Photo: Marc Royce
Oprah: There's a line in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman [a 1974 TV movie based on Ernest J. Gaines's novel] when Jane is holding a baby and asking, "Will you be the One?" While you were speaking, I was alone in my sitting room cheering and saying, "I think this is the One."
Barack: That's so nice. I think I'm one of the ones. I fight against the notion that blacks can have only one leader at a time. We're caught in that messiah mentality. As a consequence, a competition is set up. Who's the leader of the Korean-American community or the Irish-American community? The reason we don't know the answer is that they've got a collective leadership—people contributing in business, culture, politics. That's the model I want to encourage. I want to be part of many voices that help the entire country rise up.
Oprah: How do you define yourself as a leader?
Barack: Though I'm clearly a political leader now, I didn't start as one. I was skeptical of electoral politics. I thought it was corrupting, and that real change would happen in the grass roots. I came to Chicago [after college graduation] to work with churches organizing job-training programs. I thought the way to have an impact was through changing people's hearts and minds, not through some government program. So I did that for three and a half years, went to law school to become a civil rights attorney, then wrote a book.
Oprah: You were so young when you wrote Dreams from My Father. Why did you decide to write a memoir at 33?
Barack: I had the opportunity. When I was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, people were willing to give me money to write. That's a huge luxury. I thought I had something interesting to say about how our cultures collide as the world shrinks. My family's story captures some of the tensions and evolution and crosscurrents of race, both in this country and around the globe. One of the contributions I thought I could make was to show how I came to terms with these divergent cultures—and that would speak to how we all can live together, finding shared values and common stories. Writing the book was a great exercise for me because it solidified where I'd been and set the stage for where I was going.
Oprah: When did you first realize that you were a little black kid? Was it the incident you wrote about, in the seventh grade, when someone called you "coon"?
Barack: Because I grew up in Hawaii and then lived in Indonesia for a while, I understood my affiliation to Africa and black people from an early age, but only in positive terms. I became aware of the cesspool of stereotypes when I was 8 or 9. I saw a story in Life magazine about people who were using skin bleach to make themselves white. I was really disturbed by that. Why would somebody want to do that? My mother had always complimented me: "You have such pretty brown skin."