Emory University

Obama Letters From 1980s Are Obtained by Emory University

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Indeed, in a letter dated April 1, 1983, Mr. Obama wrote, “I feel sunk in that long corridor between old values, actions, modes of thought, and those that I seek, that I’m working towards.”

The letters are written in cursive and feature the occasional cross-out, and the correspondence is often more cerebral in tone, rather than romantic.

“These letters aren’t particularly personal,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. “You’re coming in at these letters at a point in President Obama’s and Alex McNear’s relationship where you can see the arc of the breakup that’s going to happen. There’s no breakup letter per se, but you can see there are a couple of post-breakup letters.

“Their relationship, at the point that we’re reading it, is very intellectual and they’re clearly struggling with each other,” Ms. Gillespie added. “They’re both trying to find themselves and they’re having tough intellectual conversations with each other.”

In a letter from June 27, 1983, that Mr. Obama wrote from Indonesia, he said that while he thought of Ms. McNear often, he was confused about his feelings.

“It seems we will ever want what we cannot have,” Mr. Obama wrote. “That’s what binds us. That’s what keeps us apart.”

In that same letter, Mr. Obama mused on being an outsider in Indonesia, where he was visiting his mother and sister.

“I can’t speak the language well anymore,” he wrote. “I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”

In addition to his introspection, there are also indications of how Mr. Obama’s political views were shaped.

“Salaries in the community organizations are too low to survive on right now,” Mr. Obama wrote on Nov. 15, 1983, while looking for work in New York City, “so I hope to work in some more conventional capacity for a year, allowing me to store up enough nuts to pursue those interests next.”

And in perhaps the clearest indication of where Mr. Obama’s future was to be, he wrote on April 14, 1984, while working for Business International Corporation in New York City, “My ideas aren’t as crystallized as they were while in school, but they have an immediacy and weight that may be more useful if and when I’m less observer and more participant.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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