Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics
By Maria Popova
“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy proclaimed in his diary. “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” How we draw and accrue our allegiances as life flows through us and we through it is a centerpiece of our human experience, for we are, in the words of philosopher Amelie Rorty, “the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves.”
The interplay of identity and agency is what Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) explores with uncommon vulnerability and intellectual elegance throughout Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library) — the immensely lyrical 1995 memoir that gave us the young future president on what his mother taught him about love.
Young Obama writes:
The fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — [continue to] mark our modern life.
Looking back to his own youth as a basketball-obsessed teenager, Obama reflects on the culturally inherited norms which freeze that natural and necessary fluidity of identity:
I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood. Yet at a time when boys aren’t supposed to want to follow their fathers’ tired footsteps, when the imperatives of harvest or work in the factory aren’t supposed to dictate identity, so that how to live is bought off the rack or found in magazines, the principal difference between me and most of the man-boys around me — the surfers, the football players, the would-be rock-and-roll guitarists — resided in the limited number of options at my disposal. Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty. At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.
With an eye to his own complicated constellation of identity, as the son of a white mother and black father, he considers how limiting our language becomes as we engage in these costume-identities shielding us against the uncertainty of a more nuanced and dimensional self-definition:
White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to [my black friend] Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come in to say she was going to sleep, and those same words — white folks — would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.
I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.
Young Obama intuited poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion that the self lives in language. (More than a decade later, Alexander would become the fourth poet in American history to read at a presidential inauguration when she welcomed Obama to the presidency with her stunning poem “Praise Song for the Day.”) He recounts searching for the language for his fragmented self in books as a teenager:
I gathered up books from the library — Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.
Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.
As he wades his way through this journey of self-discovery and self-definition, young Obama adds:
My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.
But as much as the self might live in language, it also lives and reveals itself in community, be it forced or organic. Obama reflects on the frictions and fissures, both internal and external, that he discovered in college:
The position of most black students in predominantly white colleges was already too tenuous, our identities too scrambled, to admit to ourselves that our black pride remained incomplete. And to admit our doubt and confusion to whites, to open up our psyches to general examination by those who had caused so much of the damage in the first place, seemed ludicrous, itself an expression of self-hatred — for there seemed no reason to expect that whites would look at our private struggles as a mirror into their own souls, rather than yet more evidence of black pathology.
In his quest to find a community that would hold his fragmented self with assuring firmness, Obama meets and forms “an uneasy alliance” with a community leader named Rafiq al-Shabazz — a man who operates from a place of polarity and deep anger, and belongs to “a Hobbesian world where distrust was a given and loyalties extended from family to mosque to the black race.” But Obama eventually comes to see that Rafiq’s extreme is equally unhelpful in healing the fissures of race. He writes:
I wondered … whether a black politics that suppressed rage toward whites generally, or one that failed to elevate race loyalty above all else, was a politics inadequate to the task.
It was a painful thought to consider, as painful now as it had been years ago. It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions — between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill, between active malice and ignorance or indifference. I had a personal stake in that moral framework; I’d discovered that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. And yet perhaps it was a framework that blacks in this country could no longer afford; perhaps it weakened black resolve, encouraged confusion within the ranks. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and for many blacks, times were chronically desperate. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.
Mostly, he finds that the raw material of the nationalists was “just talk” — the selfsame kind of vacant propagandism to which this ideology was supposed to be a counterpoint:
What concerned me … was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists — Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white — it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair.
The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan — didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity — of race or of culture — could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.
Obama finds that finer pattern to draw on the drum of identity when he travels to Africa in search of his father’s bloodlines. He writes:
Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled — the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns still held sway; that no one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if [my brothers, sister, and I] were all making it up as we went along. As if the map that might have once measured the direction and force of our love, the code that would unlock our blessings, had been lost long ago, buried with the ancestors beneath a silent earth.
At last, he discovers the beginnings of an answer at the edge of a cornfield in Kenya, between two graves at the foot of a mango tree — one with an unmarked tombstone, belonging to a person whose identity would remain forever lost, and one belonging to his great-great-grandfather. Obama recounts the revelation of that moment:
For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.
Dreams from My Father remains an immensely powerful and poignant read, radiating ever-new ripples of timeliness more than two decades later. Complement this particular fragment with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of what makes a person and Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self, then revisit Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s fantastic forgotten conversation about identity and race.
Published November 21, 2016