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Obama, Barack

Barack Obama

August 4, 1961 • Honolulu, Hawaii


Illinois voters sent a Democratic newcomer, Barack Obama, to one of the state's two seats in the U.S. Senate in 2004. Obama's landslide victory in Illinois was significant on several fronts. Firstly, he became the Senate's only African American lawmaker when he was sworn into office in January 2005, and just the third black U.S. senator to serve there since the 1880s. Moreover, Obama's political supporters came from a diverse range of racial and economic backgrounds, which is still relatively rare in American electoral politics—traditionally, black candidates have not done very well in voting precincts where predominantly non-minority voters go to the polls. Even before his Election Day victory, Obama emerged as the new star of the Democratic Party after delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts that summer. His stirring speech, in which he urged a united, not a divided, American union, prompted political commentators to predict he might become the first African American elected to the White House.

Born in Hawaii

Obama is actually of mixed heritage. He was born in 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his parents had met at the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus. His father, Barack Sr., was from Kenya and entered the University of Hawaii as its first-ever student from an African country. He was a member of Kenya's Luo ethnic group, many of whom played a key role in that country's struggle for independence in the 1950s. Obama's mother, Ann Durham, was originally from Kansas, where some of her ancestors had been anti-slavery activists in the 1800s.

The marriage between Obama's parents was a short-lived one, however. In the early 1960s, interracial relationships were still quite rare in many parts of America, and even technically illegal in some states. The Durhams were accepting of Barack Sr., but his family in Kenya had a harder time with the idea of his marryinga white American woman. When Obama was two years old they divorced, and his father left Hawaii to enter Harvard University to earn a Ph.D. in economics. The two Baracks met again only once, when Obama was ten, though they did write occasionally. Barack Sr. eventually returned to Kenya and died in a car accident there in the early 1980s.

"In no other country on earth is my story even possible."

Obama's mother remarried a man from Indonesia who worked in the oil industry, and when Obama was six they moved there. The family lived near the capital of Jakarta, where his half-sister Maya was born. At the age of ten, Obama returned to Hawaii and lived with his maternal grandparents; later his mother and sister returned as well. Called "Barry" by his family and friends, he was sent to a prestigious private academy in Honolulu, the Punahou School, where he was one of just a handful of black students. Obama recalled feeling conflicted about his mixed heritage in his teen years. Outside the house, he was considered African American, but the only family he knew was his white one at home. For a time, he loafed and let his grades slip; instead of studying, he spent hours on the basketball court with his friends, and has admitted that there was a time when he experimented with drugs, namely marijuana and cocaine. "I was affected by the problems that I think a lot of young African American teens have," he reflected in an interview with Kenneth Meeks for Black Enterprise. "They feel that they need to rebel against society as a way of proving their blackness. And often, this results in self-destructive behavior."

Excels at Harvard Law School

Obama graduated from Punahou and went on to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he decided to get serious about his studies. Midway through, he transferred to the prestigious Columbia University in New York City. He also began to explore his African roots and not long after his father's death traveled to meet his relatives in Kenya for the first time. After he earned his undergraduate degree in political science, he became a community organizer in Harlem—but quickly realized he could not afford to live in the city with a job that paid so little. Instead, he moved to Chicago to work for a church-based social-services organization there. The group was active on the city's South Side, one of America's most impoverished urban communities.

Feeling it was time to move on, Obama applied to and was accepted at Harvard Law School, one of the top three law schools in the United States. In 1990, he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review journal. He was the first African American to serve in the post, which virtually assured him of any career path he chose after graduation. But Obama declined the job offers from top Manhattan law firms, with their starting salaries that neared the $100,000-a-year range, in order to return to Chicago and work for a small firm that specialized in civil-rights law. This was an especially unglamorous and modest-paying field of law, for it involved defending the poor and the marginalized members of society in housing and employment discrimination cases.

Obama also had another reason for returning to Chicago: During his Harvard Law School years, he took a job as a summer associate at a Chicago firm, and the attorney assigned to mentor him was also a Harvard Law graduate, Michelle Robinson. The two began dating and were married in 1992. Robinson came from a working-class black family and grew up on the South Side; her brother had excelled at basketball and went to Princeton University, and she followed him there for her undergraduate degree. Obama also considered Chicago a place from which he could launch a political career, and he became active in a number of projects in addition to his legal cases at work and another job he held teaching classes at the University of Chicago Law School. He worked on a local voter-registration drive, for example, that registered thousands of black voters in Chicago; the effort was said to have helped Bill Clinton (1946–) win the state in his successful bid for the White House in 1992.

