He talked quite a lot about discontent in a quiet sort of way—balancing the tendency to be always the observer, how to effect change, wanting to get past his antipathy to working at B.I.
“A SUPERHERO LIFE”
The initials “B.I.” in that journal entry stood for Obama’s employer, Business International, located at 1 Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, on Second Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets. Business International had been operating for nearly 30 years by the time Obama went to work there. Established in 1954, its stated goal was “to advance profitable corporate and economic growth in socially desirable ways.” What that entailed, for the most part, was compiling and constantly updating newsletters and reference materials for corporations that did business around the world. Obama was a very junior employee, doing research and writing reports.
By early 1984, Obama was absorbed with Genevieve and with figuring out his place in the world. Whatever and wherever that would be, it would certainly not involve Business International or anything like it. He had turned away from the rhetoric of the left, dubious of its practicality and turned off by radical remnants of the 1960s, but was also leery of succumbing to the allure of the business world. Genevieve knew that he harbored faintly articulated notions of future greatness, of gaining power in order to change things. Once, when they were in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, they saw a young boy in costume, playing out a superhero role. They started to talk about superheroes, the comics he enjoyed as an adolescent in Honolulu, and intimations of “playing out a superhero life.” She considered it “a very strong archetype in his personality.” But he was not to be drawn out—he shut down “and didn’t want to talk about it further.”
Wednesday, May 9, 1984
But he is so wary, wary. Has visions of his life, but in a hiatus as to their implementation—wants to fly, and hasn’t yet started to take off, so resents extra weight.
Saturday, May 26
Dreamt last night for what I’m sure was an hour of waiting to meet him at midnight, with a ticket in my hand. Told me the other night of having pushed his mother away over past 2 years in an effort to extract himself from the role of supporting man in her life—she feels rejected and has withdrawn somewhat. Made me see that he may fear his own dependency on me, but also mine on him, whereas I only fear mine on him He wants to preserve our relationship but either felt or wanted it to be well protected from some sense of immediate involvement.
Genevieve was out of her mother’s Upper East Side apartment by then. Earlier that spring she had moved and was sharing the top floor of a brownstone at 640 Second Street in Park Slope. The routine with Barack was now back and forth, mostly his place, sometimes hers. When she told him that she loved him, his response was not “I love you, too” but “thank you”—as though he appreciated that someone loved him. The relationship still existed in its own little private world. They spent time cooking. Barack loved to make a ginger beef dish that he had picked up from his friend Sohale Siddiqi. He was also big on tuna-fish sandwiches made the way his grandfather had taught him, with finely chopped dill pickles. For a present, Genevieve bought him an early edition ofThe Joy of Cooking. They read books together and talked about what they had read. For a time they concentrated on black literature, the writers Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Ntozake Shange.
If Barack and Genevieve were in social occasions as a couple, it was almost always with the Pakistanis. Hasan Chandoo had moved back from London and taken a place in a converted warehouse on the waterfront below Brooklyn Heights. Wahid Hamid, starting a rise up the corporate ladder that would take him to the top of PepsiCo, lived on Long Island with his wife. Sohale Siddiqi was part of the crowd, along with Beenu Mahmood. It was a movable feast, and invariably a matter of bounty and excess, friends losing themselves in food and conversation. Barack for the most part declined alcohol and drugs. “He was quite abstemious,” Genevieve said. She enjoyed the warmth of the gatherings, but was usually ready to go home before him. He was pushing away from the Pakistanis, too, politely, for a different reason, she thought. He wanted something more.
Beenu Mahmood saw a shift in Obama that corresponded to Genevieve’s perceptions. He could see Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself as a necessary step in establishing his political identity as an American. For years when Barack was around them, he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. He was one of them, in that sense. But to get to where he wanted to go he had to change.
Mahmood remembered that “for a period of two or three months” Obama “carried and at every opportunity read and reread a fraying copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and Invisible Manbecame a prism for his self-reflection.” There was a riff in that book that Mahmood thought struck close to the bone with Obama. The narrator, an intelligent black man whose skills were invisible to white society, wrote: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” His friend Barack, Mahmood thought, “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.”
