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Monday, November 1, 2004 

Barack Obama: Creation of Tales

We begin the serialisation of BARACK OBAMA's Dreams from My Father, published by Three Rivers Press, New York, with his childhood in Hawaii, when the story of his absent, mythologised Kenyan father had the quality of a creation tale underpinning the secure universe created by his white American mother and grandparents


At the point where my own memories begin, my mother had already begun a courtship with the man who would become her second husband, and I sensed without explanation why the photographs had to be stored away. But once in a while, sitting on the floor with my mother, the smell of dust and mothballs rising from the crumbling album, I would stare at my father’s likeness – the dark laughing face, the prominent forehead and thick glasses that made him appear older than his years – and listen as the events of his life tumbled into a single narrative. 

He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a place called Alego. The village was poor, but his father – my other grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama – had been a prominent farmer, an elder of the tribe, a medicine man with healing powers. My father grew up herding his father’s goats and attending the local school, set up by the British colonial administration, where he showed great promise. He eventually won a scholarship to study in Nairobi; and then, on the eve of Kenyan independence, he was selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a university in the United States, joining the first large wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa. 

In 1959, at the age of 23, he arrived at the University of Hawaii – the first African student there. He studied econometrics, worked with unsurpassed concentration, and graduated in three years at the top of his class. His friends were legion, and he helped organise the International Students Association, of which he became the first president. In a Russian language course, he met an awkward, shy American girl, only 18, and they fell in love. The girl’s parents, wary at first, were won over by his charm and intellect; the young couple married, and she bore them a son, to whom he bequeathed his name. He won another scholarship – this time to pursue his Ph.D. at Harvard – but not the money to take his new family with him. A separation occurred, and he returned to Africa to fulfil his promise to the continent. The mother and child stayed behind, but the bond of love survived the distances... 

There the album would close, and I would wander off content, swaddled in a tale that placed me in the centre of a vast and orderly universe. Even in the abridged version that my mother and grandparents offered, there were many things I didn’t understand. But I rarely asked for the details that might resolve the meaning of "Ph.D". or "colonialism," or locate Alego on a map. Instead, the path of my father’s life occupied the same terrain as a book my mother once bought for me, a book called Origins, a collection of creation tales from around the world, stories of Genesis and the tree where man was born, Prometheus and the gift of fire, the tortoise of Hindu legend that floated in space, supporting the weight of the world on its back. Later, when I became more familiar with the narrower path to happiness to be found in television and the movies, I’d become troubled by questions. What supported the tortoise? Why did an omnipotent God let a snake cause such grief? Why didn’t my father return? But at the age of five or six, I was satisfied to leave these distant mysteries intact, each story self-contained and as true as the next, to be carried off into peaceful dreams. 

That my father looked nothing like the people around me – that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk – barely registered in my mind. In fact, I can recall only one story that dealt explicitly with the subject of race; as I got older, it would be repeated more often, as if it captured the essence of the morality tale that my father’s life had become. According to the story, after long hours of study, my father had joined Gramps [Obama's maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham] and several other friends at a local Waikiki bar. Everyone was in a festive mood, eating and drinking to the sounds of a slack-key guitar, when a white man abruptly announced to the bartender, loudly enough for everyone to hear, that he shouldn’t have to drink good liquor "next to a nigger." The room fell quiet and people turned to my father, expecting a fight. Instead, my father stood up, walked over to the man, smiled, and proceeded to lecture him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man. "This fella felt so bad when Barack was finished," Gramps would say, "that he reached into his pocket and gave Barack a hundred dollars on the spot. Paid for all our drinks and puu-puus for the rest of the night – and your dad’s rent for the rest of the month." 

By the time I was a teenager, I’d grown sceptical of this story’s veracity and had set it aside with the rest. Until I received a phone call, many years later, from a Japanese-American man who said he had been my father’s classmate in Hawaii and now taught at a Midwestern university. He was very gracious, a bit embarrassed by his own impulsiveness; he explained that he had seen an interview of me in his local paper and that the sight of my father’s name had brought back a rush of memories. Then, during the course of our conversation, he repeated the same story that my grandfather had told, about the white man who had tried to purchase my father’s forgiveness. "I’ll never forget that," the man said to me over the phone; and in his voice I heard the same note that I’d heard from Gramps so many years before, that note of disbelief–and hope. 