Writes autobiography

Obama's time at the Law Review had netted him an offer to write a book. The result was Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, published by Times Books in 1995. The work merited some brief but mostly complimentary reviews in the press. Obama, however, was not hoping for a career as an author: he decided to run for a seat in the Illinois state senate. He ran from his home district of Hyde Park, the neighborhood surrounding the elite University of Chicago on the South Side. Though Hyde Park is similar to many American college towns, with well-kept homes and upscale businesses, the surrounding neighborhood is a more traditionally urban one, with higher levels of both crime and unemployment.

Obama won that 1996 election and went on to an impressive career in the Senate chambers in Springfield, the state capital. He championed a bill that gave tax breaks to low-income families, worked to expand a state health-insurance program for uninsured children, and wrote a bill that required law enforcement officials in every community to begin keeping track of their traffic stops and noting the race of the driver. This controversial bill, which passed thanks to Obama's determined effort to find support from both political parties in the state Senate, was aimed at reducing incidents of alleged racial profiling, or undue suspicion turned upon certain minority or ethnic groups by police officers on patrol. He also won passage of another important piece of legislation that required police to videotape homicide confessions.

Black Senators in U.S. History

Barack Obama became the fifth African American senator in U.S. history in 2005. He was only the third elected since the end of the Reconstruction, the period immediately following the end of the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). During the Reconstruction Era, federal troops occupied the defeated Southern states and, along with transplanted government officials, one of their duties was to make sure that newly freed slaves were allowed to vote fairly and freely in elections.

Before 1913 and the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, members of the U.S. Senate were not directly elected by voters in most states, however. Instead they were elected by legislators in the state assemblies, or appointed by the governor. Still, because of the Reconstruction Era reforms, many blacks were elected to the state legislatures that sent senators to Washington. In 1870, the Mississippi state legislature made Hiram Rhoades Revels (1827–1901) the state's newest senator and the first black ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. Revels was a free-born black from North Carolina and a distinguished minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who had raised two black regiments that fought on the Union side during the Civil War. He served in the Senate for one year.

In 1875, Mississippi lawmakers sent Blanche K. Bruce (1841–1898) to the U.S. Senate. A former slave from Virginia, Bruce was a teacher and founder of the first school for blacks in the state of Missouri. After the end of the Civil War, he headed south to take part in the Reconstruction Era. He won election to local office as a Republican, and in 1875 lawmakers sent him to the U.S. Senate. He served the full six-year term. In 1881, he was appointed a U.S. Treasury official, and his signature was the first from an African American to appear on U.S. currency.

Nearly a hundred years passed before another African American was elected to the Senate, and this came by statewide vote. Edward William Brooke III (1919–), a Republican from Massachusetts, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966 and served two terms. In 1992 another Illinois Democrat, Carol Moseley Braun (1947–), became the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Obama made his first bid for U.S. Congress in 2000, when he challenged a well-known black politician and former Chicago City Council member, Bobby Rush (1946–), for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rush was a former 1960s radical who had founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist party of the era. Rush's campaign stressed his experience and questioned Obama's support base among wealthier white voters in the city, and Obama was solidly defeated in the primary, winning just 30 percent of the vote.

Enters Senate race

A few years later, Obama decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate when Illinois Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald (1960–) announced he would retire. Some of Obama's supporters thought he was aiming too high, but this time he beat out six other Democratic challengers in the primary with 53 percent of the vote. Suddenly, state and even national Democratic Party leaders began taking him and his Senate campaign seriously. In the primary, he had managed to do what few African American politicians had ever done: record an impressive number of votes from precincts that had a predominantly white population.

In his 2004 Senate race, Obama faced a tough Republican challenger, however: a former investment banker turned parochial-school (school supported by a church parish) teacher named Jack Ryan (1960–). Ryan was blessed with television-actor good looks and had even once been married to Boston Public star Jeri Ryan (1968–). But Jack Ryan was, like one of Obama's earlier primary opponents, derailed by allegations about his personal life. Chicago news outlets publicized Ryan's divorce documents from 1999, which revealed one or two incidents that seemed distinctly at odds with a Republican "family values" platform. Ryan dropped out of the race, but the Republican National Party quickly brought in talk-show host Alan Keyes (1950–), who changed his home address from Maryland to Illinois to run against Obama. Keyes was a conservative black Republican who twice had made a bid for the White House, but he worried some voters with his strong statements against homosexuality.

