December 12, 2017
“I sit in the campus cafe drinking V-8 juice and listening to a badly scratched opera being broadcast[,]” writes a 22-year-old college student at Columbia University. This was no ordinary student; he would go on to become the first African-American president of the United States.
“Life longs to be understood, Alex,” Barack Obama writes to then-girlfriend Alex McNear in a correspondence lasting from 1982-1984.
The Emory Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library in Atlanta acquired nine letters between the two. In these letters, Obama searches for his position in the world, discussing topics ranging from mundane events such as his breakfast that day or delving deep into race and class issues of the time.
Director of the library, Rosemary Magee, believes these “beautiful pieces of writing” are perfect for Emory.
“[The letters show] a young man trying to find himself in the world….that’s true of our own students,” Magee said.
Throughout the letters, Obama discusses his ambitions and his view of the world, similar to those of the students at Emory.
“Here is this young man, 21 or 22, who is waxing poetically and philosophically about how he sees himself developing,” library curator Pellom McDaniels III said. “[Obama] questions his own personal destiny at that age.”
“I used to think, Alex, that I could do everything, would do everything,” Obama writes. “Now, I’ve been forced to modify the role – I can do anything, but not everything.”
At the start of the correspondence, Obama had just transferred from California’s Occidental College in Los Angeles and moved to Columbia in New York City.
“[Obama] realizes that his experience in the world, while not unique, is unusual,” Magee said.
In addition to living in both Los Angeles, New York City and Indonesia, Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. His unusual pre-college experience contributed to his deep understanding of the world, which is demonstrated throughout the letters, especially when discussing his place in society.
“[I am] caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me,” Obama writes.
“The letter are about the search for meaning, to find oneself,” Magee said.
One of the many themes Obama discusses is the demands of society.
“You’ll see the letters evolve over time, he sees his friends settle down, start families, buy houses, get possessions,” Magee said. “[Although he may not want to] take that road, he sees how that can happen.”
McDaniels also believes that the letters show how thoughtful and intelligent Obama was at a young age.
“His penmanship is beautiful,” McDaniels said.
McDaniels went further to comment on Obama’s careful composition in comparison to other prominent figures in the world.
“In tweets there’s not a lot of space,” McDaniels said. “He had to think, every word and every line had to be well thought out…He’s composing all of these things in his head.”
“I watch as men and women [pushed] pouring into the present mold, siphoned this and that way, and it corners me, the weight and momentum of these fluid lines sliced into serving a distracted system[,]” Obama writes.
Throughout the letters, Obama struggles with who is is as a person, and dislikes the “molds” society places on him. He writes that his required science class is more interesting than the classes he chose.
“[Physics] gives me release and creative escape from the frustrations of studying men and their frequently dingy institutions.”
Obama also comments on the poverty he sees in New York. He writes, “I will pass a man dressed in strips of this and that, snot and bile freezing in his matted beard, and he will put out his puffy, lacerated hand and ask for change. Sometimes he’s black, sometimes white and wizened, a scrawl in the air, and sometimes I give him change and sometimes I don’t – it seems quite arbitrary.”
McDaniels was very interested in Obama’s critiques of society.
“Just 35 years ago, [Obama] was imagining how to help create a society where one could express oneself freely, in terms of how you think and how you feel, and what is right, what is just. And he becomes president trying to institute this same kind of thinking that would change not only America, but the world.”
In addition to challenging social demands, Obama takes the time to notice the little things. He writes, “[m]oments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways. Birds, birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hang over the drywalks. A storm sooths the sky, impounding the city lights, returning to us a dull yellow light.”
In these historic letters, we can glimpse into the world of Barack Obama. For Magee, the letters “help us understand what makes [Obama] tick.” For McDaniels, the letters “allow for us to see through [Obama’s] eyes the world we have inherited.”
The library knows that it is located in an area rich with history. One of the most prominent collections at the library is the African-American History collection. For McDaniels, the collection “fills in the gaps of African-American history, where we can learn more about the experiences of people of African descent from the beginning of the country to today.”
Obama’s poetic and thought-provoking work is kept alongside the works of famous Civil Rights activists, such as the first published African American Phyllis Wheatley, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and novelist Alice Walker.
“Having letters related to the first African-American president gives us this arc of history,” McDaniels said. “[Though] not necessarily complete, we can see, from Phillis Wheatley to Barack Obama, this movement over time, this realization, an odyssey [of history].”
McDaniels wants us to learn from the letters.
“Individually, we can see we can make a difference,” McDaniels said, responding to how Obama’s criticism of the past opened his mind to the possibilities of the future. “Collectively, we know we can make a difference,” McDaniels said. “Each of us taking that same responsibility [as Obama],” we know we can make a difference.
Obama’s letters teach us that everyone has the power to change the world. But they also teach us to enjoy the little things and take time to contemplate the world around you.
“I have reached my threshold for opera,” Obama writes, moving on to the next chapter of his life.
Photos Courtesy of the Emory Rose Library