Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, by Valerie Jarrett (Viking, New York, NY, 2019, 305 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
As a woman who went from being a quiet girl in Chicago to one of the most visible and influential African-American women of the 21st century, Jarrett’s stories will inspire readers to overcome adversity and find their own voices. “FINDING MY VOICE” is an intimate view of Jarrett’s extraordinary life culminating in a hopeful message that is needed as much today as ever before.
July 5, 2019 (San Diego) - More than 30 years ago both I and Valerie Jarrett worked at City Hall in Chicago, one floor apart, me in the Purchasing Department on the 4th floor and Valerie in the Law Department on the 5th floor. Never in my wildest of imaginations would I have thought that I would be here in California writing a review of her insightful and thought provoking book; Finding my Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward. Perhaps Valerie could say the same about her journey.
I recall those many years ago when I would take contracts from the Purchasing Department to the Law Department to get them signed, and later as a Specification Engineer for the City of Chicago Department of Aviation at O’Hare International Airport, going to meet and talk with Valerie about a contract matter for vehicles and equipment that I would be involved with.
What a circuitous route for both of us to get to this point in our respective lives, but in the case of Jarrett’s route and this revealing and heartfelt book, I marvel at the rich history that she shares with us all. I feel honored to write this review, for so much that has been written by the author resonates with me from my life and history in Chicago. That puts this writer in the enviable position of dissecting the nuances of her life story as she presents it in this well written memoir.
When the author states in her book; “An iconic civil rights leader and one of Barack’s earliest supporters, Bishop Brazier was also my dear friend, and we had spent years working together on the redevelopment of Woodlawn”, also was close to home and resonated with me, for Bishop Brazier was my pastor and friend too. The fact that two of my children were baptized at the Apostolic Church of God, where Bishop Brazier pastored, further underscores the close proximity and circles that Jarrett and I ran in. We actually reminisced in a phone interview this week over the life and legacy of the late Bishop Brazier.
I actually saw and experienced the fruits of Jarrett’s labor in the redevelopment of “Woodlawn” that she writes about, as the once blighted area around my church (Apostolic Church of God) is now surrounded by beautiful and affordable homes, and the distraction of the “L” tracks have been removed.
This book, Finding My Voice, reveals so much about Jarrett’s family history, which will be surprising to some. The fact that she was born in Iran, and the circumstances of how that came about is a story in and of itself. Jarrett being born in Shiraz, Iran and spending the first several years of her life there, due to her father’s disenchantment with segregation and the treatment of blacks in Chicago and America, actually adopted some of the customs of Iran and initially spoke the Persian language of Farsi. From the early photos of Jarrett displayed in the book, she seems to have had an idyllic childhood in Iran. Jarrett is pictured here at an early age with her loving father.
A particular anecdote worth noting after leaving Iran and settling in Chicago, states: “Despite knowing French and Farsi, I refused to speak any language but English. My mother was proud to have mastered a new language. She often spoke Farsi when we were out in public and she didn’t want people to understand what she was saying. But when people turned to stare, I would plead with her to stop.”
Jarrett makes a profound revelation in her book; “I’m often asked why I was born in Iran. My father once said I should tell people, ‘Because that’s where my mother was at the time of my birth.’ But that answer never seems to satisfy anyone, particularly border guards and customs officials. The truth about why we were in Iran is somewhat complicated, but what it boils down to is really quite simple: we were there because my father was black, and he needed a job.” In a phone interview with Jarrett just this week, she repeated this explanation to me.
Leaving Iran and coming back to Chicago around the age of five, Jarrett and her family would settle in an area on the Southside of Chicago known as Bronzeville, where many of her other relatives and affluent blacks such as Jewel Lafontant the first black deputy solicitor general under President Richard Nixon – she was her family’s one Republican and their block on Greenwood, where the Obama’s now also have a home today, bears Jewel’s name on a street sign.
The author also indicates in her book that the area had its share of celebrity residents as well: musicians like Nat “King” Cole and Quincy Jones, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. I actually lived in the same general area for a brief period on 47th and King Drive more than 40 years ago.
Jarrett speaks of those formative years of her life in Chicago: “My first memory of encountering racism is from the age of ten, when my parents sent me to an all-girls sleep-away camp in Michigan. I was the only black girl there, and on the very last day of camp, as I was packing my clothes, this one girl with whom I’d become good friends started talking to me about what a fun time we’d had, and then out of nowhere she suddenly blindsided me by blurting out, ‘You know, I thought you were a nigger when I first met you. I’m really sorry.’ I froze. My face turned bright red. Did I want to lash out in outrage? Nope. All I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as I could. In my overactive imagination, I pictured myself saying, ‘Oh, but I am!’ only to have her beat me up the way the black girls had done five years before. So I didn’t tell her the truth. I just mumbled something like ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’ Then I finished packing and was anxious to leave. I never mentioned it to my parents or to anyone else. I was too ashamed. Fifty years later, I’m still embarrassed that I let her insult me that way without confronting her and telling her the truth.”
Jarrett makes a poignant and significant point in Finding my Voice, the election of the first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. She states: “Mayor Washington had big ideals and a grand vision of humanity, a vision that I wouldn’t see realized on a much larger scale until twenty-five years later, on election night in 2008, when people of all kinds and all races gathered in Grant Park to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory. As President Obama himself has often said, ‘Had there not been a Mayor Washington, there might not have been a President Obama.’”
