|The first time he arrived in Kenya in 1987, as a 26-year-old Chicago community organiser preparing to enter Harvard Law School, Barack Obama landed at the airport to find that his luggage had been lost enroute and he roared — literally — into Nairobi in an aunt’s beat-up Volkswagen Beetle with a knocking engine and no muffler.
|Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is reflected as he steps off his campaign bus at Troy High School in Detroit on June 2. Photo/ REUTERS
Later, on his way to his ancestral village of Kogelo, in rural western Kenya — the land immortalised in Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa — he took an all-night train to the town of Kisumu and rode from there for hours in an overcrowded and rickety jitney-like matatu with bald tires and few seats.
On his lap during the bumpy ride were his half sister Auma, a squealing baby that a stranger asked him to hold, and a basket full of yams. It was not exactly as he had often fantasised his visit to the land of his father as a “homecoming… clouds lifting, old demons fleeing, the earth trembling as ancestors rose up in celebration.”
Nineteen years later, that surreal vision seemed to come true before his eyes. When Obama, his wife — Michelle — and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, landed at Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Airport in the summer of 2006, the U.S. ambassador met their plane, and they were whisked past a throng of waiting reporters and ferried into town in a 12-car motorcade.
Rapturous crowds of Kenyans wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his name and likeness chanted ‘Come to us, Obama!” as he visited a memorial at the site of the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi.
Skipping the all-night train ride, Obama and his family flew to Kisumu where thousands lined the route to Kogelo, many climbing trees for a better view of the motorcade carrying the American that the local Luo tribespeople loudly claimed as their own. “He’s our brother,” said one. “He’s our son.”
In Kogelo, the tiny village where Obama’s father and grandfather are buried side by side and where the octogenarian Luo he calls “Granny’ still lives, crowds chanted his name, a tribal singer sang his praises, and children sang songs they had composed in his honour. A villager offered him a present “to signify our appreciation” — three-year-old goat led on a tattered rope leash.
“It is very fat,” he said, “and very sweet.” Obama politely declined and shared a meal of chicken, porridge, and cabbage with his wife and children, Auma — acted as interpreter for their Granny, who spoke only Luo — and other relatives. “Even though I had grown up on the other side of the world,” Obama said to villagers of his visit 19 years before, “I felt the spirit among the people who told me that I belonged.”
He had embarked on that journey uneasily, however. He was, he wrote in Dreams Of My Father (the literary memoir that chronicles his coming of age), “a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.”
Once there, however, he began to feel a sense of transformation that friends back home had described after their first visits to Africa.
“For a span of weeks or months,” he wrote, “you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it’s supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway . . .Here the world was black, and so you were just you.”
Until that maiden voyage to Africa, a rite of passage that helped him reconcile the world he grew up in and the world of a father he never really knew, he endured a long and often painful struggle to understand who he truly was.
It was, he would recall, “a 10-year-old’s nightmare.” It was 1971, and he had just been introduced to the classroom on his first day of school at Honolulu’s Punahou School by a kindly teacher with the nice name of Miss Hefty, who heard giggles when she used his full name. “I thought your name was Barry,” said a boy he’d met when his grandfather escorted him to school that morning.
“Barack is such a beautiful name,” said Miss Hefty, who had lived in Kenya herself and had been delighted to learn that the new boy’s father was Kenyan. “It’s such a magnificent country. Do you know what tribe your father is from?”
When Obama quietly replied, “Luo,” another boy hooted like a monkey, causing the whole class to break up in laughter. Before the day was out, a red-haired girl asked if she could touch his hair, and a boy asked him if his father was a cannibal.
“The novelty of having me in class quickly wore off for the other kids,” Obama would later write. His fellow students, mostly the privileged children of well-off families who lived in houses far grander than the two-bedroom apartment Obama shared with his mother’s parents, weren’t overtly cruel.
They didn’t beat him up or mock him. They simply lost interest in the black kid who played soccer, badminton, and chess games he’d learned from his Indonesian stepfather while living in Jakarta with his mother for four years before returning to Hawaii without her — but who couldn’t throw a football or ride a skateboard.
As the months passed, he managed to make a few friends and “to toss a wobbly football around,” but mostly he withdrew into a routine of going home after school, reading comics, watching TV, and listening to the radio. I felt safe,” he wrote; “it was as if I had dropped into a long hibernation.”
He was shocked out of it a few months after school began when his grandparents on his mother’s side (“Gramps” and “Toot,” short for tutu, the Hawaiian word for grandmother) announced that his father and namesake — who had left home to attend Harvard University in 1963 (when Obama was two years old) and had never returned — as well as his mother, Ann (who was separating from her second husband and planning to leave Jakarta and move back to Hawaii with his half sister Maya), would all be coming for the holidays.
“Should be one hell of a Christmas,” Gramps said.
Years later Obama would write that while growing up, “my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man,” a figure he knew only through the stories his mother and grandparents told and the memories, almost always fond, that they shared with him.
In their stories Barack Sr was tall and handsome, gracious and wise; he spoke in a deep baritone with a lilting British accent; he had a strong singing voice, full of personality, and he was an excellent dancer; he was both powerful and kind, honest and frank — traits that could make him seem “a bit domineering” and “uncompromising sometimes,” his mother admitted. He was brilliant of mind, a Phi Beta Kappa, and charming and self-confident.
“It’s a fact, Bar,” Gramps said. “Your dad could handle any situation, and that made everybody like him.”
Dark laughing face
In family photographs, Obama saw his father’s “dark laughing face, the prominent forehead, and thick glasses that made him appear older than his years.”
From his mother he learned that his father was born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a poor village where his father, Hussein Onyango Obama, was a learned elder of their tribe, and a healer and medicine man. He taught his son to tend his herd of goats and to know the value of a good education, sending him to a local school run by the British colonial administration.
Barack Sr attended college in Nairobi on a scholarship, and as Kenya prepared for independence he was chosen to go to America to continue his education so that he could return and become a leader who would help build the fledgling nation.
In 1959 Obama’s father, then 23, became the first African student at the University of Hawaii. There, in a Russian language class, Barack the elder, who, his son would write, was “black as pitch,” met a cheerful, wide-eyed, 18-year-old freshman who was by contrast “white as milk.”
Ann Dunham was the Kansas-born daughter of a furniture store manager and life insurance salesman who harboured a bohemian streak — he wrote poetry and listened to jazz — and his more pragmatic wife, the punctual employee of a local bank whose family back in Kansas could trace a branch of its lineage to a famous ancestor Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
The Dunhams had moved to the islands the year after Ann’s African schoolmate. The two began dating and after a brief courtship, wed — an act that in 1960 was a crime in most states. “In many parts of the South,” Obama would write, “my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way.”
Newly admitted to the Union, however, Hawaii was young and relatively tolerant, and the family history includes no accounts of Obama’s parents suffering abuse on the streets of Honolulu. His father earned his degree in economics in just three years, graduating in 1962, the year after his son was born.
Offered a generous graduate-study at the New School in New York that would have allowed him to bring his wife and son with him to the city, Obama Sr accepted instead a tuition-only grant from Harvard, believing apparently that a Ph.D. from that world-famous institution would strengthen the portfolio he would carry with him when he returned to Kenya and took up whatever position of leadership awaited him.
Moving to Boston alone, he and Ann agreed that she and the baby would join him when his studies were complete and together they would move back to Kenya as a family.
Time and distance eroded the relationship, however, and the couple eventually divorced. Whatever memories their toddler had of his father dissolved as well.
His mother remarried and in 1967 she moved with her son and new husband, Lolo Soetoro, who was also a graduate of the University of Hawaii, to Soetoro’s homeland of Indonesia. As he grew older, Obama was told that after earning his degree at Harvard, his father had returned, alone, to Kenya, where he became an economist and an important figure in the administration of the new nation. He also remarried and had five children. Those children — four boys and a girl, Barack’s mother told him — were his half brothers and sister, his family in Africa.
His father’s month-long holiday visit to Hawaii in 1971 was painfully awkward at first, filled with long silences and disappointments. His father had recently been in a car accident and walked with a limp and a cane; he was thinner than Barack expected and he looked fragile; his eyes had a yellow sheen, a lingering but unmistakable sign that he had a history of malaria.
When his father ordered him to turn off the television — “He has been watching that machine constantly and now it is time for him to study!” he commanded — Barack ran to his room and slammed the door.
