Obama as Ralph Ellison's "Rinehart"
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A reader points out an amusing literary precedent for our protean President: When experiencing doubts about his identity while at Punahou Prep, Obama read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Toward the climax of that African-American classic, the nameless narrator, who has been beset with identity problems of his own, puts on dark sunglasses and ventures onto the streets of Harlem. In this disguise, he is repeatedly accosted by passers-by who think he is, apparently, some local character named Rinehart. This Rinehart, a man for all seasons, is evidently a pimp, a preacher, a numbers-runner, whatever works best for whomever he's dealing with at the moment. In his opaque lenses, people see whomever they hope to see. He is the one they've been waiting for.

The narrator experiences a revelation that might remind you a little of a recent political campaign's basic strategy:

Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? But how could I doubt it? He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie. ...

In the South everyone knew you, but coming North was a jump into the unknown. How many days could you walk the streets of the big city without encountering anyone who knew you, and how many nights? You could actually make yourself anew. The notion was frightening, for now the world seemed to flow before my eyes. All boundaries down, freedom was not only the recognition of necessity, it was the recognition of possibility. And sitting there trembling I caught a brief glimpse of the possibilities posed by Rinehart's multiple personalities and turned away. It was too vast and confusing to contemplate. Then I looked at the polished lenses of the glasses and laughed. I had been trying simply to turn them into a disguise but they had become a political instrument instead; for if Rinehart could use them in his work, no doubt I could use them in mine.

For another Ellisoncentric view of Obama, see David Samuels' brilliant article "Invisible Man" in the October 22, 2008 issue of The New Republic. It doesn't seem to be online anymore, but, fortunately, it's still cached by Google.

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