22 February, 2024


Barack Obama: The College Years

By David Maraniss/ The Guardian –

He had turned 18 a few weeks earlier. The afro he started at Punahou School had grown a bit fuller, but was under control. He was Barry Obama, freshman, from Honolulu. The name, along with those of his two new roommates, was typed on the index card that had been slotted on to the door of Room A104 of Haines Hall annexe in preparation for his arrival. Maybe his face didn’t look Hawaiian at first glance, thought Jeff Yamaguchi, who lived down the hall and whose family was from the islands, but it quickly became apparent that he had the easy-going attitude of a Hawaiian local, “that mannerism and style and personality that is very unique and identifiable from tourists… a mentality you develop over time, just ‘Whatever.'”

It was autumn 1979 when Obama arrived atOccidental College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles. The campus was much like his school in Honolulu, with gentle slopes and flowering landscapes. Its academic expectations were equally high and the weather in southern California sunny. All so familiar, but Obama had come to college in search of something more.

Obama with former lover Genevieve Cook. ‘He is very beautiful,’ Cook wrote in her diary. ‘Oooooo, I can’t wait to be in Brooklyn with spring coming.’

In the end, his stay at Occidental would compose only half of his college experience. Just two school years, when he was 18 and 19, from August 1979 to June 1981. But in the development of the person he was to become, Occidental was significant.

Obama’s roommates were Paul Carpenter, a blond southern Californian who occasionally took his friends surfing (bodysurfing, in Barry’s case), and Imad Husain, an intellectual Pakistani with a droll sense of humour who grew up in Karachi (though his parents now lived in Dubai) and finished his secondary education at Bedford School in the UK. Barry Obama played a lot of Hendrix, Earth, Wind & Fire and Billie Holiday, but was known in the annexe for his wicked impression of Mick Jagger. He could do the walk, the strut, the face.

The annexe was home to African-Americans and international students from the Asian subcontinent, budding intellectuals and aspiring writers, party animals, surfer dudes and jocks. Barry Obama represented a bit of each of them: he was black and white, surfer, basketballer, writer and perceptive observer, wholly American and yet the son of an African and intimately familiar with Asia from his years in Indonesia. His ability to connect across racial and cultural lines was not merely a superficial art of survival but rooted in his life and being.

Most of Obama’s classmates could not see how hard he was working to reconcile the contradictions that life threw at him. They thought he was cool, smart without being pedantic, and seemed to have his act together. To Mark Parsons, who came to know him mostly because they both smoked and spent a lot of time together huddling outside the student union, Obama seemed “almost Zen in walking through all the chaos in our dorm”. He displayed one trait that showed he wanted to be a player though: he wore a lot of “stupid hats”. He usually wore them cocked, to look cool. Obama also had a peculiar smoking style, a little affectation. He turned his wrist up and cupped the cigarette between thumb and index finger. He smoked a cigarette the same way he smoked a joint. “I have a sense that he smoked because he was addicted, as I was,” Parsons said. But, Obama told Parsons, there was another reason. “I remember him telling me he would quit after he got married. He didn’t want to quit smoking because he said he would gain weight, but after he got married it would be OK to gain weight. I think it was mostly a joke.”

A fellow student, Lisa Jack, an aspiring Annie Leibovitz who went around campus persuading interesting people to let her photograph them, recalls that a friend “started to tell me about this really good-looking guy. His name is Barry and people are talking about him.” To have Lisa Jack shoot profiles of you was considered a mark of distinction, and Obama gladly accepted the offer.

At about 11 one morning he turned up ready and eager for his photo shoot. He was wearing flip-flops, jeans and a collared shirt with button-down breast pockets. He brought along a pack of non-filter cigarettes, a wide-brimmed boater hat and a bomber jacket. Jack did not instruct him on the wardrobe or accessories; they were all his idea. He started to experiment, moving around for different poses. It was one of those times when his ambition was unmistakable. He blew smoke like he was on a Bob Dylan album jacket. He put on his hat and cocked it low like he was Hendrix. “I think he was into it,” Jack recalled. “He was pleased he had been asked.”