When his mother told him that Miss Hefty had invited his father to speak at his school, Barack panicked. He had bragged to his friends that his grandfather was a tribal chief, “like the king,” and his father was the prince; he himself, he hinted, was next in line after his father to lead the Luo — a “tribe … of warriors,” he said; the family name, Obama, he added, “means ‘Burning Spear.”’
As much as he dreaded that his exaggerations would be exposed as lies, he listened enthralled along with his classmates and teachers as his father spoke vividly and eloquently about Kenya and its people and history. When he finished to much applause, ‘a teacher told Barack “You’ve got a pretty impressive father.”
“Your dad,” said a classmate, the boy who had asked on the first day of school if is father ate people, “is pretty cool.”
After that, he warmed up to his father. They attended a Dave Brubeck concert and his father gave him a basketball for Christmas. They walked around the city; and his father introduced him to old friends from college. They lay side by side on his father’s bed, reading together. On the day he left, he gave Barack two records of African music that be had brought from Kenya as a present.
“Come on Barry,” his father said as the record played on Gramps’s stereo. “You will learn from the master.”
With that his father began to sway to the music, his arms “swinging as they cast an invisible net,” his head back, his eyes closed, his “hips moving in a tight circle … he [let] out a quick shout, bright and high.”
He would remember the sound of that hour, and he would exchange letters with his father and dream about him through the years, but he would never see him again.
Soon after his father returned to Kenya, Obama left his grandparents’ apartment and moved in with his mother, who was studying for a master’s in anthropology, and his half sister Maya in an apartment near his school.
Civil rights movement
He grew close to his mother during that time and it was her ideals, forged in 1960s and stirred by the civil rights movement, that formed him. Ann drilled him her values, Obama writes, “tolerance, equality, standing up for the disadvantaged.” But when Ann urged him to return to Indonesia with her and Maya, where Ann planned to do the fieldwork necessary for her degree, he refused.
He hinted that it was because he had grown to like his school and he didn’t want to be cast as the new kid again, once more a the stranger, proving himself in yet another foreign world.
But the real reason, he wrote, was that he had become “engaged in a fitful interior struggle” to forge his identity, to come to grips with a basic fact of his life, that he was “a black man in America,” but one with no model, no father, to learn from.
Living once again in his old bedroom in his grandparents’ apartment, he settled into the universal teenage routine of school, part-time jobs, and coping with, he wrote, “turbulent desire.”
Years later, when Obama was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he told a reporter whose seventh-grade daughter had accompanied him on an interview that when he was her age, “I was such a terror that my teachers didn’t know what to do with me.”
And his half sister, now married and living in Honolulu, told Time that in high school, Barack “had powers . . . he was charismatic,” said Maya Soetoro-Ng. “He had lots of friends” and such a way with women that he would go to the University of Hawaii campus to “meet university ladies.”
Throughout his junior high and high school years, he studied his father’s letters and tried to glean clues to the bigger mystery of who he was and who he was to become from his grandfather’s circle of black friends, poker buddies, and drinking mates.
But his father offered only vague aphorisms (“Like water finding its level, you will arrive at a career that suits you,” he wrote in one letter), and Gramps’s pals were friendly enough, but as soon as the cards were dealt, they clammed up, leaving 12-year-old Barry sitting at the bar of one of their hangouts in a Honolulu red-light district, “blowing bubbles into (his) drink and looking at the pornographic art on the walls.
From TV and radio and the movies he found some guidance, listening to Marvin Gaye croon and learning dance steps from Soul Train, watching the way Shaft walked and talked, and learning the joys of humour, language, and cursing from Richard Pryor. But he also noticed how Bill Cosby never got the girl on I Spy and how the black guy on Mission: Impossible never emerged from his subterranean fair into the light of day.
If his father’s letters didn’t help him find his way, the Christmas present he gave his son did. Unlike football, basketball was a game he was not bad at and that he played, he wrote, “with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent.”
In high school, he was talented enough to make the varsity team and he played pickup games at the University of Hawaii, where black players taught him some of the rules of the other, bigger game: “That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was”; that talking trash was fine, as long as you could back it up; and that a man should never show emotions, especially hurt and fear, that he didn’t want an opponent to see.
