We have now seen several powerful influences in Barack Obama’s early formative years. Another influence that was pounded into him by a black leader at Occidental College, during his freshman year, “can be summarized in three words: listen, analyze, decide” (359, italics are author’s). One of Obama’s classmates at Occidental said he was a “floater” (376) in terms of his ability to move easily from one culture to another. This development is understandable given his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii. At Occidental College he first came in contact with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous treatise “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This powerful call for justice had a profound influence in shaping his identity and, eventually, his beliefs.
The family rift, which led to his complete separation from his birth father, and later for long periods being separate from his mother, clearly took its toll on young Barack Obama. His mother Ann tried so hard to never speak of the pain of their broken family. She intentionally chose to not criticize Barack, Sr. She did this in order to preserve Barack, Jr.’s ideals about his father. I recently watched a speech given at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C. As you would expect this was a strong anti-Obama speech. In this case the speech was given by a well-known Christian conservative who questioned who Barack Obama really was as a man. He strongly suggested that there has been no president in American history about whom we know less regarding his family, background and true beliefs! This may have been true (past tense), though I deeply question it, but if this speaker had bothered to read Barack Obama: The Story he would have formed a very different opinion, unless his mind is firmly resolved to make this claim in spite of the obvious facts.
Barack Obama’s background is not mysterious at all. The truth is that he never fit into the “all-American boy makes good” narrative of many past presidents. He is much more than the first African-American president. He is the first president who was raised in a polyglot, global context, a context that included the influence of cultures that are far different from those that most Americans have known. Maraniss says that Ann “pounded into both Barry and Maya . . . a humanistic philosophy” (403). Barack’s sister Maya later said of their mom’s profound influence on them, “We are basically all the same and we can get along and we can learn to love one another and we can reach out to one another and appreciate each other’s differences and the beauty residing therein” (404). Ann used every means at her disposal to teach her son to appreciate everything good that he could find in any culture or individual. While Barack Obama is different than many of our previous presidents there is no reason for mystery as to why this is true.
Political critics have picked up on the term jadak, a word used by Obama in his memoir. They have suggested that since his life was lived outside the mainstream American context he had (and still has they have argued) distorted views of American identity and history. His formative views were not so much distorted as they were culturally different from the views held by many of the rest of us who were born on the mainland and raised by a two-parent family with conservative social values inside a more easily defined cultural context.
At Occidental College Barack Obama began to be noticed for his mind. It was also here that he was first noted for having any ability to speak, though he didn’t really become a good public speaker until he sat under African-American preaching on the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s. He has never mastered the cadences and style of such preaching but enough of it has rubbed off on him that he has moments of public speech where he becomes quite animated and effective. The idea that he is a clueless speaker unless he has a teleprompter in front of him is another frequently perpetuated myth. (The same barbs were used against George W. Bush, as you will recall. He was thought by liberals to be a dunce who couldn’t deliver a good speech.) The fact is that Obama is inherently shy! He has never been entirely comfortable on the stump in the way John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton were, to name perhaps the three best public speakers who occupied the White House in our time.
Maraniss is at his best when he writes, late in his telling of the Obama story, the following paragraph:
Nothing is so tempting for conspiracy theorists as what appears to be a hole in a life, a lacuna that can be filled with all sorts of imagined nefarious activity but there is no real mystery to Obama’s New York days. [Referring to the time he spent there at Columbia and the months that followed his college graduation!] He was not a misanthrope. He did not disappear into think air for a year or more. There were conditions social, geographic, and personal–that explained how and why he lived as he did (420).
A friend of Obama’s likened him in these years to a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, who said, “where you’re not participating in life but you’re kind of observing, one step removed” (420). During these years, he “receded into the most existentialist stretch of his life” (420). President Obama, during an interview from the White House decades later, said, “I was leading an ascetic existence, way too suspicious for my own good” (420). He was still an outsider, a jadak, thus he was searching for home! This insight into himself, years later, is actually quite accurate and rather remarkable in its own candor.
In his twenties Barack Obama was unresponsive to any kind of rigid thinking. Maraniss adds, “He seemed to have had no use for rigid thinking of any sort.” I think we have here another insight into the more mature man who would become a public political figure decades later. By the time he arrived at Harvard Law School he had learned to relate to people that he disagreed with. A number of conservatives at Harvard Law felt he genuinely sought to understand them and respected them as persons and thinkers.
So, where was this young man by the age of 22? He was living in New York City as a college graduate, yet he was still quite unsure about his future and what to do with his life? Maraniss provides a rather amazing response to this question of where he was by age 22:
Here, at age twenty-two, was an idea that would become a key to later understanding Obama the politician and public figure. Without a class meant that he was entering adult life without financial security. Without a structure meant he had grown up lacking a solid family foundation, his father gone from the start, his mother often elsewhere, his grandparents doing the best they could, but all leading to his sense of being a rootless outsider. Without a tradition was a reference to his lack of religious grounding and his hapa status, white and black, feeling completely at home in neither race. Eventually he could make a few essential choices in terms of how he would live out his personal life, moving inexorably toward the black world. But in a larger sense, in terms of his ambitions beyond family, he did not want to be constricted by narrow choices. The different path he saw for himself was to rise above the divisions of culture and society, politics and economics, and embrace something larger–embrace it all. To make a particular choice would be to limit him, he wrote in a letter to Alex [a girlfriend in California], because “taken separately, they are unacceptable and untenable” (452, italics all Maraniss).