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Watch This Rare, Recently Surfaced Obama Speech From 1995

As a recent graduate of Harvard Law, Obama discussed his childhood and race in America. He also read a passage from Dreams From My Father and performed a series of impersonations.

Posted on May 26, 2015, at 2:13 p.m. ET

In March, a video of the 34-year-old Barack Obama surfaced on YouTube. It contains footage of an appearance he made at the Cambridge Public Library in September 1995.

While the video has accumulated more than 1 million views, these appear to have primarily come from fringe websites, which have cited the video as evidence that, to quote Infowars, a "Communist schooled [Obama] on white racism." (This is referring to Frank Marshall Davis, a friend of Obama's grandfather.)

At the time this video was taken, Obama had just published his first book, a memoir titled Dreams From My Father. Originally envisioned by agents as a "feel-good story," the memoir is instead a personal (if factually questionable) examination of the experiences of the mixed-race boy and young man who would eventually become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

The future president at the time was a lecturer at the University of Chicago, where he would teach constitutional law for more than a decade. He also was working as a civil rights attorney and had directed Project Vote in Chicago to register voters for the 1992 election.

Over the course of a speech, book reading, and question-and-answer session, Obama candidly discusses himself and his views on race relations in the United States from an variety of angles. He also performs a series of impersonations, first of some of his peers and then of his grandparents.

Here are the highlights:

View this video on YouTube

Obama said that "much of my life was spent trying to reconcile the terms of my birth."


“My father was a black African and my mother was a white American. And much of my life was spent trying to reconcile the terms of my birth — that divided heritage — with the realities of race and nationality, tribal identities, that exist not just in this country but also overseas. So that this book is not so much a memoir, I think, as sort of a journey of discovery for me. Some sense of trying to make sense of my family. And family’s always a complicated thing, but it was a little bit more complicated for me. And part of that process of me understanding my family ends up understanding the larger forces that shaped my family.”

His parents, he said, were "swept up in the idealism of that time." Their marriage broke apart as the "dreams of the nation began to crumble."


"They met in Hawaii. And they met at a time that was full of idealism. It was during the civil rights movement. Hawaii as it is had almost a mythic reputation of being multicultural. And so that my parents were swept up in the idealism of that time. And the hopefulness of that time, the sense that you might be able to create, in this country, a nation that was built on a sense of community and equity and fairness. And, as we know, many of those dreams of my parents ended up fraying as time went on. Their marriage broke apart, but also I think the hopes and dreams of the nation began to crumble in the later ‘60s."

Obama said that, as he came into adolescence, "identity politics that is so pronounced today" "was already starting to come to the fore."


"I end up coming into adolescence at a time when the tensions between the races even in a place like Hawaii are becoming more pronounced. And the identity politics is so pronounced today was already starting to come to the fore.”

Obama read a passage from his book that takes place after a "black party" to which he tried to bring his white friends. They did not handle it well. The experience, he said, caused him to see "a new map of the world."


"Typically when I went to parties in high school, oftentimes there were three or four black people in a room of 300. So finally a black friend of mine and myself decided to invite some white friends to a black party out in Army base. Out in Schofield Barracks, one of the major army bases in Hawaii. And we immediately sensed that they’re a little uncomfortable, being in this minority situation. You know, they’re sort of trying to tap their foot to the beat. You know, they’re being extraordinarily friendly and after a while they decide — after about half an hour they say, ‘Well, Barack, let’s get going. You know, we’re feeling kind of tired. We’re feeling this or that.’ Suddenly, the sense that what I’ve had to put up with every day of my life is something that they find so objectionable that they can’t even put up with it for a day. And these are good friends of mine. And folks who stood by me for many years. Something is triggered in my head and I suddenly start seeing it — as I say in this passage — a new map of the world."

In the passage Obama read, he described his younger self discovering the writings of Malcolm X and discusses them with some skeptical peers. He also has an encounter with his grandparents that revealed to him his grandmother's prejudices.

In the passage, he performed some voices. Here, he impersonated a peer who, though he agrees that Malcolm, "tells it like it is": "You won't see me moving to no African jungle any time soon."

