Trying to embrace his blackness, Mahmood thought, was “the second and probably the biggest shift I saw [in Obama during the New York years]. To be honest, he had never had many black friends. Not that he had anything against that, just that he was part of that other set, the international set. So for him this was a big thing. . . . Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and . . . that was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
Genevieve encouraged Barack’s search for identity. He was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? At times he confessed to her that “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” She realized that “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black. I told him that. I think he felt very encouraged by my absolute conviction that his future lay down the road with a black woman. He doubted there were any black women he would feel truly comfortable with. I would tell him, ‘No, she is out there.’ ”
“He’s six months older than my oldest child,” Augustine-Herron recalled thinking. “I looked at him and said, ‘He’s not going to make it.’ That was my first opinion. But as we got into the interview, he was so interesting. His comfort level. He was just very at ease. . . . The other thing is he was honest, and you can’t buy honesty. . . . We’d say, ‘What do you do in this case or that case?’ He was honest about his knowledge of the area, his knowledge about the situations. He would give us examples of things he could do, things he couldn’t do. He would say, ‘I’m not familiar with that, but things like that are things we will learn together.’ ”
The black women in the room that day, Augustine-Herron and Lloyd, along with their friend Margaret Bagby, quickly ushered Obama into their world. The three women were a generation or more older and treated Obama with protective concern as they would a favorite nephew, but were disarmed by his quiet confidence and generally followed his lead. They instructed him on the mores and idiosyncrasies of the South Side, accompanied him to endless meetings, warned him about what neighborhoods to steer clear of at night, pointed him toward other people who could be part of the network, and worried about his “health and welfare.” (Loretta: “We’d take him to lunch and we’d have sandwiches and burgers and he’d have a spinach salad. We’d say, SPINACH salad? What’s that?”)
Obama maintained some of his characteristic reserve, yet they drew him in with the warmth and noise and immediacy of their lives. Here was the day-to-day world of urban black America, a place that for all of his travels he had never really experienced before. He had driven through the streets of South-Central Los Angeles and walked up and down Lenox Avenue in Harlem, but this was different. In Chicago, Obama was finding — and being found.
Even as he was insinuating himself into the South Side culture and finding comfort in the black world there, Obama remained the participant observer. His perspective was universal, removed, not racial. He had reservations about people of every race when it came to tribal thinking. In private conversations with his assistant Johnnie Owens, a streetwise product of the South Side, he did not hesitate to point out what he saw as hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes.
“He was very clear about the unreasonable aspects of how blacks saw things in the community,” Owens said. “For example, when African Americans would complain about ‘They always show us when somebody kills somebody . . . they show a picture of a black person on TV,’ people would say, ‘They always do that!’ Barack would say, ‘We do do that!’ Or oftentimes folks would be angry about the school system. He would say, ‘Well some folks didn’t prepare their kids well for school!’ He believed there was a lot more accountability that needed to take place in the African American community. He sounded like an outsider.”
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