As the USA's "first black president," Barack Obama fills a curious status or niche between the nation's immigrant and minority cultures.
Unlike Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other African American leaders, Barack Obama is apparently not descended from slaves.
Instead, Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (1942-95), was born in Kansas of mostly English ancestry, while his father, Barack Obama Sr. (1936-82), a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, was born a member of the Luo tribe in Kenya, Africa.
Michelle Obama is, however, descended from African American slaves, and thus so are the Obamas' two daughters.
President Obama's genealogy inevitably raised questions about whether he was a true African American, and his memoir Dreams from My Father explores these competing and sometimes conflicting dimensions of his identity. His father returned to Africa in 1964, leaving his son to be raised primarily by his mother's family. As Barack Obama grew to maturity, however, people's inclination to identify him by his skin color led him increasingly to develop an African American identity.
Mr. Obama explored these issues in his celebrated 1995 memoir Dreams of My Father, which he wrote and published just before entering politics as a state senator in Chicago. The book was widely reviewed and praised. Among "literary presidents," Barack Obama likely makes the top 10 with Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams, and others.
A surprising twist in President Obama's genealogy was revealed in 2012 when a team of genealogists found that his mother's family probably had at least one African forebear who was among the nation's earliest slaves.
Selection from Dreams from My Father
After graduating from Columbia University in 1983, Barack Obama worked at Business International Corporation and Public Interest Research Group worked in predominantly African American Southside Chicago as director of a church-based community organization from 1985 to 1988. In the following passage he describes meeting with the recently resigned president of the local Chamber of Commerce:
[from pp. 181-82; paragraphs are divided.]
He offered us three chairs and talked as he worked [packing boxes to move out of his office]. He explained that he had owned the stationery store down the street for fifteen years now, had been the president of the Chamber for the last five. He had done his best to organize the local merchants, but lack of support had finally left him discouraged.
"You won't hear me complaining about the Koreans," he said, stacking a few boxes by the door. "They're the only ones that pay their dues into the Chamber. They understand business, what it means to cooperate. They pool their money, make each other loans. [<e.g., model minority] We don't do that, see. The black merchants around here, we're all like crabs in a bucket."
He straightened up and wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
"I don't know. Maybe you can't blame us for being the way we are. All those years without opportunity, you have to figure it took something out of us. And it's tougher now than it was for the Italian or the Jew thirty years ago. These days, a small store like mine has to compete against the big chains.
"It's a losing battle unless you do like these Koreansówork your family sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. As a people, we're not willing to do that anymore. I guess we worked so long for nothing, we feel like we shouldn't have to break our backs just to survive. That's what we tell our children anyway. I can't say I'm different. I tell my sons I don't want them taking over the business. I want them to go work for some big company where they can be comfortable. . . . "
. . . As we walked back to the car , we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her.