The peer argued a policy of no ribs and "no pussy" would not work.

Obama also imitated his grandmother, after he asked her, "What's wrong?"

Obama said that, after he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, agents wanted him to write a "feel-good story." He wanted to write an "academic treatise," but ultimately decided that a personal story would be more valuable.


"When I was elected president of the Law Review here at Harvard, that generated quite a bit of publicity, and so, immediately, there’s this entire industry of agents and folks whose — if you get your little 15 minutes of fame, they’ll call you and see if we, I suppose, can make some money on it. And I think the idea that they had initially was sort of a, uh, sort of a feel-good story. You know, young black man, successful, and then I had to explain, you know, this is kind of complicated, you know, what’s going on here.

“And at the time I was thinking about writing more of an academic treatise. You know, because I wasn’t very happy with sort of the terms of the public policy debate surrounding racial issues. What happened as I began to write it — and I’d been keeping journals for quite some time. What I realized is is that, if I had anything unique or useful to offer, that it probably had more to do with the stories of my life, you know, what I realized — and partly this comes from my background as a community organizer — where the way you organize a community: give them a sense of solidarity or meaning in their lives a lot of times has to do with sharing stories. And there’s a long tradition in the African-American community of sharing stories. Of storytelling and in African traditions the griot, sharing stories, and so I guess I felt that I ended up being drawn to the idea of sharing a story and thought that my family might be a useful prism to understand some of the complexities of racial issues which gets so simplified when they’re debate on Crossfire or McLaughlin Group or what have you.”

Obama was asked what he thought of the "increased push to have multiethnic as a political category" — for instance, on census reports. He said he thought the idea was "naive and potentially damaging from a political standpoint."


"I think Dr. King described it as the need for us to move from a either/or mentality to a but/and mentality. And I think that the truth of it is that we share a great deal in common amongst the tribes. We have to continually work towards and affirm that commonality. But we have very different historical circumstances.

"And I think William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead and buried. It’s not even past.’ That’s certainly true when it comes to racial issues. So the notion that somehow changing a census box will free up someone who’s quote-unquote ‘multicultural’ so that they will now be able to live as individuals, as opposed as opposed to categorized into groups just strikes me as naïve and potentially damaging from a political standpoint. You know, I think that if anything it just creates one more category. So now we have ‘coloreds’ in America. And there was a long fight in South Africa to overturn that. I guess the simplest way to answer your question is if I’m in New York City trying to catch a cab, I can’t hold up a little sign, saying ‘I’m multicultural,’ you know.”

Obama also talked about the difficulty of convincing people to vote when they don't feel like "active agents."


“People always feel like things are happening to them and they’re not active agents. And so a lot of groundwork has to be laid to explain that, ‘No, in fact you are an active agent.’ And sometimes you talk about welfare cuts. And that if you don’t vote, somebody’s gonna your welfare. Sometimes, as people develop, you can engage them in more sophisticated arguments about the potential power of a minority, particularly in primaries. But it’s difficult work. There’s no easy, magic solution for it.”

Obama said he discovered that his "individual salvation would only come from a collective salvation of some sort."


“What I discovered — and I try to write about this in the book — is that the solution to me for that sense of isolation was to throw myself into a community. To basically decide — and it wasn’t articulated in my mind at the time, but in retrospect I can see what I was doing — ended up deciding that my individual fate had to be tied to something larger than myself. That my individual salvation would only come from a collective salvation of some sort. That my true sense of self would only come if I had some sense of community.”

"Racial harmony is not going to come by us holding hands singing, 'Kumbaya,'" Obama said, arguing that "breaking isolation requires work."


“Racial harmony is not going to come by us holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ That understanding has to be earned. It has to be worked for. And there are sacrifices involved. And I think that breaking isolation requires work and sacrifice. And I think that’s how I ended up reconciling it.”

Obama argued that the "notion of black anger" "is greatly overstated considering what a brutal experience it has been in this country."


