Young Barack Obama on What His Mother Taught Him About Love
“Perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer.”
By Maria Popova
In 1990, a promising law student and writer not yet thirty was elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His editorial work for the journal impressed the publishers of the The New York Times imprint into offering him a book deal and so began his quest to capture “the fissures of race … as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life.”
That young man was Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) and that manuscript became his lucid and lyrical memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library).
A beautiful writer with an unmistakable voice, Obama reflects on the extremes of ambition and self-doubt familiar to writers, all the more amplified by youth:
Like most first-time authors, I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication — hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. The reality fell somewhere in between.
It wasn’t until Obama had ascended in the political realm, more than a decade later, that his potent and poetic writing garnered the attention which its creative merit warrants. (I am reminded here of Hermann Hesse’s wonderfully prescient wisdom on publishing: “That stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.”) But his mother, Stanley Ann — one of the most captivating presences in the book — didn’t live to savor her son’s success. She had died of cancer, “with a brutal swiftness,” a few months after the book’s publication.
And yet it was she who had taught Obama about what would become the greatest guiding force of his life — the power of love, not only in the impersonally interpersonal political sense of building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “experiment in love,” but in its most personal manifestation between two human beings who have chosen each other as partners in every dimension of life, the trying and the triumphant, and continue to choose each other every day of their lives.
In one of the most moving passages in the book, Obama tells the story of how his parents got together — an anecdote his mother once relayed, which illustrates the wonderfully imperfect yet unconditional nature of real love. He writes:
She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that…”
She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later — an hour! — he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’”
Embedded in the story is a broader meditation on time, the universality of the human experience, and what we each most long for as we surrender, often with enormous resistance and at the price of great discomfort, to love:
My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up — their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was … the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.
Obama began writing this memoir the summer he met the love of his own life, 25-year-old Michelle Robinson. The two were married three years later and he soon came to echo what his mother’s story had taught him about love in articulating his own experience of that supreme human gift. In 1996, when Obama was still unsure of whether he would pursue a political career or become a writer, photographer Mariana Cook — who would later come to photograph some of the world’s greatest human rights leaders — visited Barack and Michelle Obama in their Chicago home as part of a project exploring coupledom in America.
Cook conducted a short interview with the future President and First Lady, in which 35-year-old Obama reflects on the mystery and magnetism of his love for his wife:
Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her.
Echoing Virginia Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the “moments of vision” that make relationships last, he adds:
What sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.
Dreams from My Father is a tremendously beautiful and insightful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Tom Stoppard’s perfect definition of love, Frida Kahlo on how love amplifies the beauty of the other, and Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage, then revisit philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.
Published June 13, 2016