Obama, by contrast, was winning public-opinion polls among every demographic group that pollsters asked. He was even greeted with rock-star type cheers in rural Illinois farm towns. Many of these small-town voters recognized that the manufacturing operations of many U.S. industries were rapidly being moved overseas thanks to free-trade agreements that eliminated tariffs (taxes) and trade barriers between the United States and Mexico; another free-trade agreement was in the works for Central America. The result was a dramatic decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. Obama's campaign pledged to stop the outsourcing of such jobs to overseas facilities. But Obama suddenly found himself in the national spotlight, when John Kerry (1943–), expected to win the Democratic Party's nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, asked Obama to deliver the convention's keynote address. The keynote speech is expected to set the tone of the political campaign, and those chosen to give face tremendous expectations.

"That makes my life poorer"

Obama did not disappoint that evening. His speech, which he wrote himself and titled "The Audacity of Hope," was stirring and eloquent, and quickly dubbed by political analysts to be one of the best convention keynote addresses of the modern era. He earned several standing ovations during it, and Obama's confident, assured tone was broadcast to the rest of the nation. Cameras occasionally scanned the crowd to show tears on the faces of delegates. Obama praised Kerry's values and experience, and he reminded delegates and the national television audience that the country's strength came from unity, not division—that Americans had created a thriving nation out of many diverse ethnic groups and ideologies in its 228-year history. Economic policies aimed at providing a better life for everyone, not just a privileged few, was the American way, he said. "If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother," he told the crowd. "If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief—I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper—that makes this country work."

Obama's speech, analysts said almost immediately, struck a hopeful, healing tone for a drastically divided nation and what had become a bitter, insult-heavy presidential contest. Obama, asserted Time 's Amanda Ripley, "described a country that America wants very badly to be: a country not pockmarked by racism and fear or led by politicians born into privilege and coached into automatons [robotic behavior]." Others called it one of the best political speeches of the century. Some newspaper and magazine editorial writers predicted that the rising star from Illinois would emerge a strong leader in the Democratic Party over the next few years, and could even run for president in 2012 or 2016.

Obama won his bid for the Senate a few months later by a large margin, taking 70 percent of the Illinois vote against just 27 percent for Keyes. At just forty-three years old, he became one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate when he was sworn into office in January 2005. The first major piece of legislation he introduced came two months later with the Higher Education Opportunity through Pell Grant Expansion Act of 2005 (HOPE Act). Its goal was increase the maximum amount that the federal government provides each student who receives need-based financial aid for college. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pell grants often covered nearly the entire tuition cost— excluding room, board, and books—at some state universities. But because they had failed to keep pace with risingtuition costs by 2005 they covered, on average, just 23 percent of the tuition at state schools.

Obama and his wife have two young daughters, Malia and Sasha. Instead of moving to Washington, Michelle Robinson Obama remained in Chicago indefinitely with the children and kept her job as a hospital executive. Television personality Oprah Winfrey (1954–) interviewed Obama not long after the Democratic National Convention and asked him how he became such an eloquent public speaker. He replied that he knew from an early age that he had a career in the persuasive arts—be they legal or political—ahead of him. "I always knew I could express myself," he said in O, The Oprah Magazine. "I knew I could win some arguments. I knew I could get my grandparents and mom frustrated!"

For More Information


Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.


Alter, Jonathan. "'The Audacity of Hope.'" Newsweek (December 27, 2004): p. 74.

Finnegan, William. "The Candidate." New Yorker (May 31, 2004).

Meeks, Kenneth. "Favorite Son." Black Enterprise (October 2004): p. 88.

"Oprah Talks to Barack Obama." O, The Oprah Magazine (November 2004): p. 248.

Ripley, Amanda. "Obama's Ascent." Time (November 15, 2004): p. 74.

Web Sites

Barack Obama, U.S. Senator from Illinois. (accessed on August 23, 2005).

"Rising Star: Senate Candidate Barack Obama Delivers Rousing Keynote at DNC." Democracy Now. (accessed on August 23, 2005).