“I remain optimistic about America. I believe that we can appeal to the better angels of our nature. And I think that — you know, my wife likes to say — she’s a black woman who grew up in the South Side of Chicago, all her life, working class family — she likes to say — and I think this is true — that black folks are the most forgiving people because they’ve had the most practice. And I think that’s true. This whole notion of black anger and black rage — you know, I think is greatly overstated considering what a brutal experience it has been in this country.”

One obstacle to resolving the country's racial problems is that, despite being "decent people," "Americans don't like to sacrifice," Obama said.


"Sometimes, black folks think I’m a little naïve, but I guess I think that basically Americans are decent people. I think the problem with Americans — and this is obviously a large generalization, so you will excuse as I generalize about Americans — Americans don’t like to sacrifice. This generation in particular does not like to sacrifice. Our whole politics is geared towards not wanting to sacrifice and trying to do everything on the cheap. And solving the racial problems in this country at this stage has very much to do with economics and class and dealing with entire generations and segments of society that need help. And that’s gonna cost some money. And that’s gonna require some sacrifice.”

In comparing Chicago to New York, Obama said one difference was Chicago's high level of ethnic segregation. In New York, he felt like "I'm part of this wider world." People in the Midwest, he said, "sometimes kind of forget that."


“Chicago is a highly segregated city and that creates discomfort, not so much for me, because since I work in a wide circle — you know, I can move in a lot of different neighborhoods. But, uh, it lacks the cosmopolitan feel of, say, New York. And I confess that when I go on vacation and take a weekend in New York and I’m just walking down the street and I’m hearing, you know, a Pakistani over here and I hear, you know, Creole over here — that makes me feel sort of that I’m part of this wider world. And you know, us folks in the Midwest, you know, we’re landlocked so we sometimes kind of forget that.”

Obama said that, after he and Michelle went to Africa, she realized "very profoundly" that she "was an American." He said his cousins called her a "wazungu," meaning "white lady."


“But I know for example I took my wife back. And as I said, she grew up in the South Side of Chicago. And what she realized was that she was an American. I think very profoundly she realizes. Now, she’s a very beautiful, regal, African-looking brown-skinned sister. And she goes there and we go up to my grandmother’s village and first of all, she’s riding in matatus, these little jitneys that are bumping along the road and there are chickens on our laps. And what was that game when we were kids, right, that you put your — twister, that’s right, that’s how it feels — so we get up there and my little cousins, they all start pointing at her and saying, ‘Look, the wazungu,’ which means, ‘the white lady.’ For a girl from the South Side of Chicago whose complexion is about like this young lady’s right here, that’s sort of a stunning sort of welcome.”

Obama recounted the story of a black man whose manager said he didn't have to worry about an anti-discrimination lawsuit because "I've got my n----r in the window." According to Obama, the manager later became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.


“There is so much debate about affirmative action. And very little talk about enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. It is incredibly hard to bring a discrimination suit these days in the courts. Incredibly hard. First of all, you’ve got corporations who are willing to spend half a million, 750 thousands, a million dollars' worth of legal fees to defend them on the case. You’ve got a black plaintiff or a woman plaintiff on the other side who, if she can find a lawyer who’s willing to take the case on contingency, is still looking at $40, $50, $100,000 worth of just costs. These aren’t legal fees, just costs. They get worn down. And then you have a court that has cramped readings of existing laws. So, you know, I just finished a case where a black man who was the only black employee in a sales force of 150. The first week on the job, his manager, who is now the CEO of a company which is a Fortune 500 company, pointed to him while standing next to a customer said, ‘See I don’t have to worry about the EEOC, I’ve got my n----r in the window.’ And this is not uncommon.”

Obama argued that conservatives used "moniker of 'politically correct' to sort of beat back the progress we've made in terms of decency and civility."


“The conservatives have been very effective in using the moniker of ‘politically correct’ to sort of beat back the progress we’ve made in terms of decency and civility. But I think that well-meaning citizens would be well-served to take a look at anti-discrimination laws and how they’re being enforced because at least theoretically, most conservatives still say that they believe in anti-discrimination laws, they just don’t believe in affirmative action. In practice, however, it’s very hard to apply those laws in a just and equitable way.”

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