There are still plenty of black politicians who’d disagree with this, of course. At the very least, they’d point out that there’s no such thing as transcending race. It’s not an accident that black politicians who appeal broadly to whites are called “crossover” candidates—the problem’s buried right in the word. “Crossing over” suggests deserting your own kind, or being insufficiently, inauthentically black somehow (whatever on earth being sufficiently, authentically black even is). In a famous New Yorker essay, Henry Louis Gates took a long, hard look at this burdensome problem when writing about Colin Powell. He asked the general about how he’d come to be seen “as a paragon of something like racial erasure.” It was a devastating moment, I thought. I ask Obama about it during our car ride, wondering whether that perception, too, will be his lot. Clinton was who he was, I say. Kennedy was who he was. Bush is who he—
“And I feel like I’m very much who I am,” he says, cutting me off. “Do you ever get a sense that I’m not?” He looks at me pointedly, eyes over his shades, waiting for an answer.
No, I say. I don’t.
“I mean, the fact that I conjugate my verbs and, you know, speak in a typical midwestern-newscaster voice—there’s no doubt this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences,” he says. “And there’s no doubt that when I’m with a black audience, I slip into a slightly different dialect.” He turns and stretches his legs for a moment. He’s been facing me this entire car ride, though he’s in the passenger seat and I’m in the back. He turns back around and looks at me again. “But the point is,” he says, “I don’t feel the need to talk in a certain way before a white audience. And I don’t feel the need to speak a certain way in front of a black audience. There’s a level of self-consciousness about these issues the previous generation had to negotiate that I don’t feel I have to.”
This debate, in other words, has been playing itself out since the sixties. Moving beyond it may be possible. The either/or formulas are wearisome.
It’s late july, maybe three weeks before his swing through downstate Illinois, and Obama is telling an audience of D.C. interns that when he first got into politics, people were forever asking him how to pronounce his name. “People would say it all sorts of ways,” he says. “They’d call me ‘Alabama,’ or they’d call me ‘Yo mama!’ And I’d have to explain no, it’s O-bama, and my father was from Ken-ya, which is where I got my name from, and my mother is from Kansas, which is where I got my accent from.”
This story is Obama’s shorthand version of himself. The longhand, chronicled with novelistic grace in Dreams From My Father, is far more complicated, involving all the unruly algorithms of integrating a multiracial identity. “When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign,” he writes in his introduction. “They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose: the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at least mine alone … well, I suspect that I sound incurably naive, wedded to lost hopes, like those Communists who peddle their newspapers on the fringes of various college towns. Or worse, I sound like I’m trying to hide from myself.”
It’s extremely rare in American public life to get an intimate glimpse into the private world of an elected official. But Obama got his contract for Dreaming From My Father long before entering politics, just after he became the first black president of the 104-year-old Harvard Law Review in 1990. The result is a book that’s reflective and unsparing and totally without calculation. It also seems to provide readers with a Rosebud—an explanation for why he got into politics, and what function it serves, and how he might have developed the political instincts he has today.
Obama’s father met Obama’s mother at the University of Hawaii. Their marriage ceremony was furtive, and the marriage itself was brief; by the time Obama was 2, his father was gone, off to get a graduate degree at Harvard, and then back to his native Kenya. Barack stayed with his mother in Honolulu, then spent five years in Jakarta (his mother had remarried an Indonesian), and then went back to Hawaii again, where his white grandparents mainly looked after him until he graduated from high school. He went to Occidental College, graduated from Columbia University, and spent three years in Chicago, working as a community organizer. During that entire span, he saw his father only once, for about a month when he was 10. By the time he made his pilgrimage to Kenya in 1988, his father was dead.