While writing my reader's guide to Barack Obama's memoir, I had a moment of doubt. I thought I understood the basic thrust of the guy's life — the need to define himself as black to acquire political power, because being seen as African-American would be hugely advantageous to the career of a quite white guy like Barry Soetoro. But what if this was all a smokescreen intended to distract from him being gay — this would hardly be the first time in quasi-autobiographical literature. For example, Remembrance of Things Past makes more sense if you know that Proust, unlike his fictional stand-in, was gay.
I spent several hours thinking through everything I knew about Obama, talking it over with my wife. I came up with virtually no evidence, other than a lack of pre-Michelle girlfriends (he didn't meet Michelle until he was almost 28), except for one white serious girlfriend, whom he shoves away because she is white. My wife was even more convinced than I was that the Obama-is-gay theory was a dead-end.
But, it has lived on among people less informed about Obama's life.
Now, Vanity Fair is publishing an excerpt from David Maraniss' latest biography of Obama. It's pretty dull stuff, but it identifies by name two white girlfriends from his New York years, and includes diary excerpts and letters. David Remnick had earlier recounted that Obama had a white girlfriend in his later Chicago years, an anthropology grad student at the U. of Chicago (sounds pretty Freudian!). Obama admitted to Maraniss that the lone white girlfriend in Dreams from My Father is a composite of several.
So, Obama sounds like a fairly average heterosexual.
One thing that's clear from the article if you read it with a more hard-headed approach than Maraniss brings is that marrying Michelle instead of earlier white girlfirends was crucial to Obama's ambition to be a black politician. But, we already knew that.
Genevieve and Barack talked about race quite often, as part of his inner need to find a sense of belonging. She sympathized and encouraged his search for identity. If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? He confessed to her that at times “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” At some point that summer 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.”
By the way, I've long been fascinated by the questions raised by this picture:
What if second husband Lolo Soetoro had decided to insist, out of patriarchal amour propre, that Barry was his own biological son? Stranger things have happened in families. It would strike me that the difference in hair would be the main stumbling block to getting away with this. Say he then concocted a story to add plausibility to his claim to paternity that his family had some wooly-haired Papuan ancestors from West Irian in Indonesian New Guinea.
Assume the story worked and that Barry Soetoro, along with everybody at Punahou, believed he was just some kind of a funny looking white-East Asian-Melanesian mixed race kid. Would he be president today?
Of course not.
The career of a Barry Soetoro who didn't call himself black would probably have been a lot like that of his half-sister Maya, a semi-employed soft subject Ph.D.
Putting my reductionist hat on, we can conclude from the spectacular career of Barack Obama that in 21st century America, being black is highly advantageous, all else being equal. Sadly, acting black continues to correlate with self-destructiveness.