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Sunday, March 23, 2008

And if he wanted to be called Barry, they'd attack him for hiding his real name
Posted by Jill | 1:15 PM
Christina, hand me the icepick!

Remember in 1984, when the press decided there was something sinister about Gary Hart changing his name from "Hartpence"? Well, they're doing it again.

Richard Wolffe, surprisingly, alludes to something sinister about Barack Obama wanting to be called by his actual name:

Barry Obama decided that he didn't like his nickname. A few of his friends at Occidental College had already begun to call him Barack (his formal name), and he'd come to prefer that. The way his half sister, Maya, remembers it, Obama returned home at Christmas in 1980, and there he told his mother and grandparents: no more Barry. Obama recalls it slightly differently, but in the same basic time frame. He believes he told his mom he wanted to be called Barack when she visited him in New York the following summer. By both accounts, it seemed that the elder relatives were reluctannt to embrace the change. Maya recalls that Obama's maternal grandparents, who had played a big role in raising him, continued long after that to call him by an affectionate nickname, "Bar." "Not just them, but my mom, too," says Obama.

Why did Obama make the conscious decision to take on his formal African name? His father was also Barack, and also Barry: he chose the nickname when he came to America from Kenya on a scholarship in 1959. His was a typical immigrant transition. Just as a Dutch woman named Hanneke might become Johanna, or a German named Matthias becomes Matt, the elder Barack wanted to fit in. America was a melting pot, and it was expected then that you melt—or at least smooth some of your more foreign edges.

But Obama, after years of trying to fit in himself, decided to reverse that process. The choice is part of his almost lifelong quest for identity and belonging—to figure out who he is, and how he fits into the larger American tapestry. Part black, part white, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, with family of different religious and spiritual backgrounds—seen by others in ways he didn't see himself—the young Barry was looking for solid ground. At Occidental, he was feeling as if he was at a "dead end," he tells NEWSWEEK, "that somehow I needed to connect with something bigger than myself." The name Barack tied him more firmly to his black African father, who had left him and his white mother at a young age and later returned home to Kenya. But that wasn't the primary motivation.

Obama wrote a whole book about his quest for identity, called "Dreams From My Father," and in it he never directly deals with the reasons he reverted to his birth name, or the impression it made on his relatives. The book is a deeply personal narrative that takes some liberties with the facts for the sake of a coherent tale. (Some of the characters, he points out in the introduction, are composites.) Old friends contacted by NEWSWEEK who were present during the time he changed his name recall or intuit a mix of reasons—both personal and social. By Obama's own account, he was, like most kids at that stage of life, a bit of a poseur—trying to be cool. So that could have played a part. He was also trying to reinvent himself. "It was when I made a conscious decision: I want to grow up," says Obama.

Yes, Barack Obama has had an upbringing very different from the standard cornfed prairie bland white-bread church-and-kitchen background we tend to associate with American presidents. In addition to being biracial at a time when it wasn't as prevalent as it is today, Obama, if he should become president, would arguably be the first offspring of what could be called hippie parents to lead this country.

I think about how tough it was for me growing up, and I was white. I was overweight, Jewish in a predominantly gentile neighborhood and town, but I was white. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for Obama, feeling neither here nor there and living hither and yon. Reading this article, I'm reminded by the two daughters in the film Hideous Kinky, based on Esther Freud's autobiographical novel about her upbringing in Morocco with her hippie mother. But it's that very freewheeling background that makes me think, as much as I supported John Edwards in the early primaries, that if this country is to begin to move beyond the kind of knee-jerk fearmongering that has characterized us since long before the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama may be the exact right guy at the right time.

It's not going to be easy for him. Too many people, from the Clintonistas who have moved beyond their outsider status of 1992 to adopt the same sense of entitlement that characterizes the Bush family, to the talking heads of the media, have a vested interest in the status quo -- a status quo that relies on Scary Others™ to sustain a power structure that benefits the few and screws over the many. Whether it's Scary Negroes (sic) like Willie Horton, or Scary Middle Eastern Men, or Scary Latinos Who Want Your Job, the United States is the Land of Fear.

Right now that fear is manifesting as a fear that Angry Black Men™ like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright are going to be driving Barack Obama's policies. It's a fear that if the black guy gets elected, the chickens of slavery and Jim Crow are going to come home to roost on white people. He seems to have escaped the "He's an Al Qaeda Mole" meme, only to now be tarred with the brush of the one-man race riot waiting to happen -- despite the fact that his entire career has been about thought and patience and calm, even has he's had to navigate a personal journey few of us can even fathom.

I'm under no illusions that Barack Obama is going to turn this country into a progressive's paradise. W'ere not going to get universal single-payer health care and we're probably not going to get immediate withdrawal from Iraq. But what I do think we'll get is the beginning of a perception in the world that we aren't just a bunch of ignorant yahoos with nukes. And that's worth enough for me.

But first we have to get past sinister whispers about why a good old American name like "Barry" wasn't good enough for him.

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Blogger Barry said...
>But first we have to get past sinister whispers about why a good old American name like "Barry" wasn't good enough for him.

It's Gaelic. But yeah.