Well, it looks like filmmakers may have a concept for a prequel to Southside With You. That’s right: Barack Obama had a love before he met Michelle Robinson and it wasn’t himself!
That’s what we’re finding out from a new, nearly 1,500-page biography of the 44th president from Pulitzer Prize winner David J. Garrow. Rising Star, which releases May 9, looks at the young community organizer and the choices and decisions he made that put him on the path to left-wing political stardom. Garrow’s account is the first to mention Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a young woman who had a live-in relationship with Obama, and whom Obama intended on marrying before making more political calculations.
Obama and Jager met in Chicago, before the would-be president had taken up community organizing. Garrow contends that Jager’s multicultural heritage had to have appealed to young Obama, and that as an anthropology student, Jager almost certainly reminded Obama of his mother. Interestingly enough, Jager never spent much time with Obama’s friends and colleagues and never met Jeremiah Wright. She claimed that they became “an island unto ourselves.”
Obama didn’t even write specifically about Jager in Dreams From My Father; instead, she became a composite character, melded with a couple of other girlfriends. But he did offer his hand in marriage.
“In the winter of ‘86, when we visited my parents, he asked me to marry him,” she told Garrow. Her parents were opposed, less for any racial reasons (Barack came across to them like “a white, middle-class kid,” a close family friend said) than for concern about Obama’s professional prospects, and because her mother thought Sheila, two years Obama’s junior, was too young. “Not yet,” Sheila told Barack. But they stayed together.
Not long after that, Jager says Obama began to change, when he became politically ambitious.
In early 1987, when Obama was 25, she sensed a change. “He became. . . so very ambitious” very suddenly,” she told Garrow. “I remember very clearly when this transformation happened, and I remember very specifically that by 1987, about a year into our relationship, he already had his sights on becoming president.”
The ambitious Obama also began to struggle with issues of identity and race, and those began to cloud his relationship with Jager.
Discussions of race and politics suddenly overwhelmed Sheila and Barack’s relationship. “The marriage discussions dragged on and on,” but now they were clouded by Obama’s “torment over this central issue of his life . . . race and identity,” Sheila recalls. The “resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career,” she said.
Just before he left for Harvard Law School, Obama proposed to Jager once more. She declined, as she was heading to Seoul for a study program, and he seemed upset that she wouldn’t put her ambitions on hold for his. After Obama met Michelle Robinson, he still saw Jager from time to time, but their relationship fizzled to the occasional phone call. He essentially cut ties with her when he became angry with her for calling him “Barry” on the phone long after he had settled on going by Barack.
The Obama-Jager relationship sounds like one of the more interesting facets of Rising Star. Garrow’s book sounds like an exhaustive biography, but who would really want to read 1,472 pages about Barack Obama – other than his most dedicated fans?