Oprah: In the book, you eloquently describe what it's like to be out playing basketball and talking about "white folks," then coming home to the white folks you lived with—the people who loved and cared for you. That must have been confusing.
Barack: It was. One of the things I fell prey to during my teen years was this need to separate myself from my parents and grandparents and take on this macho African-American image of a basketball player talking trash. The other day, somebody asked me, "Why do you think you ended up embracing all the stereotypes? You tried pot, coke." Back in the seventies, we had Shaft and Superfly or Flip Wilson and Geraldine. If you had to choose between those, it was pretty clear which direction you'd go. But you're right: As a teen, I had this divided identity—one inside the home, one for the outside world. It wasn't until I got to college that I started realizing that was fundamentally dishonest. I knew there had to be a different way for me to understand myself as a black man and yet not reject the love and values given to me by my mother and her parents. I had to reconcile that I could be proud of my African-American heritage and yet not be limited by it.
Oprah: That's now my favorite Barack Obama quote! There's another line you delivered in your speech at the convention that still resonates with me: "Children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." I stood up and cheered when you said that.
Barack: That's something I went through personally. Bill Cosby got into trouble when he said some of these things, and he has a right to say things in ways that I'm not going to because he's an older man. But I completely agree with his underlying premise: We have to change attitudes. There's a strain of anti-intellectualism running in our community that we have to eliminate. I'm young enough to understand where that opposition culture, that rebellion against achievement, comes from.
Oprah: Where does it comes from?
Barack: Fear—at least for me and a lot of young African-Americans. There's a sense in which we feel that the only way to assert strength is to push away from a society that says we're not as good. It's like: Instead of trying to compete, I'm going to have my own thing, and my own thing may be the streets or rap music.
Oprah: Do you think we've lost the belief that we can succeed? I was talking with Skip Gates [Henry Louis Gates, scholar of African-American history and culture], and he was saying how ironic it is that our parents believed that their little nappy-headed boys and girls could grow up and be somebody if they worked twice as hard.
Barack: We no longer operate that way, but we should be working twice as hard, because we still have challenges and barriers other communities don't have.
We Hear You!