Obama disciplined himself in two activities—writing and running. When he was on the Upper West Side, he would run in Riverside Park. When he was in Brooklyn, he would run in Prospect Park. He was what Genevieve called “a virtuous daily jogger,” and that was one of the differences between them. For weeks that summer, Genevieve challenged Barack to a footrace. Not long-distance but a sprint. If they sprinted, she insisted, she would beat him. Barack kept putting it off. “His response was merry disbelief,” Genevieve recalled. “By merry I don’t mean he laughed at me, though he was amused. He had this way … where he inhabits a mocking space—it’s sort of a loving mocking—as if to imply ‘Ah, the frailties and tendencies we all have to be delusional, self-deceiving, preposterous even, but you are cute, and I like you better for it.’ ” Finally, he relented. They picked a day, went to the park, and chose a walkway lined by lampposts for the dash. Her journal entry:
On Sunday Barack and I raced, and I won. I ran so fast my body transformed itself onto another plane. We ran, he started off behind me and I just said to myself stay ahead, stay ahead and my body became a flat thin box w/ my arms and legs coming each precisely from a corner. And I didn’t know how long I could keep it up, but I was going to try—my whole sight concentrated on the lamp post when I felt him slow and yell you beat me, at first I thought he was giving up, but then I realized he’d meant the lamp post on the left and I’d really won! The feel of the race was exhilarating, but I didn’t feel very victorious. Barack couldn’t really believe it and continued to feel a bit unsettled by it all weekend, I think. He was more startled to discover that I had expected to win than anything else. Anyway, later in the shower (before leaving to see The Bostonians) I told him I didn’t feel that good about winning, and he promptly replied probably cos of feelings of guilt about beating a man. In which case, no doubt, he’d already discovered the obverse feelings about being beaten by a woman. Nevertheless, it was a good metaphor for me, despite, as I confessed to Barack, that in some ways it would have appeased some aspect of my self-image to have tried and lost. But I didn’t; I won.
Kenya had been weighing on Obama’s mind since the death of his father, and he talked to Genevieve about wanting to visit his family in Kenya. On one occasion he had a vivid dream about his father. It was a dream of a distant place and the lost figure brought back to life, a vision that later inspired his memoir’s title. In this dream, as he recounted it in Dreams from My Father, Barack rode a bus across a landscape of “deep fields of grass and hills that bucked against an orange sky” until he reached a jail cell and found his father before him “cloth wrapped around his waist.” The father, slender, with hairless arms, saw his son and said, “Look at you, so tall—and so thin. Gray hairs, even,” and Obama approached him and hugged him and wept as Barack Hussein Obama Sr. said the words Barack Hussein Obama II would never hear in real life—“Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.”
Genevieve recalled the morning he awoke from that dream. “I remember him being just so overwhelmed, and I so badly wanted to fix him, help him fix that pain. He woke up from that dream and started talking about it. I think he was haunted.”
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.”
Early in Barack’s relationship with Genevieve, he had told her about “his adolescent image of the perfect ideal woman” and how he had searched for her “at the expense of hooking up with available girls.” Who was this ideal woman? Genevieve conjured her in her mind, and it was someone other than herself. She wrote, “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.”
In Dreams from My Father, Obama chose to emphasize a racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman he described as his New York girlfriend.
One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.
None of this happened with Genevieve. She remembered going to the theater only once with Barack, and it was not to see a work by a black playwright. When asked about this decades later, during a White House interview, Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. “It is an incident that happened,” he said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”
Obama wrote another scene into his memoir to serve a dual purpose, exposing what he saw as a cultural gap with Genevieve. He described how his New York girlfriend finally persuaded him to go with her to the family’s country estate in Norfolk, in northwestern Connecticut, for a weekend.
The parents were there, and they were very nice, very gracious. It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us, and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore. The family knew every inch of the land. They knew how the hills had formed, how the glacial drifts had created the lake, the names of the earliest white settlers—their ancestors—and before that, the names of the Indians who’d once hunted the land. The house was very old, her grandfather’s house. He had inherited it from his grandfather. The library was filled with old books and pictures of the grandfather with famous people he had known—presidents, diplomats, industrialists. There was this tremendous gravity to the room. Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.
The differences in this case between Barack’s portrayal and Genevieve’s recollections are understandable matters of perspective. It was her stepfather’s place. They rode the Bonanza bus up from New York and got off at the drugstore in Norfolk. It was indeed a beautiful autumn weekend, though colder than expected, and Obama complained about it. He did not bring warm enough clothes, so he had to borrow a woolen shirt from Genevieve. The Jessup property was 14 acres, with woods, brook, and pond. The library was exactly as he described it, cluttered with photographs and memorabilia of the grandfather’s distinguished career. The family mostly watched the evening news in there, and played charades.
