Monday, March 24, 2008

NEWSWEEK: Cover: When 'Barry' Became Barack

23 Mar 2008 17:04 Africa/Lagos

NEWSWEEK: Cover: When 'Barry' Became Barack

Newsweek Reconstructs Time When Obama Moved from Using 'Barry' to Formal Barack and Impact it Made on Him

'It was when I Made a Conscious Decision: I Want to Grow Up,' Obama Says

NEW YORK, March 23 /PRNewswire/ -- When Sen. Barack Obama moved from using the name Barry to Barack, his formal name, it was 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 College, he was feeling like he was at a "dead end," he tells Newsweek, "that somehow I needed to connect with something bigger than myself."

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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. In the March 31 Newsweek cover, "When 'Barry' Became Barack" (on newsstands Monday, March 24), Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe reports on that time in Obama's life when he began using the name Barack. It happened in a period when he was at Occidental College in California and heading to New York, to finish college at Columbia. He was trying to reinvent himself. "It was when I made a conscious decision: I want to grow up," Obama tells Newsweek.

Newsweek reconstructs Obama's journey from one name to another and explores what light that journey sheds on his character. The identity quest, which began before he became Barack and continued after, put him on a trajectory into a black America he had never really known as a child in Hawaii and abroad, Newsweek reports. In the end, he would come to see and accept that he was in an almost unique position as an American -- someone who had been part of both the white and the black American "families," able to view the secret doubts and fears and dreams of both, and to understand them. He could be part of a black world where his pastor and spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., expressed paranoid fantasies about white conspiracies to spread drugs or HIV, because he understood in his gut the history of racism that stoked those fears. He could, for a time, shrug off Wright's more incendiary views, in part because he knew that whites, in their private worlds, often expressed or shrugged off bigotry themselves, partly because of fears that might seem irrational to African-Americans.

Obama's friend at Occidental, Wahid Hamid, tells Newsweek that even before he became Barack, most friends simply called him "Obama." "It wasn't surprising to me that he decided to embrace that identity because 'Barry' could be perceived as trying to run away from something and trying to fit in, rather than embracing his own identity and, in many ways, kind of opening himself to who he is." For Wahid, an immigrant from Pakistan also trying to find his way in America (he is now a corporate executive in New York), the name Barack was perfectly natural and "somewhat refreshing."

For friend Eric Moore, Obama struck him as a person who could glide in and out of any social circle on campus. This was the thing about being of "mixed race," Moore says. "You have the benefit of knowing both cultures firsthand and it opens your eyes."

Occidental -- like Hawaii before -- became too small for Obama. "I think the Oxy environment and L.A. in general seemed not to be enough for him," Moore says. He remembered asking Obama when he was a sophomore what he planned to do the following year, since many upper-class friends of Obama's were graduating. Obama told him he was planning to transfer to Columbia University. "I remember trying to convince him to stay at Oxy," Moore says. But Obama had made up his mind that he wanted to move to a more urban, intense and polyglot place. "He said something to the effect that he needed a bigger and more stimulating environment intellectually."

Obama wanted a clean slate. "Going to New York was really a significant break. It's when I left a lot of stuff behind," he says. "I think there was a lot of stuff going on in me. By the end of that year at Occidental, I think I was starting to work it through, and I think part of the attraction of transferring was, it's hard to remake yourself around people who have known you for a long time." It was when he got to New York that, as he recalls it, he began to ask people to call him Barack: "It was not some assertion of my African roots ... not a racial assertion. It was much more of an assertion that I was coming of age. An assertion of being comfortable with the fact that I was different and that I didn't need to try to fit in in a certain way."

Read cover story at

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