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In search of identity

DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION

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

August 28, 2008|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Drug dealing. Violence. Anger. Hopelessness. The streets of the South Side were getting worse, and in the power vacuum and political mayhem that followed the death of Mayor Harold Washington, Obama left Chicago.

He had been there almost three years, had worked his way into the community and in his memoir wrote that he felt as if he were on track to become "an example of black male success." But he still felt "a more demanding impulse."

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.

In 1988, he enrolled at Harvard Law School to learn about "power's currency in all its intricacy and detail."

Entering one of the premier arenas of American political debate, whose history had long been written by white men in long robes, he looked like a street tough -- with torn jeans, a cap hiding his afro, a pack of smokes and more life experience than most other students.

Still, he confounded his African American classmates. As popular and respected as Obama was, they had to persuade him to add his name to the list of candidates who aspired to oversee the university's law review, one of the most prestigious journals of legal scholarship in the country. And when he was elected president, the first black editor of the publication, he disappointed those who assumed that he would name more blacks and liberals to the board.

A second-year student told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 that Obama's election was significant for a while, "but now it's meaningless, because he's becoming just like all the others [in the Establishment]."

For the annual Supreme Court issue, he brought aboard the conservative Charles Freed and the critical race theorist Patricia Williams for the lead articles. When William Brennan announced his retirement, he published an assessment of the liberal justice's career written by Richard Posner, a Reagan appointee to the 7th Circuit.

"Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn't appear to the conservatives in the review to be taking sides," Bradford A. Berenson, a classmate and former Bush administration lawyer, told the Boston Globe. "Barack tended to treat those disputes with a certain air of detachment and amusement," he said.

At the end of Obama's tenure, in 1991, the other review editors turned the joke on him with a parody of his life for the annual humor issue: "I was born in Oslo, Norway, the son of a Volvo factory worker and part-time ice fisherman. My mother was a backup singer for Abba. . . . At the age of 15, I went off to California to enroll at Accidental College. After a couple of years, I decided to go to Colombia, but when offered a position as a judge in Bogota, I fled to Chicago. There I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since."

MARRIAGE

He wrote about one of his girlfriends in "Dreams From My Father": She was white and had dark hair with specks of green in her eyes. One day he went to visit her family's country house, and he knew he had to get away.

"Our two worlds . . . were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together, I'd eventually live in hers. After all, I'd been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider."

They broke up, and he met Michelle when he returned to Chicago on a summer break from Harvard.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson had grown up in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with her parents and an older brother on the South Side. Her father worked for the city's water department and, shortly after Michelle was born, developed multiple sclerosis. The disorder defined her childhood, and his tenacity set expectations high.

Michelle followed her brother to Princeton, where she studied sociology, ran a literacy program for neighborhood children and turned the feelings of isolation that she and her friends felt as African Americans at the university into her senior thesis. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, just before Obama arrived.

Obama fell right in with the Robinsons, playing basketball with Michelle's brother and enjoying the company of the uncles and aunts who stopped by "to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they bust and tell wild stories and listen to Grandpa's old jazz collection and laugh deep into the night."

He had never experienced such a world, and one night he took Michelle to dinner and proposed. The ring arrived on a dessert plate.

Michelle had found her anchor too. Her father had just passed away, as had a close college friend. The losses made her question her own principles and the purpose of practicing corporate law.

Jeremiah Wright officiated at their wedding. Obama's half-sister described the guests, whose backgrounds spanned the globe, as "the rainbow tribe . . . the united colors."

Their first year took some adjustment. Michelle woke up early; he stayed up late. She started a new job in the mayor's office, and he practiced law, taught at the University of Chicago, worked on Project Vote (registering 150,000 new voters for the '92 election) and wrote his book.

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