What saves this narrative of Barack Obama’s early life from being a data dump (it is very long and marred by superfluous detail) is its account of how the future president recast himself, in his college and post-college years, as a biracial outsider, an exotic golden child tormented by the perplexities of racial allegiance. Washington Post writer David Maraniss shows that long before Obama entered politics, he fashioned a heroic myth of himself. It went something like this: Only by solving the riddle of his racial identity could he take up the struggle that was to be his life’s work.
Obama’s boyish exposure to different cultures had little to do with the conversion he experienced in his twenties, when he first felt himself called to be a biracial superhero. To be sure, his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, told him stories about Africa, but he never saw the continent with his own eyes until he was 26, and his Kenyan father had almost no personal influence on him. Stanley Ann left Obama père in August 1961, shortly after the birth of Barack: The child would not see his father again for ten years, when the older man came to Honolulu for a few weeks. The visit, Maraniss writes, “turned out to be the only time” in the future president’s “conscious life that he would see his father in the flesh.”
Nor did the four years Obama spent as a boy in Indonesia play much of a part in his reinvention of himself in the 1980s. Obama returned to America from Jakarta in 1971 and never afterwards resided outside the United States for any considerable length of time. When, in 1975, his mother returned to Indonesia to pursue her anthropological researches, Obama did not accompany her. “No way was he going to drop his buddies and his American existence to live in that strange country again,” Maraniss writes.
Because his mother was often absent, Obama was to a great extent raised by his maternal grandparents, Stanley Armour Dunham and Madelyn Payne Dunham. They are perhaps the most appealing characters in the book, and were devoted to their grandson, but they were not likely to inspire an odyssey of racial self-discovery. Stanley, the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham and Ruth Lucille Armour, was born in Wichita in 1918; he served in the Army in World War II and later sold — or more often failed to sell — furniture and insurance. Madelyn, born in Peru, Kansas, in 1922, also contributed to the war effort, working long hours in the Boeing B-29 plant in Wichita; later, in Honolulu, she rose to be a vice president of the Bank of Hawaii, and was the breadwinner of the family.
“If there is a representative teenager’s life,” Maraniss writes, “Barry Obama lived a version of it in Hawaii in the 1970s.” He loved basketball and dreamed of becoming a professional player. He had lots of friends, was always, a contemporary remembered, “in the mix, never on the sidelines.” True, he later said that when he was 15 he often felt sorry for himself, but self-pity is hardly unusual in an adolescent. Schoolmates remember him as “happy-go-lucky,” “always smiling,” “the kind of guy who kept people in a good mood.” He grew up playing the same games, watching the same TV shows, and hacking around in the same ways countless other Americans who came of age in that era did. If as president he sometimes gives the impression of being “a stranger in a strange land,” it is because he decided, at a later stage in his life, to see himself in that light.
Obama has said that, in his memoir Dreams from My Father, he created “composite” characters and rearranged the chronological order of the events. But there “is more to it than that,” Maraniss writes:
The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive. The themes of the book control character and chronology. Time and again the narrative accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white. Sometimes the composites are even more complex; there are a few instances where black figures in the book have characteristics and histories that Obama took from white friends. The racial scene in his family history that is most familiar to the public, the time when he heard his grandparents in Hawaii argue because his grandmother was afraid of a black man at the bus stop, also happens to be among those pulled out of its real chronology and fit into a place where it might have more literary resonance.
In fact, Obama imposed on his boyish self a point of view he attained only when he was in his twenties, and he “focused the narrative through that racial lens.” “The tendency in his self-portrait,” Maraniss writes, is “to present himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was, if only slightly so.” In truth, more than slightly. Obama’s high-school classmate Tom Topolinski, of Polish and Chinese ancestry, never sensed “any bitterness, identity crisis, or internal strife” in the pre-1980 Obama. “He never appeared distraught, even after a lot of pot smoking and beer drinking.” “In Hawaii we are all of mixed races and backgrounds,” Topolinski told Maraniss. If on one or two occasions Obama was treated uncivilly on account of his race, such incidents were exceptional; in Hawaii in the Seventies it was arguably more difficult to be a young white man than a young black man. “I experienced a lot of racism growing up,” Dan Hale, one of Obama’s schoolmates, said to Maraniss. “If you’re a haole [white outsider] here you’re a minority most places. There was a lot of anti-haole stuff going on, and I caught a lot of that.”
