‘Oh, how earnest I was then’: President Obama’s political awakening in ‘A Promised Land’ excerpt

A young Barack Obama in the library at Occidental College.
A young Barack Obama in a photo circa 1980, browsing the shelves at Occidental College’s Clapp Library. The two years he spent at Occidental represented the start of his political awakening.
(Thomas Grauman / Occidental College)
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The Los Angeles Times Community Book Club is reading “A Promised Land,” the bestselling memoir by former President Barack Obama. This excerpt comes from chapter one, when Obama moves to Los Angeles from Hawaii to attend Occidental College and begins his journey to find a place in the world.

My interest in books probably explains why I not only survived high school but arrived at Occidental College in 1979 with a thin but passable knowledge of political issues and a series of half-baked opinions that I’d toss out during late-night bull sessions in the dorm.

Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black. As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless; I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships.

Barack Obama as an arriving Occidental College freshman and as he looks today
Barack Obama then, in the Occidental College Look Book as an arriving freshman in 1979, and now, in his author photo for memoir “A Promised Land.”
(Occidental College; Pari Dukovic)

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Still, these halting efforts served a purpose: Something approaching a worldview took shape in my mind. I was helped along by a handful of professors who tolerated my iffy study habits and my youthful pretensions. I was helped even more by a handful of mostly older students — Black kids from the inner city, white kids who had scratched their way into college from small towns, first-generation Latino kids, international students from Pakistan or India or countries in Africa that teetered on the edge of chaos. They knew what mattered to them; when they spoke in class, their views were rooted in actual communities, actual struggles. Here’s what these budget cuts mean in my neighborhood. Let me tell you about my school before you complain about affirmative action. The First Amendment is great, but why does the U.S. government say nothing about the political prisoners in my country?

Johnson Hall, left, and the Coons Administration Center on the campus of Occidental College.
Johnson Hall, left, and the Coons Administration Center on the campus of Occidental College.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times)

The two years I spent at Occidental represented the start of my political awakening. But that didn’t mean I believed in politics. With few exceptions, everything I observed about politicians seemed dubious: the blow-dried hair, the wolfish grins, the bromides and self-peddling on TV while behind closed doors they curried the favor of corporations and other monied interests. They were actors in a rigged game, I decided, and I wanted no part of it.

What did capture my attention was something broader and less conventional — not political campaigns but social movements, where ordinary people joined together to make change. I became a student of the suffragists and early labor organizers; of Gandhi and Lech Wałesa and the African National Congress. Most of all I was inspired by the young leaders of the civil rights movement — not just Dr. King but John Lewis and Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. In their heroic efforts — going door-to-door to register voters, sitting down at lunch counters, and marching to freedom songs — I saw the possibility of practicing the values my mother had taught me; how you could build power not by putting others down but by lifting them up. This was true democracy at work — democracy not as a gift from on high, or a division of spoils between interest groups, but rather democracy that was earned, the work of everybody. The result was not just a change in material conditions but a sense of dignity for people and communities, a bond between those who had once seemed far apart.

President Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office on his first day in office, Jan. 21, 2009.
President Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office on his first day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. From “A Promised Land.”
(Pete Souza / The White House)

This, I decided, was an ideal worth pursuing. I just needed focus. After my sophomore year I transferred to Columbia University, figuring it would be a new start. For three years in New York, holed up in a series of dilapidated apartments, largely shorn of old friends and bad habits, I lived like a monk — reading, writing, filling up journals, rarely bothering with college parties or even eating hot meals. I got lost in my head, preoccupied with questions that seemed to layer themselves one over the next. What made some movements succeed where others failed? Was it a sign of success when portions of a cause were absorbed by conventional politics, or was it a sign that the cause had been hijacked? When was compromise acceptable and when was it selling out, and how did one know the difference?

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A small child lies on its mother's torso as she lies on the beach in Hawaii
Young Barack Obama and his mother, Ann Dunham, on the beach in Hawaii; the image comes from “A Promised Land.”
(Obama-Robinson Family Archives)

Oh, how earnest I was then — how fierce and humorless! When I look back on my journal entries from this time, I feel a great affection for the young man that I was, aching to make a mark on the world, wanting to be a part of something grand and idealistic, which evidence seemed to indicate did not exist. This was America in the early 1980s, after all. The social movements of the previous decade had lost their vibrancy. A new conservatism was taking hold. Ronald Reagan was president; the economy was in recession; the Cold War was in full swing.

If I were to travel back in time, I might urge the young man I was to set the books aside for a minute, open the windows, and let in some fresh air (my smoking habit was then in full bloom). I’d tell him to relax, go meet some people, and enjoy the pleasures that life reserves for those in their twenties. The few friends I had in New York tried to offer similar advice.

“You need to lighten up, Barack.”

“You need to get laid.”

“You’re so idealistic. It’s great, but I don’t know if what you’re saying is really possible.”

Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson at their wedding reception on Oct. 3, 1992
Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson at their wedding reception on Oct. 3, 1992, at South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. From “A Promised Land.”
(Obama-Robinson Family Archives)

I resisted these voices. I resisted precisely because I feared they were right. Whatever I was incubating during those hours spent alone, whatever vision for a better world I’d let flourish in the hothouse of my youthful mind, it could hardly withstand even a simple conversational road test. In the gray light of a Manhattan winter and against the overarching cynicism of the times, my ideas, spoken aloud in class or over coffee with friends, came off as fanciful and far-fetched. And I knew it. In fact, it’s one of the things that may have saved me from becoming a full-blown crank before I reached the age of twenty-two; at some basic level I understood the absurdity of my vision, how wide the gap was between my grand ambitions and anything I was actually doing in my life. I was like a young Walter Mitty; a Don Quixote with no Sancho Panza.

Reprinted with permission from “A Promised Land” Copyright © 2020 by Barack Obama, published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Book jacket for "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama.
“A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes about Barack Obama’s life.
(Penguin Random House)

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Book Club: Join us

Former President Barack Obama joins the L.A. Times Community Book Club for a conversation with filmmaker Ava DuVernay about “A Promised Land.”

When: April 21 at 7 p.m. Pacific.

Where: Free virtual event streaming on the Times Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter. Sign up on Eventbrite.

More info: latimes.com/bookclub