Obama's Search for Identity

  1. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama and Race

    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    How about Barry Obama? How did he fit in?

    You know, when I first met Barry, obviously he stood out because he's half-African American, and at the time there were just a few or handful of blacks, as it were, on campus. I never really put him in a different category than any of us, because we're all multiracial. I'm Polish and Chinese. It's not uncommon in Hawaii to have these races that just like to mix it up.

    But at the same time, Barry, he looked black. In our day it was kind of cool to have a friend that was diverse and out of the ordinary. It wasn't the exception, but it was more the rule, that you had to be mixed to feel mixed in with the mixed races. And Barry was very gregarious, very happy, very outgoing. He was very, very easily [sic] to befriend.

    And how did he fit into the school? Did he have problems? Was he considered to some extent the smart kid? What was he considered?

    You know, Barry, to me, wore a lot of hats. He had the academics. He was always well spoken. He blended in with sports. He was dribbling that basketball around forever, and everywhere that he went on campus. He didn't isolate himself to any one particular clique. I took pride in knowing that I associated with everybody, and I didn't become a real clique person, because I, too, have different friends from different areas of life. …

    When you hear about the school, it's a prep school, I guess, a private school that is renowned for sending people to Ivy League, and very successful people come out of it. I guess some people consider it sort of a rich-kid, more exclusive kind of place. But Obama wasn't rich or anything, was he?

    No. There is a stigma attached to Punahou, and that's undeniable, and you hear that even when you're 8, 9 or 10 years old -- oh, the rich kids or the snob kids or even all the rich haole kids, haole meaning foreigner, and in Hawaii more so it means a foreigner from the mainland. So it was known to be a rich, haole school, and only the privileged got to go there. You had to be special.

    Now, when you look at Barry's background, it's almost the antithesis of that, because Barry lived in a very humble apartment, which was blocks away from the school. He didn't dress lavishly. He didn't show any bling, even though Punahou was bling, and still is in many people's minds. But Barry just was a normal, happy-go-lucky kid that didn't hold himself to be better than anybody else.

    To me, he was a perfect fit, because he had people like me that came from the same background, which is mixed. And it seemed to have worked well. And that's how we became friends so quick, so quickly. He didn't have any kind of attitude whatsoever. He was just always very diplomatic.

  2. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama and RaceComing of Age

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    When I met him, President Obama, he was more Hawaiian and Asian and international of his acculturation than certainly he was African American, because he hadn't had an urban African American experience at all. He was very open to, you know, the international cultural influences that were on campus at that time, as was I. And I think it was a very enriching experience.

    On the other side of it, did he have some problems dealing with the African Americans from urban America? … Were there problems, in some way, in connecting with that group on campus?

    Probably to an extent, because Occi was sort of stratified in terms of culture. You did have the cultural cliques, if you will. And there was that African American clique that would sit at a certain table in the cafeteria.

    I was able to straddle both worlds, because I think I had been on campus. I knew most of the people. I played sports. I had close friends in that core African American community as well as outside, and a lot of different circles.

    So it's hard to break into that world. Many local Los Angeles African Americans were not as receptive to the cultural diversity, perhaps. And so I was a link for Barack to that world.

    And we had the same friends. I introduced him to my friends that were sitting at that table, so to speak. So he was able to bridge that cultural gap, you know, the division in the cafeteria, by coming and sitting and meeting that group of friends as well.

    Was there some pushback? I mean, there have been some discussions by some people that … he wasn't black enough or whatever. Was that something that he was dealing with? …

    Well, and I think legitimately so. You are who you are, what you experience. You're a composite of the influences on you. And so it was a new experience for him. And, you know, he was probably a little isolated from that group until he made the attempt to bridge the gap. And yes, there was some pushback from certain individuals that weren't, again, as open-minded to the world who, no matter who you were.

    And so people were trying to figure out who Barack was, at the same time he was trying to figure out who he was. And, you know, once you were able to break down those barriers, he was completely embraced by that group of friends. And, I mean, he had no problem moving effortlessly through the various groups on campus.

  3. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama and Race

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Talk a little bit, if you could, about that search, though, what he's going through to try to figure out. He talks about it quite a bit, that he's trying to figure out what it means to be African American. Another friend of his said at one point that the only thing he knew about being black was what he saw on television when he lived in Hawaii. And during the period of time from Occidental into New York, he's reading books written by famous black authors. I know he's carrying The Invisible Man around with him a lot. Talk about that search, because I think everybody goes through it, to some extent, him probably more than most.

    Yeah. No, absolutely. And I did have a similar experience. And I think his grasping of the African American experience, or whether his cultural identity was primarily intellectual, in the sense of reading about it and understanding. We both grew up on Soul Train and American Bandstand and the imagery in the media, the very same things that drew us to California in the first place. So that's a once-removed kind of experience.

