Anyway, I wrote down something that reminded me of Obama. No, not his special appeal for women. It was this passage of dialogue:
Marcia Jeffries: You always drink like that?Composite! Marcia Jeffries, the woman who discovers him for her radio show called "A Face in the Crowd" offers him the word "composite" to dignify his bullshit, and he does a little word play that rejects euphemism.
Lonesome Rhodes: Not always. Back in Riddle they was pretty strict. Didn't allow us to touch hard liquor till we was 10 or 11.
Marcia Jeffries: Now is there really a town called Riddle?
Lonesome Rhodes: Well, tell you the flat truth, it's just a sort of a whatchacallit, a...
Marcia Jeffries: ... Composite?
Lonesome Rhodes: Compost heap's more like it.
Obama's use of "composites" is well-discussed in the David Maraniss biography:
In his introduction [to Dreams from My Father] Obama states, “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” There is more to it than that. The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive. The themes of the book control character and chronology. Time and again the narrative accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white. Sometimes the composites are even more complex; there are a few instances where black figures in the book have characteristics and histories that Obama took from white friends. The racial scene in his family history that is most familiar to the public, the time when he overheard his grandparents in Hawaii argue because his grandmother was afraid of a black man at the bus stop, also happens to be among those he pulled out of its real chronology and fit into a place where it might have more literary resonance. Like many other riffs in the book, it explored the parameters and frustrations of his blackness....Composite/compost heap?
For a few years, in ninth and tenth grade, he shared his frustrations with a student two grades ahead of him named Keith Kakugawa. 178 In his memoir, he reinvented Kakugawa as a character called Ray who served a literary function as a symbol of young blackness, a mix of hot anger and cool detachment, the provocateur of hip, vulgar, get-real dialogues. In fact, Kakugawa was another hapa student, with a black and Native American mother and a Japanese father. Somewhere between pseudonymous and fictitious, Ray was the first of several distorted or composite characters employed in Dreams from My Father for similar purposes. Kakugawa was never in Barry’s closest gang of friends, but they did hang out now and then for those two years, and Barry felt freer to let down his guard around him, enjoying “his warmth and brash humor.” In the memoir Barry and Ray could be heard complaining about how rich white haole girls would never date them. In fact, neither had much trouble in that regard; Kakugawa dated an admiral’s daughter from the officers’ housing near Pearl Harbor and had the keys to her car, which he often drove around with “the Kid,” as he called Barry. In the book, Ray complained about “white folks this or white folks that,” a phrase that Barry found “uncomfortable” in his mouth because he unavoidably thought of his mother’s smile. But the Kid could grouse about his mother nonetheless. “If anyone heard a word from him when he was upset, I did,” Kakugawa recalled. “If I was mad at something he was mad at something. What was upsetting him— that his mother took off again. Seems like she never has time for him anymore— that kind of thing.”
In a less visceral and more lighthearted intellectual fashion, Barry also shared some of his inner thoughts with Tony Peterson, a graduating senior during Barry’s freshman year. 179 Peterson, who came from a military family at Schofield Barracks, was the only black student in his 1976 class and one of a handful at Punahou, counting the hapa students like Kakugawa, Obama, and Rik Smith, whose mother was Indian. (Joella Edwards, who was in Barry’s class, left Punahou in ninth grade.) When Peterson first heard that the black Ray in Obama’s memoir was Kakugawa, he was surprised. “When I think of the black kids at Punahou, I don’t think of Keith because he was half Japanese,” he said later. By his real name or any other, Peterson did not make Obama’s book, although some characteristics of a composite character in the college section fit him. He first met Barry on the basketball court before school, and soon started a regular session with him and Rik Smith that they jokingly called Ethnic Corner....
In his memoir Obama would tell a different story about one of the key moments in his gradual transformation from Barry to Barack. He wrote that he was talking to friends named Marcus and Regina. Marcus, portrayed as Afrocentric, had ridiculed him for reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Obama had defended himself by saying that he was reading it to understand “just what it is that makes white people so afraid.” After Marcus left, Regina— rendered in the memoir as astute and comfortable in her black identity— asked Obama what Marcus had called him, some African name. Barack, he told her. She said she thought his name was Barry. Barack was his given name, he explained. His father’s name. His father was Kenyan. Barack meant “blessed” in Arabic. His grandfather was Muslim. “It’s beautiful,” Regina responded, according to the memoir. “Mind if I call you Barack?” Not as long as she pronounced it right, he said.
Eric Moore was not in Dreams from My Father, nor could he recognize precisely who Marcus and Regina were. Hasan Chandoo, who was portrayed in the book (and, in a rare instance, was given his real name), was not sure either. He himself was accurately depicted, but to him the other composites, he said good-naturedly, seemed like “mumbo-jumbo.” At some places in the memoir, the characters were taken from real life but given pseudonyms. At other times they were composites. Marcus and Regina were composites, inspired in part by two upperclassmen, Earl Chew and Sarah Etta-Harris, but displaying characteristics from many other people as well as from the searching, divided soul of Obama himself. Like Regina in the book, Etta-Harris had studied abroad, winning a Thomas Watson fellowship to spend a year in Andalusia in Spain. But in his memoir Obama gave Regina a family history in Chicago, and that did not fit her. Rather, that aspect of Regina was an early iteration of someone Obama had not met at Oxy and would not know for another ten years, Michelle Robinson, to whom he was married by the time he wrote the memoir in the early 1990s. It was not precisely Michelle’s story, but close in many respects, as Obama had Regina telling him about her South Side memories: people so hot in the summer they went out by Lake Michigan to sleep; a vibrant community of taverns, pool halls, churches, kitchen nights with cousins, uncles, grandparents. “A vision,” he wrote, “that filled me with longing— a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history.” When he told Regina that he envied her, she scoffed. “For what?” she asked. “Memories,” he said. That response, Obama wrote, made her laugh and say she wished she had grown up in Hawaii.
This was one of the more telling paragraphs in the book, revealing what Obama thought he had missed out on in his young life and what he so dearly longed for. Though he was writing it in retrospect, long after his Oxy days and after he had finally made his way to Chicago, the early Regina, who existed mostly in his mind, helped trace what would become the arc of his life toward family and home.
Along with Etta-Harris and Michelle Robinson, the Regina character also incorporated a third real-life model. Some of Obama’s scenes of Regina reflected incidents that involved Caroline Boss, who was white. The name Regina itself likely came out of Obama’s discussions with Boss. Regina was the name of her Swiss grandmother, who came up in their discussions about class, race, and gender. Boss was a formidable figure at Oxy, queen of the Cooler rats, star pupil of the school’s noted political science professor, Roger Boesche. As leader of the Democratic Socialist Alliance on campus, she viewed politics from a class-conscious socialist perspective. Boss told Obama that her grandmother Regina spent her life scrubbing floors and doing laundry for the banking community in the small Swiss town of Interlaken. “So when we talked about race and class,” Boss said of her discussions with Obama, “I of course took the position that class was a significant feature.… The class thing really affects the entire population, regardless of race and gender.” Obama incorporated this idea into his memoir. His Regina was black, not white, yet he wrote about “Regina’s grandmother somewhere, her back bent, the flesh of her arms shaking as she scrubbed an endless floor. Slowly, the old woman lifted her head to look straight at me, and in her sagging face I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity.” He went on to link Regina’s grandmother to all women who struggle against the power structure, from the Mexican maids who cleaned up the mess created by the boys at the Haines Hall Annex to his own grandmother, Tut, who rose before dawn every morning to ride the bus to work. “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there,” he wrote.