- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Barack Obama’s white grandmother once stopped taking the bus to work because she was afraid of a black panhandler — a story buried in the senator’s first book that helps shed light on why he used her in a speech last week broaching race relations.

The revelation from his grandmother when he was a teenager hit the future Democratic presidential candidate “like a fist in my stomach,” and was just one example of the journey to understand his mixed race heritage detailed in his book, “Dreams From My Father, A Story of Race and Inheritance.”

His grandmother, known as “Toot,” also has been the subject of discussion since Mr. Obama told voters in the Philadelphia speech last week that the woman sometimes said things that made him “cringe.”

Mr. Obama also compared his grandmother to a “typical white person,” fueling more criticism of his views on race, little of which has focused on the details revealed in the 1995 book.

In the book, published long before he became a U.S. senator from Illinois or White House contender, Mr. Obama chronicles his complicated racial history, offering a nuanced and thoughtful look at who he was and who he wanted to become.

“When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background … I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign,” Mr. Obama wrote in the book’s introduction. “They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose — the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds.”

The revelation about Toot and the bus stop, which happened when he was about 15 and living in Hawaii, sparked some of the anger and confusion Mr. Obama says took him years to overcome.

It started when he overheard an argument between Toot and his grandfather. Coming into the squabble late, Toot told him she’d been “pestered a little” and would prefer a ride to work.

“A man asked me for money yesterday. While I was waiting for the bus,” Toot told Mr. Obama, then known as “Barry.”

“He was very aggressive, Barry. Very aggressive. I gave him a dollar and he kept asking. If the bus hadn’t come, I think he might have hit me over the head,” she said.

At first the young Mr. Obama did not understand why his grandmother was so shaken, but his grandfather was frustrated, and told his grandson, “It’s a big deal to me.”

“ ’She’s been bothered by men before. You know why she’s so scared this time? I’ll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was black,’ ” his grandfather whispered, Mr. Obama recalled in “Dreams.”

“ ’That’s the real reason why she’s bothered. And I just don’t think that’s right,’ ” his grandfather continued.

“The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure. In my steadiest voice, I told him that such an attitude bothered me too, but assured him that Toot’s fears would pass and that we should give her a ride in the meantime,” Mr. Obama wrote, adding that the young man and his grandfather then shared a “painful silence.”

When they left the house, Mr. Obama thought about the sacrifices his grandparents had made for him.

“They had poured all their lingering hopes into my success. Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears,” he wrote.

Mr. Obama sought counsel that night in Frank, a black man and family friend, who acknowledged that Toot is “‘right to be scared’” because she “ ’understands that black people have a reason to hate. … That’s just how it is. … So you might as well get used to it.’ ”

By the end of the night, he “knew for the first time that I was utterly alone.”

In the book, Mr. Obama captured other moments where he “would try to untangle these difficult thoughts” about race, which sometimes made him seethe with anger and may have led to his frequent use of drugs and alcohol as a young man.

During his adolescence, he lamented that some of his black friends would talk about “white folks.”

“The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase,” he wrote. “Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false.”

But asked to clarify last week what he meant by his grandmother saying things that sometimes made him “cringe,” he used a similar broad characterization.

“The point … was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity, but she is a typical white person who if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know, there’s a reaction that’s been bred into our experiences that don’t go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way,” he told Pennsylvania’s WIP Radio.

He later clarified that he was trying to say “we all harbor stereotypes,” but the remark sparked heated reaction from Mr. Obama’s detractors, with some wondering how his rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would be received if she used such language to talk about a “typical black person.”

“I’m dying for someone to tell me how this isn’t a racist statement,” Virginia blogger Brian Kirwin wrote at Bearing Drift.

Supporters defended the remark as “honest and truthful,” though a clumsy choice of words.

Since “Dreams” was republished in 2004 when he was elected to the Senate, many stories examining its contents have focused on Mr. Obama’s honest account of his substance abuse.

But a read of the 442 pages gives insight to the Democrat’s life experiences that shape his candidacy and his new call for racial unity following the furor surrounding his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

He recounts painful moments that went beyond name-calling — such as being told his color might “rub off” on a piece of paper or when his grandparents’ neighbor “became agitated when I got on the elevator behind her” and told the apartment manager she’d been followed.

Mr. Obama’s friend once warned him, “We were always playing on the white man’s court … by the white man’s rules.”

That sentiment conflicted with his feelings for his loving white family, and led Mr. Obama to explore his deeper feelings with books such as Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

“I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in a suddenly desperate argument, trying reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth,” he wrote.

Mr. Obama was moved by a wish from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” that the “white blood that ran through him … might somehow be expunged,” while also knowing that this was not possible.

“I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction,” he wrote. “I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide