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In search of identity

Barack Obama, half black and half white, fights the undertow of race.

August 28, 2008|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

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

The pundits, he said in the keynote address to the Democratic convention, 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 F. Kerry, but in the end his words were most memorable for an argument that challenged the partisan divide and was built on the foundation of his own unique story. Since then, it's become a familiar element of his speeches. His father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 04, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Barack Obama: A profile of Barack Obama in Section A on Aug. 28 identified him as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Obama became the first black president of the review in 1990; the first black editor was Christopher F. Edley Jr. in 1975. The article also said one of Obama's opponents in the 2004 Senate race was damaged by an allegation from his former wife that he had tried to kill her; the allegation was that he had threatened to kill her.

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 love and loyalty to his white family and respect and an inchoate sense of belonging to the African American community.

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, and along the way raised the bridges that would sustain his ambition.

On the campaign trail this year, he is both a political and cultural phenomenon. For some, he represents a new beginning for the nation. For others, he is inexperienced, merely lucky, even a fairy tale. Underlining it all is a historic prospect: He would be the first black president of the United States.

Race has been the steady undertow of his candidacy -- and of his life.

As he paraphrased William Faulkner this March in a landmark speech on race: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."


Interracial relationships in Hawaii are an accepted fact of life. Nevertheless, the parents of Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama didn't like the idea of their children getting married. She was studying anthropology at the University of Hawaii. He was a graduate student from Kenya, the first African to be enrolled at the university, and they had fallen in love.

They married in late 1960, and on Aug. 4, 1961, Barack Jr. was born. Two years after that, his father disappeared, enticed to study economics at Harvard.

The separation led to divorce. Ann married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student at the university. She and her 6-year-old son, whom she called Barry, in 1967 followed Soetoro to Jakarta, a strange and wonderful place of kite-flying and crocodiles, exotic foods and strange religions. Years later in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Obama would describe the experience as "one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy's life."

But the adventure had a darker side as well. The poverty was inescapable. Ann and Lolo drifted apart. She took a job teaching English at the U.S. Embassy, and it was here in the library, Obama said, that he read about a black man who had tried to peel off his skin.

Although his mother tried to affirm his black heritage -- bringing home books about the civil rights movement, speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and recordings of Mahalia Jackson -- Barry was learning the price people pay for being different and sensed that he would not be able to escape a similar judgment.

When he was 10, his mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents and attend the prestigious Punahou School. His education in Jakarta -- first at a Catholic school, then at an elementary school where he received some Islamic instruction -- had run its course.

He wrote in his memoir that his adolescence provoked "a fitful interior struggle . . . trying to raise myself to be a black man in America."

On an island where there were few blacks, he watched "I Spy" on television, tried to sing like Marvin Gaye and cursed like Richard Pryor. He stayed out late at night, shooting hoops, and started to drink and smoke weed, just to "push questions of who I was out of my mind."


On the mainland, the reality of race was more stark.

As a scholarship student at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979, Obama faced assertions of identity everywhere: the Democrat/Socialist Alliance, Black Student Assn., Jewish Student Action Coalition, feminist support group, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.

It was here that he asked to be called by his given name, Barack. He later explained the decision to Newsweek as not an "assertion of my African roots" so much as "being comfortable with the fact that I was different and that I didn't need to try to fit in in a certain way."

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