Barack Obama - the first African American US-President

The American Dream

Pre-University Paper, 2011
30 Pages, Grade: 12



It was in November 2008 when I first realized that a black man had won the election for the American US presidency. “Wow, unbelievable!”, I thought. Thoughts about Martin Luther King, slavery or black ghettos quickly crossed my mind. I remembered the holiday I had with my parents in Washington D.C. two years ago, where we visited the National History Museum. We walked through departments dealing with slavery, we got to know about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and then I stood in front of the originals of the United States Constitution and the United States Declaration of Independence. I thought of the time when the country had been racially segregated, African Americans had no equality of opportunity and I pondered over the millions of black Americans who these human rights never had applied to. Two centuries before Barack Obama ran for President, slaves built the White house. Twelve presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office. And now in 2008 it was the first time that a black man became president of the USA - a dream came true. This fascinated the world and of course it had a tremendous effect on me, as well. After I heard a W-Seminar would be offered at school called ‘The American Dream in 20th Century Film, Music and Literature’, I quickly realized that I wanted to take part in it. Thinking of Barack Obama and his fulfillment of the American dream, my intention was to find out what made him reach the highest position in the USA despite the fact that he’s black. I named my project paper ‘Barack Obama – the first African American president of the USA’.

A Introduction

The main topic of our seminar is “the American Dream in 20th Century Film, Music and Literature”. The aim is to get a deeper understanding of the American culture and identity in the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. My purpose is to analyze Barack Obama‘s career in terms of the fulfilment of the American Dream. Obama is considered a symbol for a post-racial era and his career is supposed to be the evidence of the success of the black Civil Rights Movement and the overcoming of the racial discrimination in the USA. Obama’s sky rocketing career is also characteristic of what Americans cherish about their own country namely social permeability, support of talents and advancement opportunities regardless of origin and skin color. Obama, an African American had an exceptional career. He had an excellent education, took up the reputable profession of a lawyer, has earned a lot of money and has reached the pursuit of happiness within his family. Obama made that career for himself because of his path through life. It involves his social environment, his search for identity, his pursuit of happiness, his constant willingness and assertiveness, his hard work in school and at university, his dedication to the underprivileged of the Chicago ghettos and finally his professional and political experiences. All these phases of his life made Obama the politician he nowadays is, who reconciles and unifies like no other black politician ever has. Thus he was elected president, because he embodies a new type of black politician.

For my primary literature I chose “Dreams from my father. A Story of Race and Inheritance” an autobiography written by Barack Obama, because it gives an interesting account of his search for identity in his first 30 years. It was first published in July 1995 and the victory of the U.S. Senate Democratic primary in Illinois in March 2004 led to the book’s re-publication in August 2004. This edition included a new preface by Obama, where he said that nowadays he would tell the story just the same way as he had done ten years ago.

B Barack Obama – the first African-American US-President – fulfilment of the American Dream

1. Backgroundinformation

1. 1. The American Dream

The United States Declaration of Independence is a statement, written by Thomas Jefferson on July 4th 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies became independent states and thus no longer a part of the British Empire. Particularly the second sentence, a sweeping statement of individual human right, considers the foundation of the idea of the American Dream: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1] This sentence generated the national ethos of the United States, the fulfilling of hopes and dreams of millions of emigrants who settled to the USA. Hence the United States has always regarded and promoted itself as a beacon of liberty and prosperity. Over the course of history the meaning of the ‘American Dream’ has changed. At the beginning many of the dreams “focused on owning land, achieving prosperity and establishing prosperous businesses”.[2] During the economic advancement in the 1930ies the myth „from rags to riches” [3] arose. In this content the term ‘American Dream’ was first expressed by James Truslow Adams in his book ‘The Epic of America’ which was written in 1931. In his book he states:

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer

and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

It’s […] a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.[4]

