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Obama: 'skinny kid with a funny name'

By Jessica Schaeffer, Contributing Writer
Published On: May 12 2011 11:00:26 AM CDT
Updated On: May 01 2011 02:26:52 PM CDT
Barack Obama

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The "skinny kid with a funny name" -- as President Barack Obama referred to himself in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address -- made history in 2008 by becoming the first black man to be elected President of the United States.

Breaking racial barriers is nothing new for him, however. Obama has been trying to find his place in society as an African-American starting in elementary school and continuing through his college years.

Obama's diverse background and strong foundation of American principles matches the melting pot appearance of the country he hopes to lead.Barack Obama -- Barack means "blessed" in the Central African language of Luo -- was born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr.Obama's father was born in the Nyanza Province, Kenya, and grew up herding goats with his own father. In 1959, at the age of 23, Barack Obama Sr. won a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya and study economics at the University of Hawaii. It was there that he met Ann Dunham.

Dunham grew up in Wichita, Kan., where her father worked on oil rigs during the Depression and marched across Europe in Patton's army. Her mother worked on a bomber assembly line during World War II. After the war, the family moved to Hawaii.

Obama's parents met at the University of Hawaii. They were both students when they married and Obama was born in 1961.

In 1963, when Obama was 2, the couple separated when his father moved from Hawaii to Boston with a scholarship to finish his Ph.D at Harvard. Barack Sr. returned to Kenya after his schooling with the goal of bettering his poverty-stricken country. Besides visiting his son once, Barack Sr. remained in Kenya until his death in a car accident in 1982.

Later, Dunham was remarried to Lolo Soetoro, a University of Hawaii student from Indonesia. In 1967, the whole family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. Here, Obama's half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng was born in 1970.

While living in Indonesia, Obama found an American magazine article that showed blacks using skin-bleaching agents to make themselves lighter.

Obama told A&E, "I first realized that I was an African-American (at that moment), but also there were all sorts of implications to race and there were power relationships in race. ... I remember feeling shocked by that."

This event would trigger Obama's journey to find his identity in the black community.

Identity Conflict

In 1971, 10-year-old Barack, commonly known as "Barry" in his early years, returned to Hawaii to live with grandparents Madelyn and Stanley Dunham. According to David Mendell, a Chicago Tribune reporter, being separated from his mother was a dramatic experience.

He said, "he missed her greatly at times."

Obama was enrolled in the fifth grade at the esteemed Punahou Academy after returning to Hawaii and graduated with honors in 1979. He was one of three black students at the entire school.

His half-sister Soetoro-Ng said that Obama felt the first stirrings of loneliness while attending this school. It was the first time that "there was nobody there that completely understood him," she said.

When Obama was in fifth grade, Barack Sr. visited Hawaii, but the intended joyous trip only caused a disruption. Soetoro-Ng said it was confusing for her half-brother and that he did not feel his father was entitled to make decisions about his life.

Before Barack Sr. left, he gave Obama records of African music and a basketball, which also failed to bridge the gap between father and son, according to the A&E video.In 1972, Obama's mother separated from her second husband and returned to Hawaii with Maya to complete her masters in anthropology at the University of Hawaii.

Dunham taught her children the lessons she learned in her studies, especially those of the underprivileged, according to the A&E video. Soetoro-Ng said that her mother had dolls that were "all the colors of the rainbow, and in fact, that is what our family looked like."

Mimicking 'Black Behavior'

Obama's high school years were filled with continuous efforts to find his place within the society around him. Mendell wrote that Obama tried to mimic what he thought was "black behavior," including slacking off in schoolwork, playing basketball and experimenting with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.

Although his grades were not excellent, Obama was still admitted to Occidental College in Los Angeles. Obama made several black friends at school, but he still did not fully understand what it meant to be a black American, which left him feeling like he did not belong, according to the video.

After his sophomore year, Obama transferred to Columbia University in New York, where he eventually graduated in 1983 with a degree in political science.

While at Columbia, Obama walked through many ethnic neighborhoods and tried to understand the "societal forces around the issue of race," according to the A&E video. Obama eventually knew that he wanted to be a community organizer, a job he hoped would allow him to confront the kind of racism and poverty that had troubled him for most of his life.

After graduation, Obama moved to Chicago's South Side to help with the Developing Communities Project and the Altgeld Gardens public housing development. After successfully completing projects in school reform and hazardous waste cleanup, and establishing a job-training center, Obama set his sights on Harvard Law.

"So much of the struggle of people being left behind involved laws, and if (Obama) was to be an advocate, he needed to be credentialed in the law," said David Axelrod, a media adviser.

Visiting Kenya

Before going to Harvard Law School, 26-year-old Obama went to Kenya to visit his dead father's grave. He also visited his grandparents and half-siblings, and he faced the shocking poverty of his father's homeland.

The overall experience helped Obama further understand his father and why he had returned to Kenya instead of staying with him. This father and son pair had many similarities, including high goals of helping poverty and their own people, according to the A&E video."

The work I was doing was directly connected to my own family and their own struggles," Obama said. "It helped to unify my outward self with my inward self in an important way."

'We Just Clicked'

Obama entered Harvard Law School in 1988. After his first year, he worked at a summer internship in Chicago, where he met his wife, Michelle Robinson, his mentor and lawyer at Sidley and Austin.

"We just clicked," Michelle Obama said. The couple married on Oct. 3, 1992.

In February 1990, Obama was elected the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, and he began to receive a lot of media attention. He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 1991.

Beginnings of Political Career

After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer, joining the firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He also lectured at the University of Chicago Law School.

Obama became director of Illinois Project Vote in 1992 and helped organize and register about 100,000 new voters during Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, according to the A&E video.

His success in the project placed him on Crain's Chicago Business Top 40, Under 40 Outstanding Young Leaders in Chicago that year.

Obama's mother passed away in 1995 after losing her battle against ovarian cancer. Also that year, Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," was published. At the time, it received mediocre reviews and went quickly out of print. However, he later won a Grammy for the audio version of the book.

Ultimately, Obama's advocacy work led him to run for the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat, and he was elected in 1996 from the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park.

In 1998, Michelle and Barack had their first child, Malia Ann. Their second daughter, Natasha, was born in 2001.

Political Misstep

By 1999, Obama's success and hard work had established him as a politician with charisma and drive, according to the A&E video.

However, Obama had a political misstep when he was running against incumbent Bobby Rush for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Important gun control legislation was going to be voted on in the state Senate, and a close vote was foreseen. Although Obama supported the bill, he was in Hawaii and decided to stay with his ill daughter instead of returning when the bill was put on the floor.

Without Obama's vote, the bill did not pass, and Rush used Obama's absence against him in his own campaign, saying, "there was no excuse for missing a pivotal vote."

Obama lost the election to Rush but returned to the state Senate and passed 27 pieces of legislation over the next four years.

In 2003, Obama entered the race for the U.S. Senate. He won the 2004 Illinois primary after his main opposing candidate Jack Ryan dropped out because of exposed scandals.

Black Leader

Obama made the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. This defining moment in his career made him one of the United States' premier black leaders, said Mendell.

On Nov. 2, 2004, Obama became the fifth black senator in the U.S. Senate, at the age of 43.

Once in office, Obama was the first to raise the threat of avian flu on the Senate floor, speak out for victims of Hurricane Katrina and push for alternative-energy development and improved veterans' benefits.

He also worked with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to eliminate gifts of travel on corporate jets by lobbyists to members of Congress.

In December 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006, marking the first enactment of federal legislation primarily sponsored by Obama.

As a U.S. senator, Obama held assignments on various committees, including Foreign Relations, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Veterans' Affairs.

On June 3, 2008, Obama captured the delegates necessary to become the first black nominee for president of the United States.

On his website, Obama said: "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... I'm asking you to believe in yours."