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Obama, Barack

Barack Obama


Politician, attorney

Elected to represent Illinois in the United States Senate in November of 2004, Barack Obama had already become the subject of speculation as to his future on the national political stage. The speculation had grown exponentially in August of that year, when Obama delivered an electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In that speech, Obama used the language of patriotism to frame an appeal to Americans to transcend their divisions. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Indeed, Barack Obama's story resonated with the durable narrative of the American melting pot. "Barack is the American dream," Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe told Ebony. Obama himself in his convention speech said that "in no other country on earth is my story even possible." Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was named after his father Barack, a Kenyan exchange student; the name is an African one and means "blessing" in his father's native Swahili. Obama's mother Ann was a white American born in Kansas who had moved to Honolulu with her parents.

Obama's family unit dissolved when he was two, as his father won a scholarship to Harvard that wasn't large enough to support the whole family and went to Massachusetts alone. After finishing his degree, the elder Obama went home to Kenya and took a job as an economic planner for the country's government. He continued to write letters to his son, and visited him once when he was ten, but his marriage to Obama's mother ended. She married an Indonesian oil company executive, and Obama lived in Indonesia between the ages of six and ten. His half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng was born in Indonesia and later moved to Honolulu.

Conflicted Identities in Honolulu

Sent back to Hawaii to live with his mother's parents in a small Honolulu apartment, Obama had a tough adolescence. Considered black by the world of which he was learning to be a part, he was nevertheless shaped most directly by the values of his small-town, white, Midwestern-grown immediate family. Later, when he was running for the Senate in the farm belt of downstate Illinois, he found that this Midwestern background worked to his advantage. "I know these people," he told the New Yorker, referring to down-state voters. "The food they serve is the food my grandparents served when I was growing up. Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrongit's all totally familiar to me."

As a teenager, though, Obama was a young man with a confused identity. He experimented with marijuana and cocaine, and though he had inherited a quick-study intelligence from his father and won admission to the top-flight Punahou School, his grades were inconsistent and his commitment to bodysurfing and basketball was bigger than his interest in school. One of seven or eight black students at Punahou, he found that whites had low expectations when they met him. "People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves," he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father. "Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry."

Inside, Obama was worried about fitting in and was on the way to developing a classic example of W.E.B. DuBois's double consciousness. "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds," he wrote, "convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere." Despite these feelings, Obama's innate charisma began to show itself as he left the Punahou campus to flirt with college-aged women at the nearby University of Hawaii.

That coherence was still hard to find at New York's Columbia University, where Obama transferred as a third-year student. Obama enjoyed New York but found that racial tension infected even "the stalls of Columbia's bathrooms ," he wrote, "where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. It was as if all middle ground had collapsed."

Wrote Letters to Community

After earning his degree in 1983, however, Obama responded with activist commitment instead of hedonistic escapism. He wrote to community service organizations all over the United States asking what he could do to help, and he signed on with the one group that replied, a church-based Chicago group doing neighborhood work on the city's economically reeling South Side. For three years, Obama was a community organizera tough job, but one in which he notched accomplishments ranging from job-training programs to a successful attempt to improve city services at the Altgeld Gardens housing project. The biracial outsider gathered with black Chicagoans at a South Side barbershop that he continued to patronize even after he became famous.

Obama applied to Harvard Law School"to learn power's currency," he wrote in his autobiography. His academic brilliance flowered fully and propelled him to the presidency of the prestigious Harvard Law Review in 1990, making him the first African American to hold the post, and to a magna cum laude graduation in 1991. One of his teachers was famed litigator Laurence Tribe, who told Time that "I've known Senators, Presidents. I've never known anyone with what seems to me more raw political talent." Back in Chicago for a summer internship, he met his wife Michelle, an attorney and South Side native who was assigned to supervise him. The couple has two daughters, Malia Ann and Natasha (Sasha).

At a Glance

Born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, HI; son of Barack Obama, a Kenyan government economist; raised by mother, a Kansas native; lived with mother in Indonesia as child; raised as teenager in Honolulu by maternal grandparents; married Michelle; children: Malia Ann and Natasha. Education: Columbia University, 1983; Harvard Law School, law degree, magna cum laude, 1991. Religion: United Church of Christ.

Career: Community organizer, Chicago, 1983-86; civil rights attorney, Chicago, 1991-96; University of Chicago, lecturer, early 1990s-2004; Illinois State Senator, 1996-2005; U.S. Senator, 2005.