Later the idealistic vision of the American Dream included “the opportunity for […] children to grow up and receive a good education and career without artificial barriers”.[5] In the Constitution it says that people can make individual choices without limitations according to race, religion, gender, and national origin. The basic requirement for Americans to fulfill their dreams is hard work and determination. [6] This originates in the first Protestant settlers’ belief that hard work allows the achievement of financial success which in turn reveals God’s grace. This religiously based Protestant work ethic was solidified in the American mind and is now the basis of the fulfillment of the American Dream.[7]

1. 2. The history of the black liberation

The night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States people all over the world were visibly moved by the significance of that event. They said that the election of Obama was the fulfilment of the dream of which Martin Luther King had spoken on August 1963 in Washington, D.C., one hundred years after President Abraham Lincoln had declared slavery to be over and 232 years after the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

The first move towards equality of the blacks was made by Abraham Lincoln who issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that abolished slavery.[8] But apart from the fact that these blacks did many of the menial jobs, they were separated from the whites. For blacks that meant e.g. separate restaurants, entertainment facilities or separate waiting rooms in bus stations. The worst effect was the so called ‘separate but equal doctrine’ that caused a serious segregated education system. The struggle of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led to the Supreme Court decision on 17 May 1954 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”.[9] Diehard segregationists, especially in the Southern States, called this day “Black Monday” and incited massive resistance.

Between 1954 and 1968 the Civil Rights Movement aimed to abolish public and private acts of racial discrimination and racism against African Americans and other disadvantaged groups. ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’ in 1954, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement set an end to discrimination in schools. In the face of change in 1963 over 200,000 people were mobilized for the March on Washington by Dr. Martin Luther King. This march was intended to demand equal job opportunities, but made history for King’s mesmerizing and inspiring speech called ‘I Have a Dream’.[10] M.L.K. rooted the civil Rights Movement in the black quest for American Dream. “I say to you today, […] I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”,[11] he preached. John F. Kennedy intensely espoused the rights of the blacks, but after he was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson finally signed the landmark ‘Civil Rights Act’ in 1964 that outlawed racial segregation. On August 6th 1965 Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, eliminating the discrimination amongst voters. Although these rights were guaranteed on paper, change did not move fast enough to meet the needs of everyday life for the disenfranchised. The non-violent movement gave way to the more militant Black Power Movement. Its ideology was most widely embodied by Malcolm X, leader of the Civil Rights Movement und supporters of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.[12] Finally in 1961 ‘Affirmative Action’, a bill, first established by John F. Kennedy helped to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they had been historically excluded up until then.[13] Despite slow progress in Civil Rights it was a time of hardship for blacks and minorities.

