Obama on Trayvon Martin: The first black president speaks out first as a black American

Obama on Trayvon Martin: The first black president speaks out first as a black American

The Washington Post

David Maraniss

Trayvon Martin, the president said, could have been him 35 years ago. That would have been Barack Obama at age 17, then known as Barry and living in Honolulu. He had a bushy Afro. Hoodies were not in style then, or often needed in balmy Hawaii. His customary hangout outfit was flip-flops, called “slippers” on the island, shell bracelet, OP shorts and a tee.

Imagine if Barry Obama had been shot and killed, unarmed, during a confrontation with a self-deputized neighborhood watch enforcer, perhaps in some exclusive development on the far side of Diamond Head after leaving home to get shave ice. The news reports would have painted a complicated picture of the young victim, a variation on how Martin was portrayed decades later in Florida:

Lives with his grandparents; father not around, mother somewhere overseas. Pretty good student, sometimes distracted. Likes to play pickup hoops and smoke pot. Hangs out with buddies who call themselves the Choom Gang. Depending on who is providing the physical description, he could seem unprepossessing or intimidating, easygoing or brooding. And black.

On the inside, the young Obama had already begun a long search for identity — and by extension a study of the meaning and context of race. His mother and maternal grandparents were white. He was not. He lived in one culture, and the skin color passed along to him by his absent father placed him inalterably in another, in the eyes of others. How and why did race define him, limit him, grace him, frustrate him, alienate him, propel him and connect him to the world?

His effort to reconcile those questions and figure himself out was his quest. It took him off the island to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, where he finally found a sense of belonging and comfort in the black community. It took him into writing, and then politics. He wrote a book about it. “Dreams From My Father” is not so much an autobiography as a coming-of-age memoir filtered through the lens of race. As a state senator in Illinois, where he worked on legislation to overcome racial profiling, some African American colleagues dismissed him as not being black enough. As a candidate for president, when he was linked to a fiery black preacher, some white detractors said he hated white people. He eventually reached the presidency on a theme meant to answer both extremes. His idealistic message was that people yearned to transcend the differences that kept them apart, race prime among them…

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