Barack Obama was at Columbia University (1981-1983) in New York for two years. He came there from Occidental College in Los Angeles. He got a degree in political science at Columbia and spent another year in the city working before going to Altgeld Gardens in Chicago.
Coming to New York allowed Obama to start all over again. He became a new person. He was now Barack, not Barry.
It seems he took everything Regina told him at Occidental to heart: he left his drinking and bitterness behind, he applied himself to his studies and was bent on making the world a better place. Even the terrible scale of New York’s troubles did not make him lose hope.
From his own account he worked hard and kept to himself. He said he was like a monk. Few remember him. Those who do say he seemed older than his years, somewhat laid back but in control.
He kept a journal in those days, yet he says little about Columbia beyond what he saw written in its public toilets. It seems a bit strange after telling us so much about Occidental. Maybe it did not help to advance his story in “Dreams from My Father”, yet even now he says little about it.
What he does tell us about those years is mainly about New York and the time his mother and sister came to visit.
He went with them to see “Black Orpheus” (1959), a corny film with great music set in Brazil that tells an old Greek love story with black people. His mother loved it when it first came out and wanted to see it again. Obama could not sit through it: it pictured blacks as simple, happy people, as if they were little more than children.
He turned to look at his mother’s face in the faint blue light of the film and saw how she loved its simple picture of blacks. He wondered if this was why she married a black man. How sad. He was at that age when he could begin to see his parents as ordinary people, faults and all.
But Obama had his own storybook picture of blacks. When he went to Harlem, world-famous as it was, it did not live up to the picture he had of it. It was far worse than he imagined.
In 1982 he wanted to travel to Kenya to to see his father. The only time he can remember seeing his father before was when he came to Hawaii one Christmas when Obama was ten. He gave him a basketball. His father turned out not to be the bigger-than-life character of his mother’s stories.
A friend of his had gone to Kenya and spoke highly of the experience: he said Africa is to blacks what Israel is to Jews: going there gave you a deeper sense of who you are. You had to go.
But just before Obama was about to leave for Africa, his father was killed in a car accident. He did not go.