"I don’t entirely dismiss" Gramps’s recollection of events [of his family’s history of defying racism] as a convenient bit of puffery, another act of white revisionism. I can’t, precisely because I know how strongly Gramps believed in his fictions, how badly he wanted them to be true, even if he didn’t always know how to make them so. After Texas, I suspect that black people became a part of these fictions of his, the narrative that worked its way through his dreams. The condition of the black race, their pain their wounds, would in Gramps's mind become merged with his own: the absent father and the hint of scandal, a mother who had gone away, the cruelty of other children, the realisation that he was no fair-haired boy – that he looked like a wop. Racism was part of that past, his instincts told him, part of convention and respectability and status, the smirks and whispers and gossip that had kept him on the outside looking in. [The black-haired Stanley Dunham grew up in a small town in Kansas; he had a "philandering" father and his mother committed suicide when he was eight years old]

Those instincts count for something, I think; for many white people of my grandparents’ generation and background, the instincts ran in an opposite direction, the direction of the mob. And although Gramps’s relationship with my mother was already strained by the time they reached Hawaii – she would never quite forgive his instability and often-violent temper and would grow ashamed of his crude, ham-fisted manners – it was this desire of his to obliterate the past, this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony. Whether Gramps realised it or not, the sight of his daughter with a black man offered at some deep unexplored level a window into his own heart. 

Not that such self-knowledge, even if accessible, would have made my mother’s engagement any easier for him to swallow. In fact, how and when the marriage occurred remains a bit murky, a bill of particulars that I’ve never quite had the courage to explore. There’s no record of a real wedding, a cake, a ring, a giving away of the bride. No families were in attendance; it’s not even clear that people back in Kansas were fully informed. Just a small civil ceremony, a justice of the peace. The whole thing seems so fragile in retrospect, so haphazard. And perhaps that’s how my grandparents intended it to be, a trial that would pass, just a matter of time, so long as they maintained a stiff upper lip and didn’t do anything drastic. 

If so, they miscalculated not only my mother’s quiet determination but also the sway of their own emotions. First the baby arrived, eight pounds, two ounces, with 10 toes and 10 fingers and hungry for food. What in the heck were they supposed to do?

Then time and place began to conspire, transforming potential misfortune into something tolerable, even a source of pride. Sharing a few beers with my father, Gramps might listen to his new son-in-law sound off about politics or the economy, about far-off places like Whitehall or the Kremlin, and imagine himself seeing into the future. He would begin to read the newspapers more carefully, finding early reports of America’s newfound integrationist creed, and decide in his mind that the world was shrinking, sympathies changing; that the family from Wichita had in fact moved to the forefront of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Dr King’s magnificent dream. How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in bondage? One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders as the astronauts from one of the Apollo missions arrived at Hickam Air Force Base after a successful splashdown. I remember the astronauts, in aviator glasses, as being far away, barely visible through the portal of an isolation chamber. But Gramps would always swear that one of the astronauts waved just at me and that I waved back. It was part of the story he told himself. With his black son-in-law and his brown grandson, Gramps had entered the space age. 

"In the end, I suppose" that’s what all the stories of my father were really about. They said less about the man himself than about the changes that had taken place in the people around him, the halting process by which my grandparents’ racial attitudes had changed. The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy’s election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction, one that haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere childhood. 