From the distance of decades, in reading the memoir, what struck Genevieve most was Obama’s description of the gravity of that library, and the vast distance between their worlds, and his conviction that he alone was the one who knew how to live as an outsider. She felt as estranged from that milieu as he did, and he knew it, and over the ensuing decades it was Barack, not Genevieve, who would move closer to presidents, diplomats, and industrialists, the world of an insider. “The ironic thing,” she noted, “is he moved through the corridors of power in a far more comfortable way than I ever would have.”
“I PUSHED HER AWAY”
Genevieve had started teaching at P.S. 133, on Butler Street in Park Slope, that fall of 1984. She had fretted about it all of the previous summer, and now that she was in the classroom it proved even more difficult than she had anticipated. She confided to Barack one day that she had mentioned the idea of leaving to a colleague, who told her that if she stayed she would end up with a nice pension. “That was the only time he raised his voice and got really, really upset with me,” she recalled. “He went berserk about the trade-offs he saw his grandparents make for some supposed safety net at the expense of something He meant at the expense of their souls.”
That was something Obama, in his own self-assessment, deeply wanted to avoid. He said he would never keep a job just for security. In early December, after one year at Business International, he quit. He also left the apartment on 114th Street and moved in with Genevieve. It was to be a temporary arrangement until he left for Hawaii over the Christmas holidays. When he returned, he would find another place of his own, he said. Their time living together did not go well.
Monday, December 10
After a week of Barack and I adjusting to each others constant presence and his displacement, I expect that this week will make it hard to be alone again when he has gone [to Hawaii for Christmas]. We got very irritated w/ each other Fri. night and Saturday, talked about it.
Thursday, December 13
Induced a flare-up yesterday between Barack and me over a suddenly felt irritation at doing the breakfast dishes. Then I was less than honest when I broached my irritation w/ Barack in the vein of, I’m going to tell you I’m irritated, but only because I don’t want to be, and expected him to just let it roll off his back … living w/ someone, you inevitably turn your private frustrations out on that person, because that kind of projection is such a basic and pervasively influencing ego defense mechanism. And too, as one is so unaware of the other person’s living reality, I had not taken into account Barack’s feeling of being displaced and in the way. In the end he said I know it’s irritating to have me here, and I wanted to say and mean, no of course it isn’t, but I couldn’t. That has been the biggest surprise, that rather than enjoying his extended presence like a very long weekend, as I think I thought I would, and reveling in the comfort of reliably having someone to eat dinner with, and talk to and go to sleep with, I’ve been …resentful I suppose—no—as he said, impatient and domineering How beneath the surface things are after all.
Before Obama left for Hawaii, she bought him an expensive Aran-wool cable-knit white sweater at Saks Fifth Avenue to replace an old one he had inherited, likely from his grandfather, that had holes in it and that Genevieve liked to wear. He was embarrassed that she had spent so much money on it.
When he returned from his western travels in mid-January, he was still without a place of his own and back in her apartment in Park Slope. He had landed his first organizing job for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit founded in the state in 1973 and inspired by the national organization created by citizen activist Ralph Nader. Obama had focused his ambitions on organizing since his last year at Columbia, while acknowledging that he was not entirely certain what it meant. He was hired at a salary that was barely more than half what he had earned at B.I., and his job was to organize students up on the Harlem campus of the City University of New York, focusing on environmental and student-aid issues.
He succeeded at the job, by most standards, bringing more students into the organization and rejuvenating the chapter. But the issues seemed secondary to him, and he went to work every day with that same sense of remove and distance that he had carried with him at Columbia. Looking back on it decades later, he said that that first organizing job “had always felt sort of like a tryout of organizing as opposed to plunging into it in a serious way.” When he talked about the job with Genevieve, he mostly just said that it was depressing, which captured his mood much of that winter and early spring of 1985.
In his memoir, explaining his relationship with Genevieve to his Kenyan sister, Auma, he wrote: “I pushed her away. We started to fight. We started thinking about the future, and it pressed in on our warm little world.” All in the perspective, again. From Genevieve: “My take on it had always been that I pushed him away, found him not to be ‘enough,’ had chafed at his withheld-ness, his lack of spontaneity, which, eventually, I imagined might be assuaged, or certain elements of it might be, by living together. Because it felt so intrinsically to be part of his character, though, this careful consideration of everything he does, I saw it, then, as a sort of wound, one which ultimately I decided I was not the person he would ‘fix’ it with.”
