It didn't happen overnight. But in college, the young Barry took to being called by his formal name. What this evolution tells us about him.
Mar 22, 2008
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 reluctant 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.
It's clear that he was trying to fit in somehow, but not in the way of his father's generation. He wanted to be taken seriously, perhaps to rebel against the compromises blacks and others were expected to make in a white-dominated society. But more generally, he was also looking for a community that would accept him as he was, inside and out.
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. 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 own grandmother, as he pointed out in his Philadelphia speech last week, "on more than one occasion uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."