In the subjects he preferred, political science and literature, Obama signed up for as many advanced courses as he could take. In any discussion, Obama would listen to everyone else before bringing in his point of view. Jeff Yamaguchi put it this way: “He listens and he listens and he listens, rather than respond immediately to the first thing that’s out there. It’s like, ‘Let’s let it percolate for a little. Let’s let it simmer.’ He reads people really well. He doesn’t use the same play for every person. He has different plays in his playbook. He adjusts to the situation.”

The four African students at Occidental called Obama their brother; he told them how much he wanted to go to Africa to see his father and his roots. He talked to one of them, Kofi Manu, a Ghanaian, about finding an apartment in their sophomore year, but instead moved into a place with his Pakistani friend Hasan Chandoo. Their place became a regular hangout for the Pakistanis and their friends. It was in this company Obama felt most comfortable. “These were my closest friends,” he noted decades later, during an interview in the Oval Office. Race was not a factor. It was an international sensibility that brought them together, Obama said. “I think there is no doubt… they were sort of world citizens, with kind of peripatetic lives. All of them had that sort of shared characteristic of spanning cultures, which I think strengthened our friendships.”

The late-night discussions he participated in now were more intense than those of his freshman year, more overtly political, more directed at America’s role in the world. Chandoo and the other Pakistanis, along with the writers Obama associated with, had a seriousness of purpose and a worldly sensibility.

His classmates considered Obama “a floater”, moving not only from culture to culture but also from political group to political group, dabbling, showing interest, but never staking a home. This was a natural part of college experimentation, to be sure, but in Obama’s case it reflected a deeper and longer-lasting trend, one that would define his life in and out of politics: his need and ability to avoid traps. The less entrenched he was, the easier it was for him to get out of something and move on.

He had become part of Occidental’s activist network, participating in a vigil protesting against the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. It led him to give the first public political speech of his life, on 18 February 1981, giving him the first intimations of what it was like to move crowds, large or small, with words. But after only two years at Occidental, Obama was ready to go. In late March he filled out applications to transfer to Columbia in New York. He wanted to go deeper into the American experience, and the black experience. “I figured that if there weren’t any more black students at Columbia than there were at Oxy, I’d at least be in the heart of it,” he said.

The next four years in New York, from late summer 1981 to midsummer 1985, was a lonely time. As Obama put it himself, decades later, “I was leading an ascetic existence, way too serious for my own good”.

He felt no attachments to Columbia, but he did enter into a relationship with Alexandra McNear, a former Occidental classmate. McNear had edited Occidental’s literary magazine, Feast, in which Obama had published two poems. In fact, the name Barack Obama, as opposed to Barry, premiered in public in the magazine’s inaugural issue. McNear was in New York that summer after her junior year and for nearly two months they were lovers in Manhattan.

When it was time for McNear to return to Occidental, they began a long-distance relationship, conducted mostly through a series of passionate letters. Obama was the central character in his letters, in a self-conscious way, with variations on the theme of his search for purpose and self-identity. In one letter, he told McNear that it seemed all his Pakistani friends were headed towards the business world, and his old high school buddies from Honolulu were “moving toward the mainstream”. Where did that leave him? “I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups,” he wrote. “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me… The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs.”

Here, at 22, was an idea that would become a key to understanding Obama the politician and public figure. “Without a class” meant he was entering his 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 status as both 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 towards 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. To make a particular choice would be to limit him, he wrote in the letter to McNear, because “taken separately, they are unacceptable and untenable”.

Looking back on that period from the distance of the White House, Obama recalled that he was then “deep inside my own head… in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy”. But the realisation that he had to “absorb all the traditions” would become the rationale for all that followed. “There is no doubt that what I retained in my politics is a sense that the only way I could have a sturdy sense of identity of who I was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people,” Obama said during an interview on 10 November 2011. “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is at the core of who I am.”