It should be noted that a lot of people were instrumental in Harold Washington becoming Mayor of Chicago, with Jarrett indicating in her book that she had volunteered in his campaign, knocking on doors on Election Day to turn out the vote. And I, as the 1st Vice President of the Chicago Chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG), organized a voter registration drive in the two federal office buildings in downtown Chicago, to register people to vote. During the course of this campaigning and voter registration effort, Harold Washington would come and speak at one of our regularly scheduled meetings, and engage in his own form of campaigning. Again, in my phone interview with Jarrett just this week, we both reminisced about our roles in the Washington administration.
Jarrett further indicates in her well researched and documented book that when Washington was first elected, several of Chicago’s top black lawyers left private practice to work for his administration, and that she knew that because she knew all of them.
Finding My Voice delves into the sordid history of race and politics in Chicago, with Jarrett giving her inside and personal perspective on. As a matter of fact, the author indicates that this history contributed towards her father moving to Iran, where she would be born. Jarrett is pictured here in Persepolis, Iran at a very early age.
The family history would have a role and impact on Chicago politics and race relations, as Jarrett indicates that her grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, had his imprint on an infamous and maligned housing project in Chicago.
Jarrett indicates that there was no comprehensive housing policy providing reinvestment for the low income black neighborhoods that had been neglected, or for helping to stabilize the white neighborhoods going through racial transition as black families moved in and white families moved out. As chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, Jarrett’s grandfather Robert Rochon Taylor had championed plans that he believed would do exactly that.
Then, in 1962, in what can be described as a very cruel irony, five years after Jarrett’s grandfather’s death, Mayor Richard J. Daley “honored” him by naming the largest housing development in the world after him. Jarrett indicates that her whole family attended the dedication ceremony, and the adults had mixed emotions. My having lived in Chicago and driven by this housing development known as the “Robert Taylor Homes” countless times, it is very understandable why the adults in Jarrett’s family might have these “mixed” emotions.
The Robert Taylor Homes was a housing project in which thousands upon thousands of blacks were packed together and on top of each other like sardines. It was nothing that the Jarrett family could possibly be proud of, despite Mayor Daley convening a ceremony to celebrate it. Mayor Daley is pictured giving the keys to one of the first tenants.
Jarrett specifically states in her well chronicled book: “As a youngster, watching the nightly news with ‘Pudden’ in her little front room, every time my grandfather’s name flashed on the screen, it was accompanied by a story about violent crimes in the public housing complex. On the ten o’clock news, nothing good was ever reported out of the Robert Taylor Homes. Nothing. Ever.”
Ironically, after the untimely death of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, whom Jarrett would campaign for and work in his administration, she would find herself working in the administration of Richard M. Daley, the son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley who would honor and celebrate her grandfather in the aforementioned Robert Taylor Homes dedication ceremony. Jarrett indicates in Finding my Voice, that the new Mayor Daley asked her; “Would you like to be my deputy chief of staff?” She of course, accepted, and the rest is history and “Paving her journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.”
It is curious as to why Jarrett would accept the Deputy Chief of Staff position offered to her by Mayor Daley, in view of the following passage in Finding My Voice: “Over the course of his first two years in office, Mayor Daley was certainly not perfect, but he earned my respect. He also terrified me. I mostly saw him on television, being gruff and impatient with the reporters, and I never had any direct interactions with him.”
When Jarrett interviewed a promising young lawyer named Michelle Robinson in July 1991 for a job in Mayor Richard Daley’s office, neither knew that it was the first step in a journey that would lead to the White House. They bonded over their desire to improve the lives of the people in their communities, and Jarrett soon became Michelle and Barack Obama’s trusted advisor and family confidante.
As a key player in both his presidential campaigns and throughout his eight years in office, Jarrett shares a unique perspective on the great accomplishments of the Obama years, as well as the challenges and setbacks. The book takes us deep inside the West Wing on the negotiations for health care and the fights for gender and racial equity and same sex marriage, behind the scenes in Supreme Court nominations, and around the world on Air Force One. In stories and memories, she shares her intimate view of the Obama presidency.
If it is true that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the photos that Jarrett shares with us in Finding My Voice clearly demonstrates her Journey to the West Wing and her Path Forward. Typical is the photo of her and President Obama with Pope Francis in the White House, September 25, 2015.
In my brief phone interview with the author this week, I inquired as to her involvement or collaboration with Vice President Joe Biden on any projects while in the White House. She indicated that they did, and in Finding My Voice, she specifically stated: “When President Obama was briefed on the statistics, he created a task force to end college sexual assault chaired by the White House point person on violence against women, who reported directly to Vice President Biden, and me.”
The author is pictured here kicking back with President Obama in Philadelphia on June 30, 2011, waiting for his long introduction to finish.
The author is also pictured here in the Rose Garden at the White House in a staff meeting with President Obama.
Finding My Voice is a remarkable book by a truly remarkable woman that captures the essence of a historic moment in time, the election of the first black person to the presidency of the United States of America. Jarrett’s role as White House advisor contributed greatly to the success of this President, and reading this book will demonstrate how and why.
Dennis Moore is a writer and book reviewer for the East County Magazine in San Diego and he has been the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online news magazine that has partnered with the East County Magazine. Mr. Moore can be contacted at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.