Barack Obama Biography - Conflicted Identities in Honolulu, Wrote Letters to Community Organizations, Triumphed in Crowded Primary
Elected to represent Illinois in the United States Senate in November of 2004, Barack Obama had already become the subject of speculation as to his future on the national political stage. The speculation had grown exponentially in August of that year, when Obama delivered an electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In that speech, Obama used the language of patriotism to frame an appeal to Americans to transcend their divisions. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."
Indeed, Barack Obama's story resonated with the durable narrative of the American melting pot. "Barack is the American dream," Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe told Ebony. Obama himself in his convention speech said that "in no other country on earth is my story even possible." Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was named after his father Barack, a Kenyan exchange student; the name is an African one and means "blessing" in his father's native Swahili. Obama's mother Ann was a white American born in Kansas who had moved to Honolulu with her parents.
Obama's family unit dissolved when he was two, as his father won a scholarship to Harvard that wasn't large enough to support the whole family and went to Massachusetts alone. After finishing his degree, the elder Obama went home to Kenya and took a job as an economic planner for the country's government. He continued to write letters to his son, and visited him once when he was ten, but his marriage to Obama's mother ended. She married an Indonesian oil company executive, and Obama lived in Indonesia between the ages of six and ten. His half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng was born in Indonesia and later moved to Honolulu.
Conflicted Identities in Honolulu
Sent back to Hawaii to live with his mother's parents in a small Honolulu apartment, Obama had a tough adolescence. Considered black by the world of which he was learning to be a part, he was nevertheless shaped most directly by the values of his small-town, white, Midwestern-grown immediate family. Later, when he was running for the Senate in the farm belt of downstate Illinois, he found that this Midwestern background worked to his advantage. "I know these people," he told the New Yorker, referring to down-state voters. "The food they serve is the food my grandparents served when I was growing up. Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrong—it's all totally familiar to me."
As a teenager, though, Obama was a young man with a confused identity. He experimented with marijuana and cocaine, and though he had inherited a quick-study intelligence from his father and won admission to the top-flight Punahou School, his grades were inconsistent and his commitment to bodysurfing and basketball was bigger than his interest in school. One of seven or eight black students at Punahou, he found that whites had low expectations when they met him. "People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves," he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father. "Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry."
Inside, Obama was worried about fitting in and was on the way to developing a classic example of W.E.B. DuBois's double consciousness. "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds," he wrote, "convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere." Despite these feelings, Obama's innate charisma began to show itself as he left the Punahou campus to flirt with college-aged women at the nearby University of Hawaii.
That coherence was still hard to find at New York's Columbia University, where Obama transferred as a third-year student. Obama enjoyed New York but found that racial tension infected even "the stalls of Columbia's bathrooms …," he wrote, "where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. It was as if all middle ground had collapsed."
Wrote Letters to Community
After earning his degree in 1983, however, Obama responded with activist commitment instead of hedonistic escapism. He wrote to community service organizations all over the United States asking what he could do to help, and he signed on with the one group that replied, a church-based Chicago group doing neighborhood work on the city's economically reeling South Side. For three years, Obama was a community organizer—a tough job, but one in which he notched accomplishments ranging from job-training programs to a successful attempt to improve city services at the Altgeld Gardens housing project. The biracial outsider gathered with black Chicagoans at a South Side barbershop that he continued to patronize even after he became famous.
Obama applied to Harvard Law School—"to learn power's currency," he wrote in his autobiography. His academic brilliance flowered fully and propelled him to the presidency of the prestigious Harvard Law Review in 1990, making him the first African American to hold the post, and to a magna cum laude graduation in 1991. One of his teachers was famed litigator Laurence Tribe, who told Time that "I've known Senators, Presidents. I've never known anyone with what seems to me more raw political talent." Back in Chicago for a summer internship, he met his wife Michelle, an attorney and South Side native who was assigned to supervise him. The couple has two daughters, Malia Ann and Natasha (Sasha).
