Sen. Barack Obama’s decision to give up the nickname "Barry" and instead use his given name reflects his efforts to “remake” himself — and tells a good deal about his evolution into a confident presidential candidate.
That’s the central thrust of an in-depth new article in Newsweek magazine headlined “When Barry Became Barack.”
“The choice is part of his almost lifelong quest for identity and belonging — to figure out who he is, and how he fits into the larger American tapestry,” Newsweek observes.
“Part black, part white, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, with family of different religious and spiritual backgrounds — seen by others in ways he didn’t see himself — the young Barry was looking for solid ground.”
The change from Barry to Barack came in 1980 when Obama came home from college at Christmas and told his mother and grandparents that henceforth he wanted be known by his given name.
Obama’s African father was also named Barack, but he chose to be called Barry when he left Kenya to study in the U.S. in 1959.
And the younger Barack was known as Barry by one and all when he moved from Hawaii to Indonesia at age 6 to live with his Indonesian stepfather.
Obama’s mother tutored him with three-hour English lessons before he set off for public school in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, where the young student, although a Christian, received Islamic instruction perhaps once a week.
But Obama was eventually sent to live with his mother’s parents in Hawaii, where “he became more aware of his blackness,” Newsweek reports.
At age 10, Obama received the one and only visit from his father from Kenya.
“He didn’t want to be seen as different from the other kids, but with no choice, he couldn’t resist fibbing that his father was a prince, his grandfather a chief, and that his family name meant ‘burning spear,’” the magazine reveals.
When asked by a high school teacher how he wanted to be addressed, he said, “Just call me Barry.”
Obama befriended Eric Moore, an African-American from Colorado, when the two attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, and their friendship was strengthened after Moore visited Kenya in the summer of 1980. He told Obama the trip to Africa was a “powerful event” that helped him “find my own identity.”
On one occasion after that, Obama and Moore were chatting when Moore asked him, “What kind of name is Barry Obama — for a brother?” Obama told him: “Actually, my name’s Barack Obama,” and explained that “Barry” was just a way of helping him “smooth the way into society,” Moore told Newsweek.
But Obama’s roommate at Occidental later said he never heard Obama called Barack at any time.
By the time Obama transferred to Columbia University, however, he had already told his relatives that he wanted to be called Barack.
“Going to New York was really a significant break,” he told Newsweek. “I think part of the attraction of transferring was, it’s hard to remake yourself around people who have known you for a long time.”
In New York he began asking other people to call him Barack as well.
“It was not some assertion of my African roots,” he said. “It was much more of an assertion that I was coming of age, an assertion of being comfortable with the fact that I was different and I didn’t need to try to fit in in a certain way.”
Obama’s “identity quest,” which began before he became Barack and continued after, “put him on a trajectory into a black America he had never really known as a child in Hawaii and abroad,” Newsweek notes.
“In the end, he would come to see and accept that he was in an almost unique position as an American — someone who had been part of both the white and the black American ‘families,’ able to view the secret doubts and fears and dreams of both, and to understand them.”
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