1.3. Barack Obama’s curriculum vitae

On August 4th 1961 Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, born in Wichita, Kansas and his father, Barack Obama Sr., being a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, met in 1960 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his father was a foreign student on scholarship. The couple got married in 1960, but separated when Obama Sr. moved on to study at Harvard sponsored by a scholarship. They divorced in 1964. Obama Sr. remarried and returned to Kenya, visiting Barack Jr. in Hawaii only once in 1971. Barack Sr. died in an automobile accident in 1982. In 1966 Dunham remarried an Indonesian man, called Lolo Soetoro who was attending college in Hawaii. In 1967 they moved to Jakarta where Obama’s half-sister Maya was born. From age’s six to ten Obama attended a local school in Jakarta until his mother decided to send him back to the USA to his maternal grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley Armour Dunham, to provide him with a good education. In Hawaii he attended Punahou School, a private college preparatory school, until his graduation in 1979. Obama’s mother returned to Hawaii in 1972, remaining there until 1977 when she went back to Indonesia to work as an anthropological field worker. She finally returned to Hawaii in 1994 and lived there for one year before dying of ovarian cancer in 1995. Barack Obama left Hawaii to enrol at the Occidental College in Los Angeles where he studied for two years before moving on to major in Political Sciences at the Columbia University of New York. After graduating in 1983, Barack Obama worked at different corporations for a year before following a vocation which led him to Chicago where he spent three years as a community organizer. It was during this time that Obama joined the Trinity United Church of Christ. In mid-1988ies he travelled for five weeks in Kenya where he met many of his paternal relatives for the first time. In late 1988 Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School and soon after was elected President of the Harvard Law Review, a very renowned paper. At an internship at the law firm ‘Sidley Austin’ he met the lawyer Michelle Robinson who he married in 1992 and with who he later had two daughters Malia born 1998 and Sasha born 2001. After the graduation in 1991 with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) magna cum laude he returned to Chicago to help start the ‘Illinois Project Vote’ to mobilize black voters. In 1993 Obama started working as a lawyer at ‘Miner, Barnhill & Galland’, a firm specializing in civil rights litigation. He stayed there for nine years. During this time he taught at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1995 Obama published his first book, ‘Dreams from my father: A story of race and inheritance’, dealing with race relations which developed into a personal memoir. The book had a second printing in 2004. Obama’s advocacy work led him to run for the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat. He won election in 1996 and the second and third election in 1998 and 2002. In 2000 he lost a Democratic primary run for the U.S. House of Representatives to four-term incumbent Bobby Rush. In summer 2004 he was invited to deliver the keynote speech in support of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and in November 2004 Obama received 70 percent of the vote in the general election, the largest electoral victory in Illinois history. Thus Barack Obama became the third African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since the Reconstruction. His second book, the ‘Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream’, was published in October 2006. On February 2007 Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States. On June 3rd 2008 he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton the former first lady and then U.S.-Senator for the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party and on November 4th 2008, the Republican presidential nominee John McCain for the position of U.S. President. On January 20th 2009, Obama became the 44th President of the United States – and the first African-American to hold this office. [14]

2. Obama’s search for identity

Barack Obama isn’t just a black boy in a white world, but he is a child of a black and white background. Until he was an adult his life was “a record of a personal, interior journey […] a boy’s search for a workable meaning for his life as a black American.”[15] He always felt torn between two worlds, but at the end of a long search he came to understand himself.

2.1. First experiences with his black skin color

Barack Obama was born on Hawaii in 1961. He was surrounded by a loving white mother and sympathetic maternal white grandmother Toot and grandfather Gramps who called him Barry instead of Barack. Raised mainly on a multicultural island Barry was only ten years old when he barely registered in his mind “that [his father] was black as pitch, [his] mother white as milk.”[16] In Hawaii there were so many races, that racial segregation was no big theme; it was like one true melting pot. Barry knew that the word racism was in his grandparents’ vocabulary back then, but anyhow they were liberal. Gramps, a furniture salesman, treated black customer decently, and Toot addressed black men with Mister instead of Nigger.[17]

In Indonesia Barry noticed for the first time that there were people who didn’t like their black skin color. He saw pictures of a man in the life-magazine whose chemical treatment to lighten his complexion had gone wrong.[18] Back home he looked in the mirror wondering if something was wrong with him. From that point on he registered that on “TV the black never got the girl and Santa was a white man.”[19] The first time he realized that black people like him could inspire the rawest fears was the experience that Toot was extremely frightened of a black panhandler who pestered her. This was “like a fist in [his] stomach” Obama wrote in his biography.[20] A black friend of Gramps the 80-year-old Frank explained to the distracted Barry that whites are afraid of blacks because they know “that black people have a reason to hate” [21] and barry had better get used to that. This assertion made him feel like “the earth shook under [his] feet” and “[he] knew for the first time that [he] was utterly alone.”[22]

At Puntahou Higschool he and four other blacks were a minority. He had a good time there, but his teacher’s question like “what tribe his your father from?”,[23] pupils touching his hair and racial jokes from tennis partners not to touch the schedule of matches because his color might rub off,[24] made him feel he didn’t belong. He also loathed black empty phrases like “Yo baby, give me five’ bullshit.”[25] In that time he slipped back and forth between his black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and habits and customs and interests. But one thing he resignedly understood - the whites always had control and the blacks were “playing on the white man’s court, by the white man’s rules.”[26]

