WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's friend was angry. The high school coaches were benching good black players. Black kids weren't getting dates.
"These girls are A-1, USDA-certified racists. All of 'em," the friend said while the two teenagers wolfed down French fries, as the story goes in Obama's memoir.
As far back as that sort of exchange in high school, a recurring character type has played a role in the life of Obama: a friend or associate who is quick to blame white America for the troubles of the black community.
The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose racially explosive sermons now threaten to undercut Obama's presidential campaign, is the latest example. Before Wright, there was "Ray," Obama's angry high school friend depicted in his 1995 book, "Dreams From My Father," and later there was "Rafiq," a black Muslim in Chicago who, Obama wrote, blamed the city's white power structure for the struggles of public housing residents.
But to some who know Obama, there is an irony in how he is now being criticized for Wright's fiery comments.
In his political life, disaffected black figures have helped Obama shape and project the identity that is now the center point of his presidential campaign and that has proved appealing to much of the Democratic electorate, black and white.
For a man raised in Hawaii by white grandparents, friendships with more militant blacks have allowed Obama to show he understood the frustrations of many in mainstream black America -- and have helped him build support in the largely black Illinois state Senate district that became his first political base.
But whereas the others might condemn America, calling it inherently polarized and oppressive, Obama made it clear that he had adopted a different view. He had moved beyond that resentment to arrive at a more moderate center, a place more palatable to whites and blacks alike.
"In a way, he tried to find a middle ground," said Keith Kakugawa, the high school friend portrayed in Obama's book.
Today, Obama acknowledges the puzzlement that some Americans may feel about his ties to his pastor. " 'Why associate myself with Rev. Wright in the first place?' they may ask," he said in an address last week timed to defuse the Wright controversy. "Why not join another church?"
Obama said in the speech that Wright was "like family," and he described how one of the pastor's early sermons helped Obama suddenly realize the power of the black church to foster hope among black people.
However, his association with Wright also reflects Obama's way of both cultivating relationships and striking contrasts with militant figures -- a trait he showed after moving to Chicago in the 1980s to become a community organizer, and later as he ran for office. The relationships had obvious benefits for someone who felt very much like a cultural outsider.
Obama, the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father, came to the mainland only after high school, and struggled to navigate the politics of an adopted hometown with a black community rooted in the legacies of institutional racism and the traditions of the civil rights movement -- a movement he knew only from afar.
"I asked myself if I could truly understand that," Obama wrote, recalling a moment soon after his arrival in Chicago in 1985 when an older black barber described the community's pride in the election of the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington, just two years before. As Obama got his hair cut, he said, he wondered what would happen if his white grandfather walked into the black barbershop, how "the talk would stop, how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work."
Obama courted some radical leaders, but carefully kept his distance from their more strident positions. The bonds helped him win his race for the state Senate.
"This characteristic has now become a strength for Obama in terms of forging this coalition of voters," said Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, director of inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University, and a longtime black activist leader in Chicago.
Worrill says that as Obama prepared for his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, the candidate visited Worrill and asked for his support.
"He wanted me as a representative of the pan-African thinking in Chicago," Worrill said. "And he wanted me to support him publicly, which I did on the radio. And he knew I came from a different school of thought" than Obama had.
During the campaign, though, Obama rejected one of Worrill's key causes -- seeking monetary reparations for black Americans whose ancestors were slaves. Worrill took to the local airwaves to criticize Obama, but the activist says he now understands his motives.
"He has to appeal to everybody," Worrill said.