    But I think his own process of understanding an evolution came from interacting with the people around us and going out around Los Angeles. We would get our hair cut in South L.A., and you'd go to jazz concerts and events in the park.

    You'd see it. You'd ask yourself, what is the urban black experience? Much of it is, you know, both the negative and the positive. And it's a rich cultural experience that you have to experience firsthand.

    So Occidental was sort of an insular oasis in the city. But, you know, we'd have to go out around the city to experience firsthand what it was. …

    In the [David] Maraniss book, he writes to a girlfriend, Alex McNear, at some point when he's in New York -- but it's probably something he's experienced in Occidental as well -- that he's viewed as a black man because he's got black skin. But he felt, as he pointed at that point, as an imposter because he didn't quite fit the skin as of yet. Was that a struggle you saw in him?

    No. I mean, he did not make his personal struggles visible at all. I mean, he was so at ease and poised and mature. You know, he was not self-brooding in any way. But I'm sure that was an experience he was going through internally, to understand what the perception by outsiders were of him. But, you know, I think he was processing all that internally. He didn't have that social insecurity or angst or anything. …

  4. Ψ Share

    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    Well, let's switch. Let's do a Manhattan thing for a second. In Manhattan, talk about the friends that he surrounded himself in Manhattan with.

    In Manhattan it was a much smaller crowd and not as many as when they were students at Occidental. Barack, I guess is what I was calling him by now -- and yes, he did, if I may just go off on a slight tangent, I did notice at the point that he arrived in Manhattan, from then on he was Barack. I had seen him in Occidental, in Los Angeles some months back, and he was Barry, but he had to remind me a few times to call him Barack.

    But it was a much smaller gathering at that time. For a while, I think, we really didn't know anyone but each other. Phil Boerner, yes, was going to Columbia. There was Andy Roth, an ex-Occidental kid who moved in just up the street from us. And it was no longer a circle or a crowd of fun and games, and it seemed like the serious business of getting down to life. And that's the time when I saw the transformation from the lighthearted, fun-loving kid to a more serious, ponderous, and in my view at that time -- I mean, most of us were in our early 20s and really not thinking much about benefiting the world, whereas this person was; Barack was. And at times I would find him ponderous and dull and lecturing.

    ... So when you look back at it, why do you say it does seem evident that he was involved in searching out his identity in some way?

    Well, because in our early 20s, we were wanting to be called -- I mean, to hear somebody say, "Call me big man," or something, it wasn't too unusual, right? So when he said, "Call me Barack," it's like, "All right, Barack." You thought it would pass. I did at that time at least.

    You thought it was a phase.


  5. Ψ Share

    Gerald Kellman   Hired Obama as a community organizer

    He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008

    And when he writes about this period of time, this is still during that period of time where he's struggling to figure out his identity in a lot of ways. Did that come through? ...

    Certainly in terms of even career, I mean, Barack was trying out this organizing. His other choice at the time was he still held some hope of becoming a novelist. I mean, he really liked writing. He really liked narrative. He wrote short stories when he was here. When he got here, that was the other choice that I think was very, very alive for him at that time. So he's figuring out career.

    And certainly he's figuring out how he proceeds with this life with all his diversity. I mean, Barack not only is racially diverse, but he's able to hold different ideas together. He's a person who does very well with difference in holding it together. But the world doesn't always do as well as he does. And so where does he fit in?

    When people usually ask about figuring out his identity, they usually start with Dreams From My Father and the racial issue. What was happening at that time, beginning to happen -- it happened more after he got here -- is he was having conversations with his half-brother and -sister who had come to the States as graduate students. And so for the first time, he was learning something about his father. And that was very important to him.

    But it wasn't so much a racial identity thing, as any kid, any young person who would have known his mother but really not known his father, known much about his father, only what his mother had said -- and his mother hadn't really known his father most of Barack's life. Here was the first chance he had to get a glimpse of where he came from on that side of it. And that was important to him.

    First time to learn where he came from by talking to his half-brother and -sister?

    That's right. At least the story. And he didn't get the full story. He didn't get the full story until he went to Kenya and met his grandmother and saw the village and all of that stuff. But as much as he could, he was getting -- particularly from his sister, Auma, he was getting a strong sense of his father's biography.

  6. Ψ Share

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    That search for identity, we've all been on one. He was really on one. Take me, to the extent that you know it, through what that search for identity was for Barack Obama.

    This was actually amusing to those of us who knew him during law school. Barack's identity, his sense of self, was so settled. He didn't strike us in law school as someone who was searching for himself or had searched for himself a few years previously and had come to this realization of who he was.

