Barack Obama has admitted that the white “New York girlfriend” in his book Dreams From My Father is a “composite.” She didn’t exist, but Obama claims that the incident later in this post did happen. The president downplays the significance of the revelation that she isn’t real, in an interview with David Maraniss:
I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?
The girlfriend plays a key role in revealing Obama’s interactions with and understandings of white people. It also sets him up as the wise man with a special understanding of race issues. After more than three years of Obama demonstrating his wisdom by doing things like inserting himself directly into the Trayvon Marton shooting, his wisdom is certainly open for debate. There hasn’t been much evidence of it in the Obama who occupies the White House.
According to the book, he and she — whoever she is, if she exists at all — went to see a play by a black playright. The girlfriend didn’t like the play. An after school special life lesson ensued.
One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.
Now we know the girlfriend isn’t a real person. Is anything else about this story real? We haven’t heard from her in all these years, not once. Did this special moment really happen, or is Obama delving into fiction to feed a larger narrative?
I realize that Obama has already acknowledged using “composite” characters in his book. That part of the story isn’t really news. He says he has done so out of respect for the people in his stories, but the composites obviously serve another purpose: They make it nearly impossible to sort out and track down much of what he says in the book. By using composites, the author of the book can spin out as many convenient myths and yarns as he wants, and who’s to say which are true and which are, like the characters they happen to, figments?