A new book about President Obama’s early years includes interviews with past girlfriends and friends who describe his search for identity early in adulthood.
“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,” said Genevieve Cook, who dated Obama when they both lived in New York in the early 1980s.
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Cook is one of many figures in Obama’s life not previously known of who spoke to author David Maraniss for his book Barack Obama: The Story, which will be released next month. An excerpt was put online Wednesday by Vanity Fair.
Obama had discussed his years in New York in his best-selling 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, but used pseudonyms for many of the people he knew in that era and melded different characters into composites.
One of the unnamed characters from the book, as Obama himself has acknowledged in an interview with Maraniss, is Cook. The excerpt also includes letters Obama wrote another old flame, Alex McNear, who was at the time co-editing a literary magazine. One of the future president’s letters eloquently invokes the writers Keats, Eliot, Yeats and Pound.
But much of the excerpt echoes the theme of Obama’s memoir, a search for identity.
“Caught without a class, a structure or tradition to support me, in a sense, the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes, make them mine, me theirs,” he writes to McNear as a 22-year-old.
Another friend of Obama’s from that period, Beenu Mahmood, describes Obama reading and re-reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in this period of his life. According to Mahmood, Obama was seeking to establish his identity both as an American, after having lived abroad in his childhood and having many foreign-born friends, and in terms of race.
Obama “was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world. [That] was an important period for him, first the shift from not international, but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
In a journal entry from the time, Cook recalls drifting away from Obama after about a year of dating in part because of this search for identity.
“I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced — a black woman I keep seeing her as,” she wrote.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr