Everything we do, no matter how minor, reveals who we are. That is why a good film director might have an actor perform some small but telling gesture. The actor might sit in a chair or smoke a cigarette, but the way the action is performed reveals his or her character. Also revealing are our tastes, including the foods that we like to eat and how we like them prepared.
Of course, it is one thing to see a family member or friend perform an action, eat a certain food, wear something, etc., and then to say to him or her: “Ah, that is so you!” It is a far more difficult task to discern the deeper meaning of what he or she is doing. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote how it was the task of philosophy to illuminate the meaning of our everyday being in the world. We shall follow his lead.
Which brings us to a recent news item: President Barak Obama likes to eat fried egg whites and bacon for breakfast. Some have suggested that it’s because the yoke is high in cholesterol, but the addition of the bacon would rule out that theory. It must, instead, be for a deeper psychological reason, one that is being expressed, symbolically, in the language of food preferences. We shall return to Obama’s eggs, after an important detour.
Obama’s Identity Crisis
“It proved necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses…” — “My Father’s Dreams”
President Obama is a man with an unresolved identity crisis. As others have pointed out, his crisis derives from the fact that his mother is white and his father black. Being a mulatto felt to him like he had no definite identity. Identity crises, of this sort, can be positively resolved, and often are. The black conservative historian, Shelby Steel, who also has bi-racial parentage, clearly has found himself. But, as Steel argues in a recent book, Obama has not. The problem is that Obama fell victim to a false sense of selfhood, one founded on racial identity. Only a person who does not know himself resorts to defining himself in racial terms. As Obama’s autobiographical books indicate, the route that he took — in an effort to resolve his identity crisis — was to decide that he was a black man.
But, Obama knew how successful and privileged his life had become in white society. And so — from Monday, through Saturday — he lived the life that black liberation theology would condemn as the bourgeois life of white people. But on Sunday he sat in a black church, listening to angry and venomous sermons by his black pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He remained a parishioner for twenty years, for he needed those Sundays to be a weekly catharsis from the other six days of the week, when he felt that he was losing his identity, as a black man. So, here he is, with his identity not on a sure footing.
OK, So What’s Eggs Got to Do with It?
To feel defiled is to feel that our identity has become infected by that of which we come into contact. On the symbolic level of human consciousness, to come into physical contact with a slimy substance is to feel slimed. According to Sartre, the experience has a quasi-moral quality to it. After all, we say of a person with no character that he is slimy.
Eggs are, of course, among the slimiest of things. For Obama, to have the white and the yellow mixed in the bowl, blended together, is to have both white and yellow become slimed. The horrible result is that both, the yoke and the albumin, have lost their separate identity.
The part of the egg with which Obama identifies is the white (The color of his skin is irrelevant here.) The yellow, of course, is rich, fatty, and tasty. Eating the yellow represents living off the fat of the land, living a self-indulgent life. It therefore seems immoral. Not everyone experiences eggs this way. We are not arguing, as Freud did, for a universal symbolism. We are just suggesting what we discern to be Obama’s relation to eggs, and to who he is.
Thus it is that Obama — who has desperately sought to preserve his black identity — unconsciously identifies with the purity of the white part of the egg, the albumin. It is neither rich and fatty, like the yellow, nor nearly as tasty. But he gets to have the fat back again, in the form of the bacon strips. The bacon is acceptable, for it does not, as would the egg yoke, defile the purity of the white egg albumin. After all, the egg white may be on the same breakfast plate, but they do not lose their distinct identities. Thus Obama sees his struggle as one of staying pure, i.e., undefiled from those impurities that would sully his sense of himself as an idealistic black man.
Yes, it is very unsettling that the leader of the free world does not really know himself. (Of course, it is far from being the first time that this has happened.) The problem is that a leader who does not know himself is unlikely to have a clear understanding of the world he inhabits, for self-knowledge and worldly wisdom often go hand it hand. When it’s lacking, it can result in foolish, if not disastrous, policies and decisions. We can only hope that President Obama will rise to the occasion — that he will quickly find himself, grasp the fundamental values that have made America great, and serve our nation with wisdom. That, though, would require a shift in his sense of self from Afro-American to just American. That’s the real hope that we would like to believe in.