Barry Obama decided that he didn't like his nickname. A few of his friends at Occidental College had already begun to call him Barack (his formal name), and he'd come to prefer that. The way his half sister, Maya, remembers it, Obama returned home at Christmas in 1980, and there he told his mother and grandparents: no more Barry. Obama recalls it slightly differently, but in the same basic time frame. He believes he told his mom he wanted to be called Barack when she visited him in New York the following summer. By both accounts, it seemed that the elder relatives were reluctant to embrace the change. Maya recalls that Obama's maternal grandparents, who had played a big role in raising him, continued long after that to call him by an affectionate nickname, "Bar." "Not just them, but my mom, too," says Obama.
Why did Obama make the conscious decision to take on his formal African name? His father was also Barack, and also Barry: he chose the nickname when he came to America from Kenya on a scholarship in 1959. His was a typical immigrant transition. Just as a Dutch woman named Hanneke might become Johanna, or a German named Matthias becomes Matt, the elder Barack wanted to fit in. America was a melting pot, and it was expected then that you melt—or at least smooth some of your more foreign edges.
But Obama, after years of trying to fit in himself, decided to reverse that process. The choice is part of his almost lifelong quest for identity and belonging—to figure out who he is, and how he fits into the larger American tapestry. Part black, part white, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, with family of different religious and spiritual backgrounds—seen by others in ways he didn't see himself—the young Barry was looking for solid ground. At Occidental, he was feeling as if he was at a "dead end," he tells NEWSWEEK, "that somehow I needed to connect with something bigger than myself." The name Barack tied him more firmly to his black African father, who had left him and his white mother at a young age and later returned home to Kenya. But that wasn't the primary motivation.
Obama wrote a whole book about his quest for identity, called "Dreams From My Father," and in it he never directly deals with the reasons he reverted to his birth name, or the impression it made on his relatives. The book is a deeply personal narrative that takes some liberties with the facts for the sake of a coherent tale. (Some of the characters, he points out in the introduction, are composites.) Old friends contacted by NEWSWEEK who were present during the time he changed his name recall or intuit a mix of reasons—both personal and social. By Obama's own account, he was, like most kids at that stage of life, a bit of a poseur—trying to be cool. So that could have played a part. He was also trying to reinvent himself. "It was when I made a conscious decision: I want to grow up," says Obama.
It's clear that he was trying to fit in somehow, but not in the way of his father's generation. He wanted to be taken seriously, perhaps to rebel against the compromises blacks and others were expected to make in a white-dominated society. But more generally, he was also looking for a community that would accept him as he was, inside and out.
The identity quest, which began before he became Barack and continued after, put him on a trajectory into a black America he had never really known as a child in Hawaii and abroad. In the end, he would come to see and accept that he was in an almost unique position as an American—someone who had been part of both the white and the black American "families," able to view the secret doubts and fears and dreams of both, and to understand them. He could be part of a black world where his pastor and spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., expressed paranoid fantasies about white conspiracies to spread drugs or HIV, because he understood in his gut the history of racism that stoked those fears. He could, for a time, shrug off Wright's more incendiary views, in part because he knew that whites, in their private worlds, often expressed or shrugged off bigotry themselves, partly because of fears that might seem irrational to African-Americans. Obama's own grandmother, as he pointed out in his Philadelphia speech last week, "on more than one occasion uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Conservative critics have blasted him, partly for "moral equivalence." (Obama's grandmother, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out, "never spread racial hatred.") Other critics questioned his loyalties to America. They will continue to do so, particularly if he wins the Democratic nomination. Obama responds by telling his own story, and wrapping it into the larger chronicle of America. His pitch is that he can see America as few others can, and that this ability will enable him to pull a majority of the country together and get things done. "That's what we are doing with our speeches and that's to some degree what I think this campaign is about and what America is about," he told NEWSWEEK in one of two recent interviews. "People from diverse backgrounds and unlikely places finding a common culture and a common set of values and ideals that make them American." That is perhaps Obama's greatest talent: to weave compelling narratives about himself that seem to include everyone in a common epic. The stories have a fierce intelligence, but like any good mythmaker, Obama sands down pieces that don't quite fit. How Barry became Barack is just such a story.
