A product of struggle

The steadiness of character Barack Obama displays today was achieved through efforts to establish his own identity and discover a purpose large enough to give his life meaning

November 09, 2008|By Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen,Los Angeles Times

Four years ago, Barack Obama introduced himself to America by painting a picture of a nation that was united, somehow, in spite of itself.

The pundits, he said in the keynote address to the Democratic National Cnvention, like to "slice and dice" the country: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.

"But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."

His task that night was to ready the crowd for the presidential nominee, John Kerry, but in the end his words were most memorable for an argument that challenged the partisan divide - built on the foundation of his own unique story.

Since then, on his successful campaign to become the nation's 44th president, it has become a familiar element of his speeches. His black father was from Kenya, and his white mother from Kansas, a story he calls uniquely American.

But it's more complicated than that.

Abandoned by his father, separated for long periods from his mother, Obama searched for many years to find his identity. He was caught between his love and loyalty for his white family and his respect for and inchoate sense of belonging to the black community.

He writes in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, that his adolescence in Hawaii provoked "a fitful interior struggle ... trying to raise myself to be a black man in America."

He eventually learned to navigate between black and white worlds, a skill that would play well in the political arena. He earned a reputation as a pragmatist and a consensus builder, along the way raising the bridges that would sustain his ambition.

A telephone call

As a scholarship student at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979, Obama faced assertions of identity everywhere: Democrat/Socialist Alliance, Black Student Association, Jewish Student Action Coalition, Feminist Support Group, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan. He didn't relate to the anger, the sense of marginalization, that other black students felt, and when he copped to popular stereotypes and assumptions, he realized he was living, in his words, "a lie."

"My identity might begin with the fact of my race," he wrote in his memoir, "but it didn't, couldn't, end there."

Obama left Occidental in 1981 to finish his degree in political science at Columbia. He had spoken with his mother about taking a trip to Kenya. She encouraged him, and then the phone rang.

"Barry? Barry, is this you?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"Aunt Jane. Listen, Barry, your father is dead. He [was] killed in a car accident."

Over the next few years, he would learn how his Harvard-educated father's dreams for changing Kenyan society foundered on harsh realities, leaving him burdened, drinking and unhappy. Obama recently told Vanity Fair, "I do think that part of my life has been a deliberate attempt to not repeat mistakes of my father."

Coasting no longer seemed an option. He read more - Nietzsche, Morrison, Melville and the Bible - and stopped getting high.

By 1984, he was working for a consulting firm, living on New York's Upper West Side. On some days he would catch sight of himself, suit and tie, briefcase in hand, in the elevator doors and feel a rush of power and then, suddenly, remorse.

A friend who worked with Obama told David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, that Obama always talked about the New Rochelle train, "the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn't want to be on one of those trains every day. The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions ... that was scary to him."

A drive to Chicago

He wasn't exactly sure what a community organizer did, but he liked the idea. It fit with the liberal sensibility encouraged by his mother. When friends asked, he railed on about the need for change with a capital C. So he quit his job and started working part time for a Ralph Nader group in Harlem.

Then he saw an ad looking for organizers to help churches on Chicago's South Side stem unemployment and foreclosures triggered by the '81-'82 recession. In June 1985, he drove west to a city where he knew no one. The job paid $10,000 a year.

He set up interviews, up to 40 a week. He was indefatigable. Catholic, African Methodist, Baptist, each congregation was an island unto itself, and as much as he tried to draw them together, the pastors were suspicious of his motives.

One day he met with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man whose values - a commitment to the black community and black family life - he admired and, more important, who welcomed his help.

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