2.2. Decision to become a black

Finally Barry made a decision. Because of allegiance to the blacks he was trying to raise himself to be a black man in America. But there was the problem that "no one around [him] seemed to know exactly what that meant.”[27] Step by step he began immersing himself in an African-American culture and gave himself instruction on how to be black. He couldn’t learn from the neighborhood, because Honolulu was hardly Harlem or the Bronx. He listened to black musician, watched TV, started playing basketball and read books about the leaders of the black civil rights movement.[28] One line in Malcolm X’s autobiography impressed him; Malcolm wished that “the white blood that ran through him, there were by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged.”[29] Barry wondered what else would be left if he would refuse his white blood. He knew that the presence of his white family and his white blood could never become an abstraction. From all the books Barry experienced an awareness of powerlessness and defeat of the blacks, “a withdrawal into a coil of rage.”[30] He realized that to be black meant to be angry, followed by stereotypes about black criminality, black intelligence, or the black work ethic – blacks are criminal, lazy, stoned and uneducated. Studying hard or being willing to climb up the social ladder would mean that you are an “educated” and “civilized” black, consequently you depart from the black identity and betray the “brothers”.[31] In spite of it all Barry wanted to become an authentically black man and began to take drugs and stopped learning. Later he wondered, if he hadn’t been in danger of taking the wrong way. He wrote that “that’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. Pothead. Junkie.”[32] He was lucky because his mother Ann brought him back on track. He turned the corner and last but not least he graduated without mishap and Barry decided to go to college.[33]

Barack Obama left Hawaii to enroll at the Occidental College in Los Angeles where he studied for two years. Until then Barry was so far from ‘black America’. Now there were more black students and they stayed close together in the Black Student’s Association. Although he had black friends and was accepted in the Black Community, he wondered why he couldn’t arrange with his black identity. But somehow he knew the answer - he didn’t have “the certainty of the tribe like the blacks”.[34] He was a mulatto, raised by whites. Still he didn’t know where he belonged and still he wanted to choose between these two worlds. In this college he met other mulattos who didn’t want to choose between the worlds of their parents. They refused to be defined by the color of their skins. A multiracial girl argued that “it’s not the white people who are making [her] choose… it’s black people who always have to make everything racial.”[35] Barry still absolutely convinced of becoming a real black didn’t agree with her, believing her rejection of the black origin is just a justification for avoiding black people. Why should they get “lumped to losers if [they] don’t have to,” he accused them.[36]

Barry furthermore wanted to show loyalty to the blacks and so he put distance between the mulattos and himself. He associated only with blacks, smoked cigarettes with them, wore leather jackets and got involved in actions of the blacks like the divestment campaign.[37] But he always felt that this strategy alone couldn’t provide the distance to the mulattos or his past. He still feared to be an outsider not being able to solve the dilemma about his skin color and his belonging.[38]

2.3. Search for a black community

After college in Los Angeles Barry moved on to major in Political Sciences at Columbia University of New York. He discarded his American nickname Barry and was henceforth called Barack, the name that his father Barack Obama Sr. had given to him.[39]

The New York of the 80ies was economically depressed and battered by poverty. There the first time a sense of mission flared up in Barack and he wanted to become a community Organizer. He searched “a community that cut deeper than the common despair that black friends and he shared. What he needed was a community where he could test [his] commitments.”[40] Barack always lacked membership in a community, and by working as an organizer and by sharing mutual sacrifices he could earn the membership in the Black Community. [41] He also had the vision to re-create the black community, because after visiting an auditorium at Columbia University about Black Power, Black Nationalism and other race issues he realized that there weren’t only gaps between blacks and whites but the Black Community, “the movement had died years ago, shattered into a thousand fragments.”[42]