Obama's first questions about his own identity came early, when he lived for several years in Indonesia. He moved there with his idealistic mother—whom he has described as a "lonely witness for secular humanism"—when he was 6. The Asian archipelago was an eye-opener for a child who had been raised in the relative comforts of Hawaii. He didn't know what to make of the leper who came to his door, who had a hole where his nose was supposed to be and made a discomfiting "whistling sound" as he asked for food. He had to learn how to deal with street beggars of all types. Obama's bighearted mother gave easily. His Indonesian stepfather, an unsentimental man with a more practical view of the world, counseled the boy that the demands of the needy had no end; it was best to be strong because "men take advantage of weakness in other men."
The young Obama grappled, to the extent a child can, with the guilt of the privileged. But for the first time, he also confronted the potential burden of being dark-skinned. This occurred, according to his autobiography, at the library of the U.S. Embassy, where his mother was teaching English to local businessmen. Barry was there leafing through magazines when he came across disturbing photos of a black man who had tried to erase the darkness from his skin by using chemicals. The man had a ghostly pallor, as if he had suffered from radiation poisoning. After "a stretch of childhood free from self-doubt," seeing the photos was "violent for me," Obama later wrote. He had been warned before about bigots and wasn't completely ignorant about the evils of the world. "But that one photograph had told me something else: that there was a hidden enemy out there, one that could reach me without anyone's knowledge, not even my own."
The boy's mother tried her best to armor him against self-doubt. "To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear," she told him. She also taught him "to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad," and made sure he was respectful of Indonesians and their culture. "My mother always distinguished between certain aspects of Americans abroad that she was embarrassed by: the expats who would never eat in a local restaurant or never socialize with Indonesians or had a patronizing attitude," Obama recalled to NEWSWEEK. "She was always concerned about me never thinking I was superior to Indonesians in that way."
He ate lots of the local street food: chicken satay, traditional fried rice and meatballs the size of tennis balls. He saw shadow-puppet shows and listened to Indonesian music. His backyard was home to baby crocodiles, birds of paradise and a cockatoo. "It wasn't all grim," says Obama's half sister, Maya. Jakarta was like a vast, sprawling village at the time, lit by kerosene lamps—a young boy's paradise.
But Obama's mother didn't want Barry to be denied the many opportunities that American kids had. So she tutored him at 4 a.m., before he went to his Indonesian school, administering three-hour English lessons. Obama got a glancing exposure to Islam. He went to a public school where he had a bit of Islamic instruction, perhaps once a week. But Indonesia wore its religion lightly. "Nobody wore headscarves on the streets," he says. "I mean, women were driving on Vespas, and when you went to the villages they were all taking baths in the river." His mother taught him what she thought of as "Midwestern, traditional American values"—honesty, fairness, plain speaking. "She believed in saying what you mean and meaning what you say, even if it made a situation uncomfortable," he recalls. "To her that was part of her American tradition that she was proud of, and she wanted to make sure that was part of me."
Yet the poverty and corruption of Indonesia would come to instill "a relentless skepticism" in the child, he later wrote. Obama's mother eventually stifled her idealism, and sent her son back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.
There's no escape from adolescence and the torrent of questions that accompany it. Like all young boys, Obama was plagued by doubts and worries—about girls, about being teased, about his ability to "fit in." He became more aware of his blackness. At his new school, a redheaded girl wanted to touch his hair, and a boy wanted to know if his father ate people. Obama gave a slight shove to a black girl when other kids taunted the two of them, saying she was his girlfriend. Barry later felt guilty about it. When his father came to visit from Kenya—for the first and only time—the 10-year-old was nervous. He didn't want to be seen as different from the other kids, but with no choice, he couldn't resist fibbing that his father was a prince, his grandfather a chief, and that his family name meant "burning spear." In 1975, when Obama started high school in Hawaii, teacher Eric Kusunoki read the roll call and stumbled on Obama's first name. "Is Barack here?" he asked, pronouncing it BAR-rack. "He said, 'Just call me Barry'," recalls Kusunoki. "He didn't say it like he was exasperated or anything; he just corrected me."
Keith Kakugawa was a close friend of Obama's at the Punahou School. (He appears in "Dreams" as a revised character named "Ray" who may be a composite of more than one Obama friend.) He says that Obama, being a dark-skinned kid growing up in a white household, sensed that something was amiss. "He felt that he was not getting a part of who he was, the history," says Kakugawa, who is also of mixed race. He recalls Obama's reading black authors —James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes—looking for clues. Keith didn't know at first that Obama's given name was Barack. "We were in the library and there was a Malcolm X book," Kakugawa tells NEWSWEEK. "He grabbed it and looked at it and he's checking it out, and I said, 'Hold on, man. What you gonna do? Change your name to something Muslim?' He said, 'Well, my name is Barack Obama.' And I said, 'No it isn't.' And we got in an argument about that in the library and they had to tell us, 'Shhhh'."
Back in Hawaii in the 1970s, it could seem that everyone was some kind of a minority. The fact that Obama was half-black and half-white didn't matter much to anyone but Obama, Kakugawa says: "He made everything out like it was all racial." On one occasion, Obama thought he'd gotten a bad break on the school basketball team because he was black. But Kakugawa recalls his father's telling the teenager, "No, Barry, it's not because you're black. It's because you missed two shots in a row." (Here, Kakugawa's memory is different from Obama's. The Ray character in the book is the one obsessed with being discriminated against.)
Darin Maurer, another buddy of Obama's in Hawaii, never noticed any internal struggle. The two met in seventh grade, drawn together by a shared interest in basketball. Both Darin and his mother recall Obama as very integrated. Suzanne Maurer recalls that Barry and her white son, who had very curly hair, both sported Afro-style haircuts at one point. Mostly, both Maurers remember how smart Obama was. "He could whip out a paper that was due the next day the night before, while all the other kids were spending weeks writing," recalls Suzanne. Darin remembers some racial tensions in Hawaii at that time—expressed by Native Islanders against both whites and blacks. There were derogatory native words for both races. "I wouldn't be very surprised about any sort of derogatory stuff about a black person," says Darin, a pastor who now lives in Texas. "I knew that's what you had to accept … It wasn't like it was debilitating. It was just a challenge."
Mostly, perhaps, Barry was feeling stifled in Hawaii, which is best known for its laid-back love of sun and surf. He didn't want to go the way his friend Keith ultimately went. Kakugawa flew off to the mainland and later struggled with drugs, moving in and out of prison, and was homeless for a period. Even as a teenager, Obama had broad ambitions, and seemed determined to make something of himself.
Barry Obama met Eric Moore fresh on arrival from Hawaii at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The two roamed in the same circles, gravitating toward friends who considered themselves "progressive," including many with international backgrounds. Moore came from the mostly white college town of Boulder, Colo. He hoped Occidental and Los Angeles would expose him to African-American culture in a way that his Caucasian-dominated world back home could not. Yet Occidental had 1,675 kids enrolled, and only 17.7 percent were minorities.
"There was a certain kinship right away," Moore says. He remembers Obama as polished and precocious. He seemed older than his age, unless you considered the flip-flops, T shirt and Hawaiian shorts he wore around campus. "He was more worldly than the average kid in California," Moore says, "although he clearly looked like a surfer type."
Their kinship was strengthened in conversations like the one they had about a trip Moore took during the summer of 1980. He visited Kenya—the homeland of Obama's father and other relatives—as part of a program that sent teens abroad to do volunteer work. Moore told Obama about his experiences, and explained how the trip was one of the most powerful events of his life. "It helped me find my own identity," Moore says. "I think for an African-American to go back to Africa is a powerful experience. It's like going to Israel if you're Jewish."
The two men didn't discuss questions of identity much, Moore says, but the struggles were always there, just beneath the surface. There were moments when they'd poke fun at each other, and snippets of private truth would emerge. On one occasion, Moore and Obama were hanging out in a dorm—early on in their friendship—when the subject of names came up. "What kind of name is Barry Obama—for a brother?" Moore asked with a grin. "Actually, my name's Barack Obama," he replied. "That's a very strong name," Moore told him. Obama responded that he didn't want to have to explain his name. "Barry" was just a way of simplifying things—a small compromise to smooth the way in society.