    No one is ever fully formed, but Barack was as fully formed as a person could be at that point in his life. And so when we read Dreams From My Father, we were surprised that he had gone through all of this angst and this search for identity and how tumultuous it had been and how recent it had been essentially, because that wasn't the person that we knew. But it clearly informed the person that he had become. And he was fortunate in that he had figured it out early enough in his life that he was able to put that behind him and move forward in ways that others hadn't done and were still trying to figure out.

    So it was surprising that he had had that much anxiety about his identity, because he was so far removed from that person and from that search when we knew him in law school, that it was -- you know, it was shocking actually.

    You know, as friends, is he somebody who talks about black kid, white mother, Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia with a stepfather -- you know, the whole journey? Does he ever sit around and just sort of say, "God," you know, "I -- "

    I can't say that I got the entire narrative in one sitting. But you obviously, over the course of when we were in law school for a three-year experience, you get bits and pieces. And you ultimately get the entire narrative. So it wasn't one sitting where he ruminates about all of these experiences. It came in bits and pieces.

    What is the self-awareness that he has? ... I mean, I know you say he already seems to be fully formed, but did he ever talk to you about moments that mattered or how he got there?

    Yeah. We definitely talked about his experiences from going to Kenya and meeting his father's family for the first time, which he did prior to coming to law school, what it was like, the time he spent in Indonesia with his mother and his stepfather. You definitely got those parts of the conversation.

    He didn't talk a lot about his experience of growing up in Hawaii, in a household where his grandparents were white, obviously, and he was obviously nurtured by his white grandparents and his mother. But when he went out on the street, he was identified as an African American. He didn't talk a lot about what that meant to him. But it was clear that it had informed his thinking about obviously who he was, but also about the issues and about how he dealt with people.

    Barack has had to deal with dueling identities all of his life, you know? He, again, as I said, nurtured by a white family and identifying with that family, but at the same time, when he goes out, he's identified as something else. And he has had to make sense of that duality his entire life. And I think that that's one of the reasons why he's not prone to either/ors. He appreciates that it's usually a bit of both. And that's the way he thinks about the issues. And so you could say his life experience has informed his approach to politics and his approach to policy.

    Right, exactly, so that when he's sitting at a sort of supercharged, maybe dichotomous Harvard Law School, at least in terms of race and gender, I mean, he really is a kind of composite of an understanding. Yes, he's African American and looks that way, and whatever that means to him in lots of other ways is whatever it means. But presumably he can talk and be attractive to Brad Berenson, [associate White House counsel in the George W. Bush administration and one of the few conservatives on the Law Review staff], and the Federalist Society guys and to you and to anybody else.

    Yeah, no, absolutely. He essentially spent his life trying to synthesize the duality of being one person in one place and being another person in another place. And what I like to say to people is that Barack never meets a stranger. And I think that that's one of the things that makes him so effective as a politician, that when he meets people, when he sees people, when he's interacting with people, Barack isn't inclined to stereotype people. He never meets a stranger. He ultimately has met you before in some other experience or someone obviously just like you.

    And so he deals with you on the terms of familiarity, not with being a stranger. And I do think that that's a function of him having to figure out who he was and trying to make sense of those two worlds that he had to walk between.

  7. Ψ Share

    Gerald Kellman   Hired Obama as a community organizer

    He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008

    When he comes back from Harvard, how is he different? Is he changed? ...

    Remember, he doesn't go off to Harvard and disappear. Every vacation is spent in Chicago. He's always coming back here. This is his home now, and more so once he meets Michelle.

    And when he's back, he's worried about DCP. You know, he's got this, for a young man, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. And he's running in to see if the budget's there, if the organizers are screwing up, you know, trying to induce us to help out since he's not on the scene anymore. He doesn't lose sight of that.

    He's still growing and exploring. He gets this book contract, and the major thing is that it's a big advance. And he owes a ton of money for law school and law school debts. But he's so busy he can't get himself to write the book. He finally graduates, and he's almost at the deadline. And he goes off on the beach to write the book.

    But everything tends to happen for a reason. And Barack used the book as an opportunity to explore, you know, who he was and his own story and to write it down in a disciplined fashion, something he wouldn't have done probably at that stage if he hadn't been forced to.

    He's very much the same person, with the exception of probably meeting Michelle and moving into that phase of his life. His roots begin to sink much deeper.

    He becomes anchored, you know, in a new way in that marriage and with those kids. And he's able to move out into the world with a lot more confidence and lot more perspective, because he married a woman who just doesn't buy into everything he says, who will challenge him in a variety of ways. And that's very healthy. ...



Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2012 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.