more glaring in light of the book’s premise: that women in office conduct themselves better than the men who outnumber them.