Selected awards: Presidency of Harvard Law Review, 1990.

Addresses: Office U.S. Senate Office Buildings, Washington, DC 20515.

Obama passed up job offers from Chicago's top law firms to practice civil rights law with a small public-interest law office and to lecture at the University of Chicago, holding the latter position until he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. He jumped into politics by chairing a voter-registration drive that helped carry Illinois for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, and his political ambitions became clearer when he turned down a chance to apply for a tenure-rack University of Chicago professorship. When an Illinois state senate seat in his home South Side district came open in 1996, he ran and was elected. In the Illinois senate Obama was noted for legislation to curb racial profiling and for a bill that mandated the videotaping of police interrogations carried out in death-penalty cases.

Despite his varied background, Obama identified himself as black. "When I'm catching a cab in Manhattan they don't say, there's a mixed-race guy, I'll go pick him up," he pointed out to Ebony writer Joy Bennett Kinnon. "Or if I was an armed robber and they flashed my face on television, they'd have no problem labeling me as a black man. So if that's my identity when something bad happens, then that's my identity when something good happens as well." But when Obama ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2000 Democratic primary against entrenched South-Side congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, he suffered from a perception that he was an exotic, elite outsider and was trounced by a two-to-one margin.

Triumphed in Crowded Primary

South Side residents (including Rush) rallied around Obama during his next try for higher office, however. Obama jumped into a primary race that pitted him against two formidable opponents (and several others): longtime Chicago politician Dan Hynes, who was favored by the city's vaunted Democratic Party "machine" political organization, and businessman Blair Hull, who spent a $29 million personal war chest on the campaign. Obama put together an unusual coalition of blacks, "lakefront liberal" white Chicago voters, and downstate supporters to win the primary with a convincing outright majority of 53 percent. His victory was partly attributable to a fervent corps of volunteers who worked on his campaign, many inspired by Obama's early and unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war and by other unrepentant liberal positions. "People call it drinking the juice," Obama political director Dan Sherman explained to the New Yorker. "People start drinking the Obama juice. You can't find enough for them to do."

Then came Obama's Democratic National Convention speech, which Time called "one of the best in convention history." The speech really put Obama on the national political radar, and the phone in his South Side home rang nonstop with interview requests in the days after the convention. "I didn't realize that the speech would strike the chord that it did," Obama told Ebony. "I think part of it is that people are hungry for a sense of authenticity. All I was really trying to do was describe what I was hearing on the campaign trail, the stories of the hopes, fears, and struggles of what ordinary people are going through every day."

On the campaign trail Obama shone as he showed an ability to connect with voters across class, racial, and geographic lines. "I just never heard anybody speak like him before," a downstate Democrat told the New Yorker. "It's like he's talking to you, and not to a crowd." One reason Illinois voters reacted to Obama this way was that the candidate, in meeting individual voters one on one, drew effectively on the various dialects of English he had absorbed as a result of his diverse background. Working-class black Chicagoans, highly educated professionals and academics, and small-town business owners all felt that they had encountered one of their own when Obama gave a speech in their neighborhoods.

The Illinois Republican party floundered as its anointed candidate, Jack Ryan, struggled with allegations that he had forced his ex-wife, television actress Jeri Ryan, to visit sex clubs with him against her will. Ryan eventually dropped out of the race and was replace by Alan Keyes, an ultraconservative black radio commentator from Maryland who had previously criticized New York Senator Hillary Clinton for moving to that state solely for the purpose of running for the Senate. Obama won in a landslide, garnering seventy percent of the vote and spending much of his time in the final phases of the campaign stumping for Democratic candidates in neighboring states.

Beginning with the Democratic convention speech, talk began to swirl around Obama suggesting that those who had heard him speak at this early stage in his career had been looking at the man who would become the first African-American president of the U.S. Obama contributed nothing to such speculation, and many of his early statements regarding his intentions for his Senate term focused on the problem of Illinois's declining job base. Yet few could doubt that the state that had produced Abraham Lincoln was now home to another figure able to exert a powerful healing force to the nation's still-gaping racial wounds.



Obama, Barack, Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), reprinted Three Rivers Press, 2004.


Black Enterprise, October 2004, p. 88.

Ebony, November 2004, p. 196.

New Yorker, May 31, 2004, p. 32.

Time, November 15, 2004, p. 74.

U.S. News & World Report, August 2, 2004, p. 25.

James M. Manheim

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