Moore knew then that Obama had been called Barry for a very long time, but he made a point to call him Barack anyway. He did this because he liked the name, he says, but also because he respected anything African. "It was a time when we were very conscious and he actually appreciated that I called him Barack," Moore says. A handful of people, mostly close friends, would use Barack and Barry interchangeably.
But Obama had friends from many different backgrounds. Other friends at Occidental, including his freshman roommate, Paul Carpenter, never heard Obama called Barack at all. At times, he was still asking to be called Barry. Anne Howells, who taught him Introduction to Literary Theory in the winter semester of 1980, had noticed Obama's full name on the enrollment list of about 15 students. She was curious about it, wondering if it was a Hawaiian name. But when she went around the room asking each student how he or she would like to be called, Obama answered "Barry."
Wahid Hamid, a good friend at Oxy who attended Obama's wedding years later, says that even before he became Barack, most friends simply called him "Obama." "It wasn't surprising to me that he decided to embrace that identity because 'Barry' could be perceived as trying to run away from something and trying to fit in, rather than embracing his own identity and, in many ways, kind of opening himself to who he is." For Wahid, an immigrant from Pakistan also trying to find his way in America (he is now a corporate executive in New York), the name Barack was perfectly natural and "somewhat refreshing."
Obama struck Moore as a person who could glide in and out of any social circle on campus. This was the thing about being of "mixed race," Moore says. "You have the benefit of knowing both cultures firsthand and it opens your eyes." Moore said that even though he was older than Obama, he was often worrying and struggling to succeed during that time in his life. Obama always seemed relaxed and well prepared.
He cites as an example Obama's speech during a rally of the Black Student Alliance and other groups concerning divestment from South Africa. The rally was staged near the president's office. In Moore's mind, the students were running a risk doing this. They could get in trouble, or even expelled. He was nervous and jittery, in part because he was also speaking at the event. Then he saw Obama take the stage. He seemed so calm. People slowed down to listen. "He had this booming voice," Moore says. "It helped that people knew who he was [because he was popular on campus], but he also had this commanding presence." Moore says he was reminded of that moment when Obama gave his breakout speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. "I remember calling friends, saying, 'Are you watching this? That's our boy from school'."
Obama says in his autobiography that the school speech on South Africa was an important moment, but also a confusing one. He was enthralled by the power of his own words—"to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause." Yet he also felt foolish, that the whole demonstration was a farce—more about him than about South Africa. He succumbed to self-pity, and a friend admonished him for it. He still wasn't sure who he was, or who he was supposed to be.
Yet Obama honed his sense of right and wrong at Occidental. "He hung out with the young men and women who were most serious about issues of social justice," recalls Prof. Roger Boesche, who taught Obama two political-science courses and knew him as Barry at the time. Obama also wasn't afraid to stand up for himself, and perhaps had a righteous streak. In one instance, he politely confronted his professor over lunch at a local sandwich shop called The Cooler. "He'd gotten a grade he was disappointed in," Boesche recalls. "I told him he was really smart, but he wasn't working hard enough." Other students might have backed off at that point. But not Obama. He politely told Boesche he should have gotten a better grade. Even today, Obama recalls the demeaning mark. He told journalist David Mendell, author of a recent book called "Obama, From Promise to Power," that he "was pissed" about it because he thought he was being graded "on a different curve." Boesche still insists he gave him the grade he deserved.
Occidental—like Hawaii before—became too small for Obama. "I think the Oxy environment and L.A. in general seemed not to be enough for him," Moore says. He remembered asking Obama when he was a sophomore what he planned to do the following year, since many upper-class friends of Obama's were graduating. Obama told him he was planning to transfer to Columbia University. "I remember trying to convince him to stay at Oxy," Moore says. But Obama had made up his mind that he wanted to move to a more urban, intense and polyglot place. "He said something to the effect that he needed a bigger and more stimulating environment intellectually."
Obama wanted a clean slate. "Going to New York was really a significant break. It's when I left a lot of stuff behind," he says. "I think there was a lot of stuff going on in me. By the end of that year at Occidental, I think I was starting to work it through, and I think part of the attraction of transferring was, it's hard to remake yourself around people who have known you for a long time." It was when he got to New York that, as he recalls it, he began to ask people to call him Barack: "It was not some assertion of my African roots … not a racial assertion. It was much more of an assertion that I was coming of age. An assertion of being comfortable with the fact that I was different and that I didn't need to try to fit in in a certain way."
He stopped drinking and partying, leading what he calls "a hermetic existence" for two years. "When I look back on it, it was a pretty grim and humorless time that I went through," he recalls. "I literally went to class, came home, read books, took long walks, wrote." Politics was a passion, but he was disillusioned by radicals who claimed to have all the answers. At one point after graduation, he went "in search of some inspiration" to hear Kwame Toure (the former Stokely Carmichael) speak at Columbia. A thin young woman stood up to question Toure's push to establish economic ties between Africa and Harlem: was that practical, given the difficult state of African economies? Toure cut her off, calling her brainwashed, and others shouted her down. "It was like a bad dream," Obama wrote later.
Obama kept detailed journals in New York. It was good practice. "Writing journals during those two years gave me not only the raw material for the book, but also taught me to shape a narrative in ways that would work," he says. When he later became a community organizer in Chicago, part of his job was storytelling. "His job largely consisted of interviewing community members and creating a narrative out of their experiences, the problems the community faced," says his boss at that time, Gerald Kellman. Eventually, even Chicago would seem too small a stage. He told Kellman "he did not feel there would be large-scale change brought about by organizing." Large-scale change was what Obama was aiming for.
He lost touch with many of his old Oxy friends. Eric Moore says he had no contact with Obama for about 15 years. Then on a visit to Chicago, Moore was walking through a park when he saw a fund-raising table with an OBAMA placard. He walked up to the woman behind the table and asked if she was promoting "Barack Obama." She said yes, and he left his card with her in hopes she'd pass it along to his old friend. The two reconnected after that. "He was so genuine and unchanged," Moore says. "That's what he is every time I see him, except that now he doesn't wear the flip-flops." Moore says that he's amazed that his friend is on the possible verge of becoming president. "It's not like he came from a family like the Kennedys or the Bushes," Moore says. "He's a self-made man."
Few have willed their self-creation in quite the same way. The absence of his father taught Obama the importance of stories. These tales helped him make sense of who he was. (At least two acquaintances in his postgraduation years thought he was on a track to become a writer.) Stories made the murkier aspects of life coherent, or at least gave him confidence—that he could author his own life story, and thus become a master of the tale and not a victim. As a teenager, he had been skeptical of some family yarns, thinking they had been burnished a little too bright. He was at an age then when kids distinguish between fairy tales and truth, when they often become disillusioned with their parents.
One story that stuck with him concerned his father. It's the only such story about his father—told by his white relatives—that dealt explicitly with race. It goes like this:
Barry's white grandfather and several other Hawaiian friends take Barry Sr. to a Waikiki bar. It's a joyous scene, everyone eating and drinking "to the sounds of a slack-key guitar," when a white man with a booming voice announces to the bartender that he shouldn't have to drink "next to a nigger." The stunned clientele expects a fight. But Barry Sr. smiles and quietly lectures the man "about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man." In response, the shamed white man gives Barry Sr. $100, in apparent payment for his sin of racism. Even the young Obama found the tale hard to believe. But many years later, he recalls in "Dreams From My Father," he got a phone call from a Japanese-American man who had been a classmate of Barry Sr.'s in Hawaii. Unprompted, the man told Obama the same story. Obama says he was struck by the man's tone of "disbelief—and hope."
Obama has collected similar stories over the years—like the one he told in his Philadelphia speech about the young white woman who pretended to love mustard-and-relish sandwiches to help her sick mother through a time of financial stress, and the older black man who felt political kinship for her. The punch line is generally the same: blacks and whites have more in common than you might think, and he knows it because he is it: black and white, together as one. Or so his story goes.