During his Columbia days, Obama discussed his struggle for identity not only with McNear but with a few friends from the Pakistani crowd. One of his acquaintances in that group was Mir Mahboob Mahmood, known to his friends by his nickname, Beenu. They were never the closest of friends, yet their conversations seemed to bring out Obama’s innermost thoughts and hopes.

Mahmood remembered how, “for a period of two or three months”, Obama “carried and at every opportunity read and reread a fraying copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and Invisible Man became a prism for his self-reflection.”

By Mahmood’s account, they had known each other only a few months when Obama posed this question to him: “Do you think I will be president of the United States?”

What did this mean? “I think it was a very serious question, and clearly, at least in my mind, this was where he was headed,” Mahmood recalled. His answer then: “If America is ready for a black president, you can make it.”

When Obama, during the White House interview, was asked about Mahmood’s account, he said he could not remember such a conversation, and that people had a natural tendency to apply memories to him retroactively, but added, “If he has a vivid memory of it, I won’t deny it.” The ambitious path he saw for himself then, Obama said, remained vague. “I don’t think I could see a clear path [to the presidency],” he said. “At that age I was much more interested in being a leader outside of politics. If you had asked me during that time what kind of career I’d love to have, more likely I would have said something like a Bob Moses [the civil rights leader], maybe with a slightly higher profile than that.”

In a letter postmarked 22 November 1982, Obama wrote to McNear that he would be coming to Los Angeles for the semester break. The day after he sent the letter, his father was killed in a car accident in Nairobi.

A father he had barely known, gone. His grandparents thousands of miles away, and his mother farther away still. It would be hard to overstate the loneliness young Obama felt at that moment, by himself in New York. But in December, when Obama and McNear reunited in Los Angeles, he casually mentioned it. It “was not an emotional telling on his side”, she said. They stayed at her apartment for most of two weeks. McNear wrote in her journal then that Obama “was the closest friend I had, and that I really loved him but didn’t know if we could sustain a relationship”.

She wrote to Obama, expressing the fear that he was becoming less interested in her. He wrote back on 4 April that she was mistaken. He was “burning the midnight oil” to finish his studies, he said. And he was, as usual, consumed by the effort to find himself. “I feel sunk in that long corridor between old values, modes of thought, and those that I seek, that I work towards,” he confided.

Obama skipped the graduation ceremonies, finishing his time at Columbia much as he had begun: isolated and apart from the college scene. He had his résumé completed by the time he finished classes. He took temporary employment where he could find it, spending one week supervising a group of temp workers at the New York fire department. It was, he reported, “a fascinating experience affording me a taste of the grinding toil of a low-white-collar job, as well as the ambivalent relationship” between bosses and workers. Here were people talking about sports and life and family in ways that were not fraught with complicated meanings and symbols, he wrote in a letter to his now former girlfriend McNear. “I felt a greater affinity to the blacks and Latinos there (who predictably comprised about three-fourths of the workforce…) than I had felt in a long time, and it strengthened me in some important way.”

Obama was six months out of Columbia when Genevieve Cook came along and engaged him in the deepest romantic relationship of his young life. They met at a Christmas party in 1983. Cook was Australian, an assistant-teacher in Brooklyn. Like Obama, she had lived in Indonesia, before her parents divorced, and again briefly in high school. She called him BAH‑rruck, with a trill of the r’s. She said that is how he pronounced it himself, at least when talking to her.

He was living on the Upper West Side then and working in a job that paid the rent but did not inspire him. He was still keeping mostly to himself, occasionally hanging out with his Pakistani friends, who partied too much and too hard, he thought, but were warm and generous and buoyant intellectual company, always willing to debate philosophy and the political issues of the day. Cook offered something more. She was three years older, born in 1958. She kept a journal, as he did; brooded about her identity, as he did; had an independent, at times exasperating mother, as he did; and burned with an idealism to right the wrongs of the world, as he did.

Day by day, week by week, Cook’s perceptions of Obama, noted in her journal, became more complicated.

