A Critique of “Young Barack Obama in Love”

It has taken me days to read “Young Barack Obama in Love: A Girlfriend’s Secret Diary,” the story that David Maraniss adapts from his biography of Obama entitled, Barack Obama: The Story. It has taken me so long not because of its difficulty or its length but because I have been trying to figure out the love story itself–well, not really figure it out, but find it. I was at first troubled that the story involved the letters and journals of the President’s ex-girlfriends. It seemed to be rather tacky of them to share this material given that the President is married and has two daughters. I am someone who finds it problematic that women who allegedly had affairs with John F. Kennedy make up a sub-category of books within the genre of presidential biography. In Obama’s case, it just seems to be in poor taste to have his family have to encounter aspects of his past romances as though they have some urgency. This article seems to give these women romantic currency in a way that they did not have for Obama. To that end, one of the most talked about moments in this article occurs when Genevieve Cook reports the time when she told Obama that she loved him and he said, “thank you.” Cook, and perhaps Maraniss, read this moment as an example of Obama “appreciating that someone loved him.” However, I find this a rather duplicitous claim. It suggests that he was insecure and that Cook’s declaration fulfilled a constant need of his. What it doesn’t acknowledge is the sort of view that Demetria L. Lucas offers. Lucas sees Obama’s response as evidence of the fact that he “just wasn’t that into” Cook. Even though in the interview with Maraniss, Obama admits that the woman that he claims to love is a composite of his girlfriends, it’s as though the article refuses to admit that and insists that Obama loves Cook as a singular subject but could not say it. My reading, in line with Lucas’s, sees Obama as very much a gentleman who did not say what he did not mean. It seemed to me, at least from what was written, that he did not love Cook and so he did not say that he did. Instead of considering his response in the context of his graciousness, Cook read Obama as “guarded.” From my point of view, I thought Obama offered a very smooth response. He didn’t cooly reject Cook, he accepted her love as a gift to which he responded with the proper courtesy. This reading is one that may come from the Maraniss article, but it doesn’t fit with the overall representation of theirs as a love story.

What I found much more interesting about the story was how voraciously, thoughtfully, eloquently, honestly, and deliberately Obama wrote and read. His approach stood in stark contrast to the way that Maraniss interpreted Cook’s reading and writing about Obama. Thus, it seemed a glaring omission when she wrote that she experienced Obama as being behind a “veil” and Maraniss makes no reference to the preeminent writer, scholar, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois who famously wrote this about the experience of being black in America:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yield him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Granting attention to Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk would have made sense in this context given that the article attempts to paint Obama as being driven by his search for identity. Instead of engaging Du Bois directly, however, this article only proves the reason why Obama needed to keep reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the interview that Maraniss gives to Vanity Fair, he reveals that he entitles one of the chapters “Genevieve and the Veil.” I can only hope that he cites Du Bois there.

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