It was during his college years at Occidental and more especially at Columbia that Obama underwent an existential crisis. In New York he lived an eremitic existence in tiny apartments, reading, writing, and thinking. He dropped the name “Barry” and became “Barack,” and withdrew into a mental wilderness. He seemed at times less like an American college student than like a character in a Russian novel — Pasha Antipov (Strelnikov) in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or Rakhmetov in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?
It was during these years of ascetic introspection that Obama fashioned his myth of “the struggle.” The most articulate witness to this phase of his life is Genevieve Cook, daughter of Australian diplomat Michael J. Cook. She is the unnamed white girlfriend in Dreams from My Father who, after going with Obama to a play by a black playwright, wonders “why black people [are] so angry all the time.” In an interview with Maraniss, Obama “acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve.” More revealing than this admission are the insights of Genevieve’s diary: “Barack frets about the continual comfort I am always willing to offer — recognizing it as feeling good, but also chafing against the threat of its impeding a rawer sense of ‘the struggle’ (Mythology of the heroic struggle . . . ).”
Describing a particular kind of hero, Lionel Trilling said that “his motive is the legendary one of setting out to seek his fortune, which is what the folktale says when it means that the hero is seeking himself.” The hero believes “that there is some mystery about his birth; his parents, if truth were known, are of great and even royal estate.” Obama told classmates in Hawaii that he was the son of an African prince, and later he would make much of the improbable union of Kansas and Kenya that produced him and seemed to mark him out as the healer of a fractured people.
There is another element in the romance: The aspiring hero, Trilling said, “understands everything to be a ‘test.’” Obama found his tests in resisting his privileged whiteness (the badge of the insider) and cultivating in its stead an alienated blackness (the mark of the outsider, the stranger). For biracial though he was, he did not feel himself to be black. His own experiences were quite different from those of the writers to whom he looked for guidance — James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and W. E. B. DuBois. His father’s people in British Kenya were not slaves, and if they suffered under colonial rule they also benefited from it — Obama’s father was taught by English schoolmasters and helped by American missionaries.
Obama could never believe in Malcolm X’s “white devil.” The white people to whom he was closest, his mother and his maternal grandparents, loved him and sacrificed for him. To Genevieve, he said “he felt like an impostor. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” He took to carrying a tattered copy of Ellison’s Invisible Man, to remind him of what he wanted to be.
Genevieve was another test, a temptation to be overcome. “Somehow splitting himself off from people,” she wrote, “is necessary to his feeling of following some chosen route? which basically remains undefined. And am I to be left behind also?” She knew the answer. He “wants to fly,” she wrote in May 1984, “and hasn’t yet started to take off, so resents extra weight.”
Other prerogatives of whiteness had also to be rejected, and here, too, recalcitrant facts had to be reworked to fit a narrative of heroic overcoming. In Dreams from My Father Obama exaggerated the glamour of his first job, an entry-level position in a midtown research firm. He described how, coming “out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors — see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand — and for a split second, I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I wanted to be.” This picture of the lowly researcher rubbing shoulders with Swiss bankers amused former coworkers whom Maraniss interviewed. Obama reworked his experiences, one of them thought, “as the temptation of Christ . . . the young idealistic would-be community organizer who gets a nice suit and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks.”
The Story ends with Obama, having passed his tests and found the black outsider within, about to enter Harvard Law School and devote himself to “the struggle.” But if inwardly he subordinated his white self to his black one, he preserved outwardly many of the characteristics of plain-vanilla whiteness — characteristics that would enable him, he believed, to be a new kind of leader, one who could rise higher than previous minority politicians and do more in the struggle to raise up those who (in his view) are victims of an unfair racial and economic order. Although Obama had not yet composed his gospels, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, the myths that would make his ascent possible had taken shape.
– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites.