His father deserted the family when he was young. He was raised mostly by a single mother, whose second marriage also broke up, and he lived with his grandparents for much of his early life.
During his teen years he played basketball but turned to marijuana, alcohol and cocaine to help deal with his feelings of alienation and anger against the white establishment.
America loves this plot. It reads like any number of modern urban dramas. You see this character on shows such as HBO's The Wire and movies like In Too Deep.
However, this plot has some unusual turns. His father is a black Kenyan and his mother a white Kansan. The protagonist is born in Hawaii and spends several years in Indonesia. He goes to Harvard, becomes a lawyer, gets some of that old-time religion and becomes a U.S. senator.
Barack Obama's story doesn't follow anyone's usual script. It's kind of foreign, a little weird. Because of that, in addition to facing his political opposition, the presidential candidate has to contend with basic identity questions from some African-Americans.
Is Barack Obama black enough to deserve the support of African-American voters?
With all due apologies to smart guys like Alan Keyes, Cornell West and the Rev. Al Sharpton what a stupid question! Well ... at least West and Sharpton seem like sharp guys most of the time. Keyes, who Obama trounced 70 to 27 percent in the 2004 Illinois senatorial race, seems more a cartoon than a human being.
But back to Obama is he black enough for what? To be a doorman at the Hilton? To be a shoeshine man at the train station? To be a grinning, eyeball-rollin' Bojangles?
"We spend a lot of time talking about absurd and irrelevant things in American politics," says Ollie Johnson, an assistant professor of political science in the Africana Studies department at Wayne State University.
OK, a reality-check from another smart guy. It doesn't much matter whether it's black politics or any other kind. It's all politics. Still, it seems there are competing visions of how and what African-American politicians and activists should be about today; images and identities are in flux. And it's at least partly generational. Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson represent a deep tradition in African-American politics. They're rooted in a time when religious leaders, epitomized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Minister Malcolm X, held the moral high ground to challenge the racial status quo.
Jackson and Sharpton ran for president to show that black men could run for president. They ran just to ensure that issues dear to the black community were part of the dialogue.
Then there's Obama, a politically savvy, media manipulating pol worthy of the legacy of slick Willie Clinton himself. He spent eight years in the Illinois Legislature before going to Washington as a senator. In fact, Obama is one of but three black presidential candidates who have actually won an election to public office. (U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York ran in 1972, as did U.S. Sen. Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois in 2004.)
Obama's a very different political creature from Jackson and Sharpton. His wide and easy smile bears no hint of the angry black man we're used to seeing in the media. He's certainly not going to have a "Hymietown" moment like the one that derailed one of Jackson's presidential bids.
And he's running at a time when the way that black politics are expressed in America is changing.
That change is typified in the recent resignation of NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon in a dispute with Chairman Julian Bond and the board of the venerable civil rights organization. Gordon reportedly favored more of a post-civil rights stance that focused more on community service and development while board members preferred a more traditional role of fighting racial discrimination.
"He came from the corporate sector," says Johnson. "He wanted to modernize the organization so they could more effectively do their job. True, he wanted to make it more service-oriented. He was right in that regard, and the NAACP eventually will modernize in terms of organizational practice and evolve in terms of what their substantive goals are."
Are we in a post-civil rights era? It seems a case of being only part way down that road. There are those who have benefited from education, employment and other opportunities made possible by civil rights advances, and those who still experience the obstacles of racism and discrimination.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick seems caught between the two eras. He grew up in a family of politicians where he could take advantage of the opportunities available. He won his first mayoral election portraying himself as part of the new generation although he used a more traditional black playbook to do it. Now he leads a city where 47 percent of the adult population is functionally illiterate. A population that has been left behind as manufacturing jobs leave the country and the costs of education, health care and other basics grow beyond their grasp.
In his recent state of the city address, Kilpatrick took a new-generation tack in telling the city, "No one is coming to save us."
"Kilpatrick oversimplified it," Johnson says. "We can do a lot to improve our situation. We should do more to improve our situation. That's true, but we are embedded in structures, relationships and entities beyond our control. We should at the same time make demands of the governor, the president, the Congress and other institutions to assist us in helping us. ...
"We're wasting billions of dollars in an illegal, criminal war in Iraq when that billions of dollars could be used to help education and reduce crime here in the Detroit metropolitan area."
There are many political tightropes Obama must walk. He has always been steadfastly against the Iraq war and understands what those billions of dollars could be doing at home. He has immersed himself in the African-American community and no doubt he agrees with traditional African-American activists on numerous issues.
But he didn't kowtow to them by announcing his candidacy at the same time, but far away from, the State of the Black Union conference where many black political and social leaders gathered. In effect, Obama's rapid rise overshadows the profile Sharpton's and Jackson's generation has spent a lifetime building.
"He's running for president, that takes a lot of ambition, a lot of confidence," Johnson says.
And it takes a lot of powerful people on your side. Jackson went a long way in closing the generational divide by endorsing Obama last week following his son Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
The bottom line is, rather than questioning his blackness, we should be asking about Obama's policies on education, health care, industry and the environment in order to assess whether he should be president. Next to a man like George W. Bush, who was proud that he had never been to Europe, Obama's experience in other cultures puts him miles ahead of the current president when it comes to understanding and tolerance of people who are different. Can he bring Americans together?
The real question should be: Is Barack Obama equipped to lead the most powerful country in the world?
Next irrelevant question: Is Hillary Clinton man enough to be president?Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]