Deciding to work for Chicago's poor
HIS STORY IN HIS WORDS:BARACK OBAMA left Indonesia aged 10 and spent his teen years in Honolulu, where he went to Punahou School, a coeducational college. After Punahou, he studied for two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles before moving to Columbia University in New York, where he studied political science, specialising in international relations. He graduated with a BA in 1983.
He then worked for a year at the Business International Corporation, a publishing and advisory firm that tries to help American companies operating abroad. While there, Obama was a research associate in its financial services division.
He joined the New York Public Interest Research Group, New York’s largest student-directed consumer, environmental and government reform organisation.
In June 1985, he moved to Chicago, where he was hired as director of the Developing Communities Project, a church-based community organisation in the city’s far south side. He tells how he got there in this, the third extract from his memoir, Dreams From My Father.
IN 1983, I decided to become a community organiser.
There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organiser did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilised grassroots.
That’s what I’ll do, I’ll organise black folks. At the grassroots. For change.
And my friends, black and white, would heartily commend me for my ideals before heading toward the post office to mail in their graduate school applications.
I couldn’t really blame them for being sceptical. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can construct a certain part of my logic to my decision, show how becoming an organiser was a part of that larger narrative, starting with my father and his father before him, my mother and her parents, my memories of Indonesia with its beggars and farmers . . .
I can see that my choices were never truly mine alone – and that is how it should be, that to assert otherwise is to chase after a sorry sort of freedom.
But such recognition came only later. At the time, about to graduate from college, I was operating mainly on impulse, like a salmon swimming blindly upstream toward the site of his own conception. In classes and seminars, I would dress up these impulses in the slogans and theories that I’d discovered in books, thinking – falsely – that the slogans meant something, that they somehow made what I felt more amenable to proof. But at night, lying in bed, I would let the slogans drift away, to be replaced with a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known.
They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month, the same images that my mother had offered me as a child.
A pair of college students, hair short, backs straight, placing their orders at a lunch counter teetering on the edge of a riot. SNCC workers standing on a porch in some Mississippi backwater trying to convince a family of sharecroppers to register to vote. A county jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.
Such images became a form of prayer for me, bolstering my spirits, channelling my emotions in a way that words never could. They told me (although even this much understanding may have come later, is also a construct, containing its own falsehoods) that I wasn’t alone in my particular struggles, and that communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks.
Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men – and in the civil rights movement those dreams had been large. In the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs, I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organising, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned – because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself – I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.
That was my idea of organising. It was a promise of redemption.
And so, in the months leading up to graduation, I wrote to every civil rights organisation I could think of, to any black elected official in the country with a progressive agenda, to neighbourhood councils and tenant rights groups.
When no one wrote back, I wasn’t discouraged. I decided to find more conventional work for a year, to pay off my student loans and maybe even save a little bit. I would need the money later, I told myself. Organisers didn’t make any money; their poverty was proof of their integrity.
Eventually [Business International Corporation] a consulting house to multinational corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe. As far as I could tell I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me, but a source of considerable pride for the company’s secretarial pool.
They treated me like a son, those black ladies; they told me how much they expected me to run the company one day. Sometimes, over lunch, I would tell them about all my wonderful organising plans, and they would smile and say, “That’s good, Barack,” but the look in their eyes told me they were secretly disappointed. Only Ike, the gruff black security guard in the lobby, was willing to come right out and tell me I’d be making a mistake.
“Organising? That’s some kind of politics, ain’t it? Why you wanna do something like that?”
I tried to explain my political views, the importance of mobilising the poor and giving back to the community. But Ike just shook his head. “Mr Barack,” he said, “I hope you don’t mind if I give you a little bit of advice. You don’t have to take it, now, but I’m gonna give it to you anyhow. Forget about this organising business and do something that’s gonna make you some money. Not greedy, you understand. But enough.
“Im telling you this ’cause I can see potential in you. Young man like you, got a nice voice – hell, you could be one of them announcers on TV. Or sales . . . got a nephew about your age making some real money there. That’s what we need, see. Not more folks running around here. All rhymes and jive. You can’t help folks that ain’t gonna make it nohow, and they won’t appreciate you trying. Folks that wanna make it, they gonna find a way to do it on they own. How old are you anyway?”
“See there. Don’t waste your youth, Mr Barack. Wake up one morning, an old man like me, and all you gonna be is tired. With nothing to show for it. . . ”
[Barack Obama resigned from the corporation and spent three months working instead for what he described as “a Ralph Nader offshoot up in Harlem” – the New York Public Interest Research Group – where, as he puts it, he tried to convince “the minority students at City College about the importance of recycling”.]
