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What Obama’s Letters to Girlfriends Say about Race

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What Obama’s Letters to Girlfriends Say about Race

Handwritten Letter

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It’s no secret that President Barack Obama struggled with his racial identity growing up and as a young man. He’s not only discussed his racial journey in interviews and in speeches, he also wrote about it at length in his memoir Dreams From My Father. David Marannis’ book, Barack Obama: The Story, offers additional insight into the president’s racial development. Released by Simon & Schuster in June 2012, the Marannis book features correspondence between Obama and early girlfriend Alex McNear and the observations another girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, recorded about Obama in her journal. Obama met McNear at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In 1981, he transferred to Columbia University in New York where he met Cook. Collectively, the letters and the journal entries of his exes, both white, reveal Obama as a young man coming to terms with race in U.S. society.

How Race Affects Choice

The ability to choose has always weighed heavily on African Americans. That’s because historically blacks in the U.S. were denied the choices that other groups had. The choice to vote, to attend the best schools or to live in quality neighborhoods have all been withheld from African Americans at certain points in history. Given this, it’s no surprise that young Barack Obama appeared fixated on the idea of choice in his letters to Alex McNear. The president’s former flame told David Marannis that Obama wondered, “Did he have real choices in his life? Did he have free will? How much were his choices circumscribed by his background, his childhood, his socio-economic situation, the color of his skin, the expectations that others had of him? How did choice influence his pres¬ent and future?”

While Obama wondered how his race and background would shape his choices in life, he also seemed to believe that the fact that he wasn’t rooted in one particular tradition gave him a freedom to choose that others lacked. He wrote to McNear: “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] classes; make them mine, me theirs.”

Love of Black Literature

Obama and girlfriend Genevieve Cook spent a great deal of time reading black literature together. They took in the works of several black women writers such as Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara Toni Morrison. Little did Obama know that in 2012 he would grant Morrison the presidential medal of freedom. Another friend, Beenu Mahmood, recalled that Obama was especially fond of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Mahmmod told Marannis that about three months, Obama carried the book with him wherever he went. The novel centers on a black man who struggles to belong to an America that perpetually overlooks his insight and talents. “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,” Marannis writes.

Yearning to Belong

Genevieve Cook remembers she and Obama discussing racial issues frequently. She told Marannis that he sought belonging in the black community. However, his upbringing by a white mother in places as far removed from black America as Hawaii and Indonesia made that challenging. According to Marannis, Obama sometimes felt like an impostor in the black community because he looked black but felt white. “There was hardly a black bone in his body,” Obama reportedly told Cook. Obama’s struggle with his racial identity led Cook to the realization that he need to immerse himself in the black community and find a black mater. Cook even kept thinking that she was far from Obama’s ideal woman. She wrote in her diary, “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.”

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