So before he took the exam at the Columbia University he sent applications to charity organizations and local initiatives all over the USA. But the letters had gone unanswered and in 1983 he first of all took a job as an assistant in the research department in the Business International Corporation in Manhattan “to pay off his students loans”.[43] Being the only black man in the company, he didn’t feel appertaining. Although he liked the job and the promotion was preprogrammed he finally decided to apply for a social task in order to work in the black ghettos. The black security in the firm wanted to keep him from this social work, because the blacks need people like Obama at the top to help them. But Obama was still convinced, that “change won’t come from the top; change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”[44]

After spending three months working at an organization in Harlem without payment he finally in 1983 was offered a position as a Community Organizer in Chicago by Marty Kaufmann.[45] There he was supposed to help to pull urban blacks and suburban whites together around a plan to save manufacturing jobs. Kaufmann needed a black trainee to contact the blacks and the black churches.[46] Out in the streets Obama listened to lot of stories of people’s hardship and migration. For a long time the work seemed to be senseless to him, because he couldn’t change things. But after having succeeded against the CHA (Altgeld’s management office) who had been forced by the black tenants to put through an asbestos removal in their houses, Obama and the tenants experienced that they weren’t that helpless anymore. For the first time Obama was highly content, because he succeeded in giving black people a voice.[47]

In Chicago Obama also spent a lot of time thinking about faith and religion. In one of the black churches he met Jeremiah Wright, Jr., the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ. Obama was fascinated by him. Not having been brought up in the church, in Chicago he lastly joined the church.[48] In the pastor Wright who already had often visited Africa, Obama found religious support and fragments of an Afro-American identity.[49] By the time Obama came to Chicago, he had become comfortable not only with his given name but with his racial identity in particular. What his work on the South Side was bringing him was a deepening connection to an African-American community. And he learnt something very important. In Chicago nobody was thinking about his being biracial or asking was he black enough. The people accepted him for what he has achieved and he didn’t feel ashamed because he was a role model, an example of black male success for them.[50] Obama decided to leave Chicago to go to Harvard and study law. He wanted to learn the fundamentals of a system he had seen mainly from the streets.


[1] and








[9] English G, Bd. 6, S. 119





[14] The biography of Barack Obama “Dreams from my father. A story of race and inheritance

[15] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S. xvi)

[16] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S. 10)

[17] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S. 21,18)

[18] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S. 30)

[19] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S. 52)

[20] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S. 88,89)

[21] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.90)

[22] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.91)

[23] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.60)

[24] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.80)

[25] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.83)

[26] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.85)

[27] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.76)

[28] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.78,85)

[29] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.86)

[30] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.85)

[31] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.85)

[32] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.96, 93)

[33] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.97)

[34] and B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.98)

[35] and B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.99)

[36] and B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.100)

[37] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.100,105)

[38] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.111)

[39] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.104)

[40] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.119)

[41] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.135)

[42] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.140)

[43] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.135)

[44] and B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.136; 133)

[45] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.140)

[46] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.227)

[47] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.235; 241; 242)

[48] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.291)

[49] Marcus Günther: Amerikas neue Hoffnung; 2007, (S. 24/25)

[50] B. Obama “Dreams from my father” (S.278)

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Barack Obama - the first African American US-President
The American Dream
Maria-Theresia-Gymnasium Augsburg
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In diese Seminararbeit oder wie sie früher hieß Facharbeit habe ich sehr sehr viel Arbeit geteckt. Bis ins Detail hab ich sie perfektioniert, sowohl inhaltlich als auch sprachlich. Ich habe Barack Obama hinsichtlich des "Amerikanischen Traums" von Grund auf analysiert. Ich habe mir unheimlich viel Mühe für diese Arbeit gemacht und hoffe, dass deshalb diese Arbeit Ihr Interesse weckt und eventuell Ihnen hinsichtlich Ihrer eigenen Arbeit behilflich sein kann.
barack, obama, african, american, us-president, dream
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Carla Pagel (Author), 2011, Barack Obama - the first African American US-President, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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