January 26, 1984

…how is he so old already, at the age of 22? I have to recognise (despite play of wry and mocking smile on lips) that I find his thereness very threatening… Distance, distance, distance, and wariness. I am wary – very clear – I really wonder where it’s all going, all this with Barack.

February 19

Despite Barack’s having talked of drawing a circle around the tender in him – protecting the ability to feel innocence and springborn – I think he also fights against showing it to others, to me. I really like him more and more – he may worry about posturing and void inside but he is a brimming and integrated character.

February 24

My British humour comes through with him – very uncommon. An uncommon, earnest young man. He is very beautiful – more than he thinks himself to be. Oooooo I can’t wait to be in Brooklyn with spring coming…

February 25

… the sexual warmth is definitely there – but the rest of it has sharp edges and I’m finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all. I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi‑stranded reasons. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness – and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.

May 16

It so delights me that from time to time Barack will talk about the more private, inner aspects of what he sees and feels of our relationship – not out of some need to bring up and solve a problem (which is what I tend to do), but merely to communicate it. It is something I could well learn to do. To trust him, myself, whatever’s cooking there in my brain – the good and the cloudy.

June 10

Barack frets about the continual comfort I am always willing to offer – recognising it as feeling good, but also chafing against the threat of its impeding a rawer sense of “the struggle”…

June 20

Curious this thing in Barack, where he identifies “skipping out” on eg Sohale’s dinner, with the taking of different paths. He doesn’t just see it as preferring to stay home and start a new story. Somehow splitting himself off from people is necessary to his feeling of following some chosen route? which basically remains undefined. And am I to be left behind also? That he may feel he’s striking out? Shedding encumbrances, old images, the known and comfortable…

June 27

But the abruptness and the apparent lack of warmth w/ which B. left them was jarring.

Beenu Mahmood saw a shift in Obama that corresponded to Cook’s perceptions. He could see Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself from the Pakistanis as a necessary step in establishing his political identity. For years, Obama seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. But to get to where he wanted to go, he had to change – not cut off the Pakistanis as friends, but push away enough to establish a clear and separate identity. As a result, Mahmood recalled, “The first shift I saw him undertaking was to view himself as an American in a much more fundamental way.”

In preparing for his future, Obama disciplined himself in two activities: writing and running. He was what Cook called “a virtuous daily jogger”, and that was one of the differences between them. She would run, too, but without his discipline and not as far. “One of the reasons he was maybe such a dedicated jogger was part of him still felt he was the fat boy, which I found hard to see,” Cook said later. He had indeed been a chubby boy from infancy through seventh grade, when his body started to elongate. Cook noticed that despite his thin physique, there was still a certain softness to him: “There was this still quite raw and close to the surface aspect of himself which had to do with being the fat boy, or chubby boy, that people laughed at, that no one knew quite where to put, and who had a deeply ambivalent notion of being loved or not.”

They talked about race quite often, as part of his inner need to find a sense of belonging. She sympathised with and encouraged his search for his identity. If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? At times he confessed to her that “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” At some point that summer she realised that “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black”.

Mahmood saw the same thing as Cook: Obama’s internal struggle with his racial identity. He related it to his memory of Obama carrying around that dog-eared copy of Ellison’s Invisible Man, and also to his memory of the day Obama wondered whether he could ever be president. Trying to embrace his blackness, Mahmood thought, was “probably the biggest shift I saw [in Obama during the New York years]… Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity… That was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”

Early in Obama’s relationship with Cook, he had told her about “his adolescent image of the perfect ideal woman” and how he had searched for her “at the expense of hooking up with available girls”. Who was this ideal woman? In her journals, Cook conjured her in her mind, and it was someone other than herself. “I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well‑experienced – a black woman I keep seeing her as,” she wrote.

• This is an edited extract from Barack Obama: The Making Of The Man, by David Maraniss, published next week by Atlantic Books at £25. To order a copy for £20, with free UK mainland p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call             0330 333 6846      .

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