Letters at Emory are window into the mind of younger Barack Obama

Barack Obama was trying to figure it all out — life, love, his future.

It was the early 1980s. The future president was a college student and shared his thoughts with his then-girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, in nine handwritten letters that are part of a special Emory University collection that will be available for public viewing for the first time, starting Friday.

Emory faculty and officials who’ve read the letters say they show an Obama who is intellectually curious, self-reflective and exploring his racial identity. They say the letters are written with a lyrical rhythm that shows some of the oratorical skills that propelled Obama onto the national stage.

Emory officials shared some samples of Obama’s letters with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that reveal his inner struggles.

“I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups, my American friends consuming their life in the comfortable mainstream, the foreign friends in the international business world,” Obama wrote. “Caught without a class, a structure, or a tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me.

“The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions, classes, make them mine, me theirs. Taken separately, they’re unacceptable and untenable.”

The letters also show Obama’s cerebral approach to romance. He talked authors ranging from T.S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf. Obama shared a New York Times book review with her. The letters begin in 1982 and end in 1984. By the last letter, Obama is no longer romantically involved with McNear, but she is a valued friend. The collection does not include responses from McNear, Emory officials said.

Obama and McNear met when they were studying at California’s Occidental College. Emory officials said the letters began when he enrolled at Columbia University in New York City.

Emory declined to discuss some details about how it obtained the letters. Emory staff hope students struggling with determining their purpose will find encouragement in Obama’s challenges with those issues.

“I think the students and others will see things that provide a foundation of a person who was really working to define his own life and how he wanted to shape it,” said Rosemary Magee, director of Emory’s Rose Library, where the letters are being kept.

Political junkies will likely mine the letters for nuggets that reveal his future positions.

For example, Emory associate political science professor Andra Gillespie noted Obama thinking about nuclear policy through a physics class. He attended a socialism conference and wrote he was skeptical about its practicality. Gillespie said there were glimpses of his future support for feminist policies, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, an attempt to end gender wage discrimination. It was the first bill Obama signed as president in January 2009.

Obama also wrote about developing his identity as an African-American through relationships with other African-Americans at one job.

“He doesn’t have it all figured out, but you see him thinking through it,” said Gillespie, director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.

Magee said the difference between the letters and the books Obama has authored is that “the thoughts are fresh to him.”

And what would Obama think today when the reading these letters?

“My guess is he will feel affection for the kind of self-reflection he experienced,” Magee said. “I expect he’ll be proud of them.”

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