Obama passed up job offers from Chicago's top law firms to practice civil rights law with a small public-interest law office and to lecture at the University of Chicago, holding the latter position until he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. He jumped into politics by chairing a voter-registration drive that helped carry Illinois for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, and his political ambitions became clearer when he turned down a chance to apply for a tenure-rack University of Chicago professorship. When an Illinois state senate seat in his home South Side district came open in 1996, he ran and was elected. In the Illinois senate Obama was noted for legislation to curb racial profiling and for a bill that mandated the videotaping of police interrogations carried out in death-penalty cases.
Despite his varied background, Obama identified himself as black. "When I'm catching a cab in Manhattan they don't say, there's a mixed-race guy, I'll go pick him up," he pointed out to Ebony writer Joy Bennett Kinnon. "Or if I was an armed robber and they flashed my face on television, they'd have no problem labeling me as a black man. So if that's my identity when something bad happens, then that's my identity when something good happens as well." But when Obama ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2000 Democratic primary against entrenched South-Side congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, he suffered from a perception that he was an exotic, elite outsider and was trounced by a two-to-one margin.
Triumphed in Crowded Primary
South Side residents (including Rush) rallied around Obama during his next try for higher office, however. Obama jumped into a primary race that pitted him against two formidable opponents (and several others): longtime Chicago politician Dan Hynes, who was favored by the city's vaunted Democratic Party "machine" political organization, and businessman Blair Hull, who spent a $29 million personal war chest on the campaign. Obama put together an unusual coalition of blacks, "lakefront liberal" white Chicago voters, and downstate supporters to win the primary with a convincing outright majority of 53 percent. His victory was partly attributable to a fervent corps of volunteers who worked on his campaign, many inspired by Obama's early and unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war and by other unrepentant liberal positions. "People call it drinking the juice," Obama political director Dan Sherman explained to the New Yorker. "People start drinking the Obama juice. You can't find enough for them to do."
Then came Obama's Democratic National Convention speech, which Time called "one of the best in convention history." The speech really put Obama on the national political radar, and the phone in his South Side home rang nonstop with interview requests in the days after the convention. "I didn't realize that the speech would strike the chord that it did," Obama told Ebony. "I think part of it is that people are hungry for a sense of authenticity. All I was really trying to do was describe what I was hearing on the campaign trail, the stories of the hopes, fears, and struggles of what ordinary people are going through every day."
On the campaign trail Obama shone as he showed an ability to connect with voters across class, racial, and geographic lines. "I just never heard anybody speak like him before," a downstate Democrat told the New Yorker. "It's like he's talking to you, and not to a crowd." One reason Illinois voters reacted to Obama this way was that the candidate, in meeting individual voters one on one, drew effectively on the various dialects of English he had absorbed as a result of his diverse background. Working-class black Chicagoans, highly educated professionals and academics, and small-town business owners all felt that they had encountered one of their own when Obama gave a speech in their neighborhoods.
The Illinois Republican party floundered as its anointed candidate, Jack Ryan, struggled with allegations that he had forced his ex-wife, television actress Jeri Ryan, to visit sex clubs with him against her will. Ryan eventually dropped out of the race and was replace by Alan Keyes, an ultraconservative black radio commentator from Maryland who had previously criticized New York Senator Hillary Clinton for moving to that state solely for the purpose of running for the Senate. Obama won in a landslide, garnering seventy percent of the vote and spending much of his time in the final phases of the campaign stumping for Democratic candidates in neighboring states.
Beginning with the Democratic convention speech, talk began to swirl around Obama suggesting that those who had heard him speak at this early stage in his career had been looking at the man who would become the first African-American president of the U.S. Obama contributed nothing to such speculation, and many of his early statements regarding his intentions for his Senate term focused on the problem of Illinois's declining job base. Yet few could doubt that the state that had produced Abraham Lincoln was now home to another figure able to exert a powerful healing force to the nation's still-gaping racial wounds.
Obama, Barack, Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), reprinted Three Rivers Press, 2004.
Black Enterprise, October 2004, p. 88.
Ebony, November 2004, p. 196.
New Yorker, May 31, 2004, p. 32.
Time, November 15, 2004, p. 74.
U.S. News & World Report, August 2, 2004, p. 25.
—James M. Manheim