At the end of March, Genevieve moved from Second Street to another apartment, on Warren Street, in Brooklyn. Barack helped her move, then found a place for himself in the 30s, off Eighth Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen. He and Genevieve continued their earlier routine of seeing each other on weekends, but things had changed. By the middle of May, their relationship was over.
Thursday, May 23, 1985
Barack leaving my life—at least as far as being lovers goes. In the same way that the relationship was founded on calculated boundaries and carefully, rationally considered developments, it seems to be ending along coolly considered lines. I read back over the past year in my journals, and see and feel several themes in it all … how from the beginning what I have been most concerned with has been my sense of Barack’s withholding the kind of emotional involvement I was seeking. I guess I hoped time would change things and he’d let go and “fall in love” with me. Now, at this point, I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc. is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.
Hard to say, as obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)
Obama had been thinking about Chicago since April 29, 1983, when Harold Washington made history, sworn in as the city’s first black mayor. Obama’s hope initially had been that he could land a job in the Washington administration after he graduated, which only showed how unschooled and naïve he was. Not until a decade later, when he was fully immersed in the give-and-take world of Illinois politics, would he learn how crucial it was to have a patron, or “Chinaman,” as it was called in that inimitable legislative milieu. In the spring of 1985—from the remove of New York City, having visited Chicago only once in his life, on a summer tour of the mainland with his family when he was 12 years old—Obama had no Chinaman, but he did have something. He had a telephone call from Jerry Kellman.
The connection began when Obama was at the New York Public Library and came across the latest copy of Community Jobs, a publication of six to eight pages that listed employment opportunities in the social-justice and social-services fields. One listing was for a group called the Developing Communities Project, which needed a community organizer to work in the Roseland neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Right city. Right line of work. Obama sent in his résumé and cover letter, something he had done many times before with no luck. Two matters left unstated in the ad were that Kellman, who oversaw the project, specifically wanted an African-American for the job, and that he was getting desperate.
Obama’s application seemed intriguing, though it gave no indication of his race. The résumé noted his Hawaiian childhood. The surname sounded Japanese. Kellman’s wife was Japanese. He knew that Obama could be a Japanese name and that Japanese-Americans were common in Hawaii. It would take a conversation to find out more, so he reached Obama in New York and they talked on the phone for about an hour. At some point, without asking directly, Kellman came to the realization that Obama was black. It was even more apparent to him that this applicant was smart and engaging and interested in social issues. Definitely worth a deeper look. Kellman told Obama that he would be in Manhattan soon to visit his father, a theatrical-copyright attorney who lived at 92nd and Broadway, and suggested they get together then. The meeting took place across town and down in Midtown, at a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue.
Kellman challenged Obama, throwing questions in his path as obstacles, one after another. Why did he want this line of work, with its low pay, long hours, and endless frustration? How did he feel about living and working in the black community for the first time in his life? “I asked him, ‘Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to organize? You graduated from Columbia. You are an African-American when corporations are looking for people like you. Why don’t you do something else?’ But first, Why? Where does this come from? What place and how deep does it come from? And what I got from him was that the people in the civil-rights movement were his heroes. And I also got from him that his mom was a social activist, an academic social activist, but a social activist.”
As the coffee-shop conversation progressed, Obama turned the tables and started interviewing Kellman. He wanted to make sure that the Developing Communities Project was legitimate and serious. This wasn’t some far-left enterprise, was it? He had moved beyond that, he said. Obama turned his questioning to Chicago and what this disheveled white man could teach him. Kellman wondered what Obama knew about Chicago. Not much. Hog butcher for the world, Obama said, reciting the famous Carl Sandburg line. Not anymore—the stockyards had closed, Kellman responded. Obama mentioned the Cubs, perennial losers, and Harold Washington, the town’s new winner. He pressed Kellman for more observations about the city and the South Side neighborhoods, what was happening with the steel mills, the decline of factory work, the fraying of families and communities. The more they talked, the more it became obvious to Kellman that Obama was his man.
Before leaving New York, Barack spent $2,000 on a blue Honda Civic that he would drive into the heartland to start his new life. He also took along the white cable-knit sweater that Genevieve had given him for Christmas. It would comfort him in the cold Chicago winter.