In six months I was broke, unemployed, eating soup from a can. In search of some inspiration, I went to hear Kwame Touré, formerly Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Black Power fame, speak at Columbia. At the entrance to the auditorium, two women, one black, one Asian, were selling Marxist literature and arguing with each other about Trotsky’s place in history. Inside, Touré was proposing a programme to establish economic ties between Africa and Harlem that would circumvent white capitalist imperialism.
At the end of his remarks, a thin young woman with glasses asked if such a programme was practical given the state of African economies and the immediate needs facing black Americans. Touré cut her off in mid-sentence. “It’s only the brainwashing that you’ve received that makes it impractical, sister,” he said. His eyes glowered inward as he spoke, the eyes of a madman or a saint.
The woman remained standing for several minutes while she was upbraided for her bourgeois attitudes. People began to file out. Outside the auditorium, the two Marxists were now shouting at the top of their lungs.
It was like a bad dream. I wandered down Broadway, imagining myself standing at the edge of the Lincoln Memorial and looking out over an empty pavilion, debris scattering in the wind. The movement had died years ago, shattered into a thousand fragments. Every path to change was well trodden, every strategy exhausted. And with each defeat, even those with the best of intentions could end up further and further removed from the struggles of those they purported to serve.
Or just plain crazy. I suddenly realized that I was talking to myself in the middle of the street. People on their way home from work were cutting a small arc around me, and I thought I recognized a couple of Columbia classmates in the crowd, their suit jackets thrown over their shoulders, carefully avoiding my glance.
I had all but given up on organising when I received a call from Marty Kaufman [editor’s note: Kaufman is believed to be a fictionalised composite character, an amalgam of Gerald Kellman, the man who actually hired Obama, and Michael Kruglik, one of the Chicago community organisers who worked with Obama]. He explained that he’d started an organising drive in Chicago and was looking to hire a trainee. He’d be in New York the following week and we met at a coffee shop on Lexington.
I told him a little bit about myself.
“Hmmmph.” He nodded, taking notes on a dog-eared legal pad. “You must be angry about something.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what exactly. But something. Don’t get me wrong – anger’s a requirement for the job. The only reason anybody decides to become an organiser. Well-adjusted people find more relaxing work.”
He ordered more hot water and told me about himself. He was Jewish, in his late 30s, had been reared in New York. He had started organising in the sixties with the student protests, and ended up staying with it for 15 years. Farmers in Nebraska. Blacks in Philadelphia. Mexicans in Chicago.
Now he was trying to pull urban blacks and suburban whites together around a plan to save manufacturing jobs in metropolitan Chicago. He needed somebody to work with him, he said. Somebody black.
He poured himself more hot water. “What do you know about Chicago anyway?”
I thought a moment. “Hog butcher to the world,” I said finally.
Marty shook his head. “The butcheries closed a while ago.”
“The Cubs never win.”
“America’s most segregated city,” I said. “A black man, Harold Washington, was just elected mayor, and white people don’t like it.
“So you’ve been following Harold’s career,” Marty said. “I’m surprised you haven’t gone to work for him.”
“I tried. His office didn’t write back.”
Marty smiled and took off his glasses, cleaning them with the end of his tie. “Well, that’s the thing to do, isn’t it, if you’re young and black and interested in social issues? Find a political campaign to work for. A powerful patron – somebody who can help you with your own career. And Howard’s powerful, no doubt about it. Lots of charisma.
“He has almost monolithic support in the black community. About half the Hispanics, a handful of white liberals. You’re right about one thing, though. The whole atmosphere in the city is polarised. A big media circus. Not much is getting done.”
I leaned back in my seat. “And whose fault is that?”
Marty put his glasses back on and met my stare. “It’s not a question of fault,” he said. “It’s a question of whether any politician, even somebody with Harold’s talent, can do much to break the cycle. A polarised city isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a politician. Black or white.”
He offered to start me off at $10,000 for the first year with a $2,000 travel allowance to buy a car; the salary would go up if things worked out. After he was gone, I took the long way home, along the East River promenade, and tried to figure out what to make of the man. He was smart, I decided. He seemed committed to his work. Still, there was something about him that made me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white – he’d said himself that that was a problem.
The old fluted park lamps flickered to life; a long brown barge rolled through the gray waters toward the sea. I sat down on a bench, considering my options, and noticed a black woman and her young son approach.
The boy yanked the woman up to the railing, and they stood side by side, his arm wrapped around her leg, a single silhouette against the twilight. Eventually the boy’s head craned upward with what looked like a question. The woman shrugged her shoulders and the boy took a few steps toward me.
“Excuse me, mister,” he shouted. “You know why sometimes the river runs that way and the sometimes it goes this way?”
The woman smiled and shook her head, and I said it probably had to do with the tides. The answer seemed to satisfy the boy, and he went back to his mother. As I watched the two of them disappear into dusk, I realised I had never noticed which way the river ran.
A week later, I loaded up my car and drove to Chicago.
- Tomorrow: Building community activism – from the ground up