Artifact 11: Obama’s Early Impressions of Chicago

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. This week we’ll be publishing three artifacts for each candidate, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Check back this afternoon for our next artifact from Romney.

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artifact nine

Source: Phil Boerner

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In 1985, Obama was living in Chicago, working as a community organizer. But he kept in touch with Phil Boerner, a close friend who had the dorm room across the hall as freshmen at Occidental College. To escape their cramped rooms back then, they’d hung out in the hallways, philosophizing, talking politics and smoking cigarettes.

Both would later transfer to Columbia University in New York as juniors, where they shared a dismal apartment with little heat or hot water. So they spilled out into the city, visiting art galleries and museums, or dropping in on bands playing at the West End, a divey Columbia student bar.

“New York was in-your-face,” Boerner told FRONTLINE. “There was the crime, the grit, the dirt, the intellectual ferment; all of that is right there at your doorstep, and it was wonderful for us to be able to just delve right into that.”

They started a book club with friends where, Boerner said, Obama often had the most perceptive views among the group.

But after a few years, Obama moved on to the community organizing job in Chicago. “I think the history that Chicago has with its black neighborhoods and its civil rights history was probably an attraction for him at that point,” Boerner recalled. “…[H]e wanted to be in a large city with a strong black neighborhood and a strong black history that he could merge himself into, and be a part of.”

From Chicago, Obama kept in touch with Boerner by mail. In this letter, Obama is still very much the writer, scribbling eloquent descriptions of his new hometown on yellow legal paper, and enclosing a short story — now lost to time — that he asked Boerner to critique.

Obama notes in the letter that racial divisions are more intense in Chicago, “separate and unequal,” he writes, describing a gap he would later work hard to bridge. A young idealist working to organize the downtrodden, Obama writes of tiny triumphs amid the exhausting work of local activism:

… about 5% of the time, you see something happen — a shy housewife standing up to a bumbling official, or the sudden sound of hope in the voice of a grizzled old man — that gives a hint of the possibilities, of people taking hold of their lives, working together to bring about a small justice. And its [sic] that possibility that keeps you going through all the trenchwork.

At the same time, Obama was also developing a greater sense of self. After wandering for so many years, Obama would find a home in this city, and in himself as a black American.

“I think it put an end to his restlessness, being in Chicago, choosing his identity, finding Michelle and settling down and having a family,” Boerner recalled.

“I really feel like he became the person he became, he is today, in Chicago.”

[Editor's note: A previous version of this post incorrectly said the letter had never been published. It was included in David Remick's 2010 book, The Bridge. We regret the error.]

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