There was only one problem: my father was missing. He had left paradise, and nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact. Their stories didn’t tell me why he had left. They couldn’t describe what it might have been like had he stayed– So my father became a prop in someone else’s narrative. An attractive prop – the alien figure with the heart of gold, the mysterious stranger who saves the town and wins the girl – but a prop nonetheless. I don’t really blame my mother or grandparents for this. My father may have preferred the image they created for him – indeed, he may have been complicit in its creation. In an article published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin upon his graduation, he appears guarded and responsible, the model student, ambassador for his continent. He mildly scolds the university for herding visiting students into dormitories and forcing them to attend programmes designed to promote cultural understanding – a distraction, he says, from the practical training he seeks. Although he hasn’t experienced any problems himself, he detects self-segregation and overt discrimination taking place between the various ethnic groups and expresses wry amusement at the fact that "Caucasians" in Hawaii are occasionally at the receiving end of prejudice. But if his assessment is relatively clear-eyed, he is careful to end on a happy note: One thing other nations can learn from Hawaii, he says, is the willingness of races to work together toward common development, something he has found whites elsewhere too often unwilling to do. 

I discovered this article, folded away among my birth certificate and old vaccination forms, when I was in high school. It’s a short piece, with a photograph of him. No mention is made of my mother or me, and I’m left to wonder whether the omission was intentional on my father’s part, in anticipation of his long departure. Perhaps the reporter failed to ask personal questions, intimidated by my father’s imperious manner; or perhaps it was an editorial decision, not part of the simple story that they were looking for. I wonder, too, whether the omission caused a fight between my parents. 

I would not have known at the time, for I was too young to realise that I was supposed to have a live-in father, just as I was too young to know that I needed a race. For an improbably short span, it seems that my father fell under the same spell as my mother and her parents; and for the first six years of my life, even as that spell was broken and the worlds that they thought they’d left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been. 

"Gramps accompanied me" on my first day of school at Punahou Academy. He had insisted we arrive early, and Castle Hall, the building for the fifth and sixth graders, was not yet opened. A handful of children had already arrived, busy catching up on the summer’s news. We sat beside a slender Chinese boy who had a large dental retainer strapped around his neck. 

"Hi there," Gramps said to the boy. "This here’s Barry. I’m Barry’s grandfather. You can call me Gramps." He shook hands with the boy, whose name was Frederick. "Barry’s new."

"Me too," Frederick said, and the two of them launched into a lively conversation. I sat, embarrassed, until the doors finally opened and we went up the stairs to our classroom. At the door, Gramps slapped both of us on the back. 

"Don’t do anything I would do," he said with a grin. 

"Your grandfather’s funny," Frederick said as we watched Gramps introduce himself to Miss Hefty, our homeroom teacher. 

"Yeah. He is."

We sat at a table with four other children, and Miss Hefty, an energetic middle-aged woman with short grey hair, took attendance. When she read my full name, I heard titters break across the room. Frederick leaned over to me. 

"I thought your name was Barry. 

"Would you prefer if we called you Barry?" Miss Hefty asked. "Barack is such a beautiful name. Your grandfather tells me your father is Kenyan. I used to live in Kenya, you know. Teaching children just your age. It’s such a magnificent country. Do you know what tribe your father is from?"

Her question brought on more giggles, and I remained speechless for a moment. When I finally said, "Luo," a sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey. The children could no longer contain themselves, and it took a stern reprimand from Miss Hefty before the class would settle down and we could mercifully move on to the next person on the list. I spent the rest of the day in a daze. A redheaded girl asked to touch my hair and seemed hurt when I refused. A ruddy-faced boy asked me if my father ate people. When I got home, Gramps was in the middle of preparing dinner. 

"So how was it? Isn’t it terrific that Miss Hefty used to live in Kenya? Makes the first day a little easier, I’ll bet."

I went into my room and closed the door.

"Your father’s coming" to see you, my grandmother Toot said. "Next month. Two weeks after your mother gets here. They’ll both stay through New Year’s." She carefully folded the telegram and slipped it into a drawer in the kitchen. Both she and Gramps fell silent, the way I imagine people react when the doctor tells them they have a serious, but curable, illness. For a moment, the air was sucked out of the room, and we stood suspended, alone with our thoughts. 

"Well, Toot said finally, "I suppose we better start looking for a place where he can stay."

Gramps took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Should be one hell of a Christmas."

Next week:

Father meets son; Obama's first visit to Kenya

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