During Black History Month, Library News & Announcements is featuring one history maker per week from the HistoryMakers Digital Archive to coincide with the Office of African-American Affairs’ Black Themed Friday events at the Luther Porter Jackson Black Cultural Center.
On February 15, from 1:30 to 3:30, the LPJ Center features Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States. View the complete HistoryMakers interview!
In 2001, when Barack Obama was interviewed by HistoryMakers’ founder Julieanna Richardson, he was in his second term as an Illinois state senator, and facing a re-election campaign in 2002. At that time, the future President of the United States was known outside of Illinois mostly for being the first African American to be chosen as President of the Harvard Law Review.
In the interview, Richardson (Harvard Law ’80) asks Obama (Harvard Law ’91) about his father, Barack, Sr., a Kenyan who was the first in his family “not only to go to college, but to get any education whatsoever really.” He came to the U.S. in 1959 on scholarship from the University of Hawaii where he met and married Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham. Obama was two when his father left Hawaii to pursue postgraduate study at Harvard, making it “difficult for [the family] to stay together, not to mention, obviously, this was an interracial couple at the brink of the Civil Rights Movement …” Obama wouldn’t meet his father again until he was ten.
Obama remembers his mother as “a wonderfully sweet spirit” who learned empathy growing up as an “outsider” in different parts of the country as her father’s business took the family from Kansas to Oklahoma, to Texas, Seattle, and then Hawaii. He recalls, “she was very much the idealist and never really lost that idealism. I think there were times where she was naive in the sense that she didn’t anticipate the difficulties involved in marrying a black man or raising a black son.” She nevertheless instilled in Obama the sense that “being African American was a wonderful thing …” “The Civil Rights Movement,” he says, “was almost our civic religion.”
Obama’s mother re-married and they moved to her husband’s native Indonesia where Obama played with kids from another culture, reinforcing a “general belief that under the skin people were the same …” He saw the economic disparity between ruling class and underclass and later applied what he saw to conditions in America, believing the struggle for civil rights was not just a matter of race but “economic justice … related to class and history.”
Obama channeled the restless, and sometimes “self-destructive,” energy of adolescence into a natural affinity for learning. A scholarship to Occidental College in Los Angeles allowed him to argue politics with professors and engage in questions of public policy, and to consider more seriously “who I was and what I wanted to be.” He completed college at Columbia University, worked as a journalist to pay off student loans, worked for $13,000 a year with churches on Chicago’s South Side to establish job training programs, education programs for youth, college counseling, to reform the school system and clean up vacant lots.
When the death of Chicago’s first black mayor Harold Washington signaled a shift in city priorities in 1987 Obama enrolled in Harvard law-school where his social activism gave him a perspective that most of his fellow law students didn’t share. Upon graduation, the first black President of the Harvard Law Review chose not to chase wealth and status at a corporate firm; he directed a voter registration project at a small civil rights firm. “The sacrifices that I was making by pursuing an unconventional career,” he explains, “is nothing like the sacrifices that Thurgood Marshall had to make or Charles Hamilton Houston had to make, or, you know, the Freedom Riders had to make …”
Obama entered politics in 1995 when an Illinois senate seat became vacant in the district where he lived and he saw an opportunity to address issues not amenable to change through the courts—issues like providing adequate funding for education, creating job opportunities, shaping the economy in communities that were red-lined. He won the election and successfully sponsored bills, but he felt that control of the legislative process by the parties’ leaders “didn’t leave much room in the middle … to negotiate … and craft solutions.” There was rarely “any kind of thoughtful independent voting” on controversial issues, he says, adding that “no party has an exclusive monopoly on good ideas.”
When Julieanna Richardson asked Obama, what do you want your legacy to be? he replied: “that I was able to help shape the political dialogue in this country in a more constructive way not just for African Americans, but for all people because I think that, ultimately, … the fates of blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians in this country are all tied together.”