Years later he would realise, he wrote, that he “was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood.”
Even so, on the basketball court he found a community of friends, white and black, among the latter his closest friend, Ray — an engaging, smart, and funny athlete, an Olympic-calibre sprinter whose potbelly made him not look the part.
Ray was among a growing number of black kids who had moved to Hawaii from the mainland and whose “confusion and anger,” Obama wrote “would help to shape my own.” Bonding between themselves, Obama and Ray and their other black friends chuckled over the ways of “white folks,” enumerating the slights and insults they’d endured.
For his part, Obama recalled a seventh-grader who called him a “coon,” tennis pro who told him not to touch a posted tournament match schedule because his colour would rub off on it, a basketball coach who complained that opponents in a pickup game were “a bunch of niggers.”
At the same time, he felt removed from the camaraderie of his friends. “Sometimes would find myself talking to Ray about ‘white folks’ this and ‘white folks’ that,” he wrote, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false.”
Though Ray often told him how much he liked Gramps and Toot, his screeds about whites and their racist deeds caused Obama to remind him that “(They) weren’t living in Jim Crow south” or a “heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii!”
And so his life became a routine of school and basketball, hanging out with his friends, and being home in time for dinner and to help Gramps do the dishes — slipping “back and forth between my black and white worlds.”
But worlds collide, in small, inexplicable ways; he would flinch when a white girl said she liked Stevie Wonder or the lady at the checkout counter asked if he played basketball or the principal told him he was a cool dude.
“I did like Stevie Wonder, I did love basketball, and I tried my best to be cool at all times.” He tried to figure out why such seemingly innocent, offhand remarks riled him the way they did, but the answer eluded him.
In his search for role models and surrogates for the main character missing in his life, Obama found a trove in the books of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and WE.B. Du Bois.
But even as he devoured them reading not for entertainment as much as out of a hunger to discover their hidden meanings and deeply rooted truths — he was unsettled by what he found at their core.
“I kept finding the same anguish,” he wrote, “the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even Du Bois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humour eventually succumbed to its corrosive force; each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power.”
Only Malcolm X seemed not to have given up. Where the others withdrew (“exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels”), it seemed to Obama that Malcolm had invented his own path to redemption.
But not even Malcolm could prescribe a treatment for his deepest pain, could not heal the wound of his rent worlds. “He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence”— rape—” might somehow be expunged.”
For Obama, that would mean abandoning “the road to self-respect” that his search had put him on. He would be betraying himself, he wrote, if he “left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.”
Obama doesn’t say so in his book, but during this period in his life when he was reading voraciously, educating himself, and plumbing the depths of his feelings, trying, however unsuccessfully at the time, to untangle and understand them, hoping to find the fully realised man—the father—in himself, the seed of a different kind of salvation began to germinate. He was beginning his education as a writer.
It would be decades before he would discover and realise his talent for the written word — he composed Dreams from My Father when he first began to practise law, in the early 1990s, long before his first forays into politics. But less than two years after he graduated from high school, he would discover the writer’s most essential tool and greatest gift — his voice.
“Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.”
So Obama would describe himself as an 18-year-old freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles, in 1979. “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack though.”
He didn’t try heroin, he wrote, because the guy who wanted to turn him on to it was shaking and sweating, and Obama didn’t like the looks of the rubber tubing he tied off with and the needle he stuck in his arm. He wanted no part of the oblivion the man was pushing; it looked too much like death.
He did drugs in those days, not because he “was trying to prove what a down brother I was,” he wrote, but because the high helped him “push questions of who I was out of my mind.”
Occidental’s was an idyllic, leafy campus, near Pasadena and far from the sprawling ghettos on the south side of L. A. Obama was easily accepted into the black student population, many of them kids from the ghettos who were happy to have escaped the gritty and dangerous streets they’d grown up on. I hadn’t grown up in Compton, or Watts,” Obama wrote. “I had nothing to escape from except my own inner doubt.”
Then there were the black kids from the suburbs, like one beautiful coed who got offended when Obama asked her if she was going to a Black Students’ Association.
Aligning himself with students whose black cred was unassailable, he made friends with one righteous dorm mate whose sister had been a founding member of midwest Black Panther chapter and who himself had run-ins with the police and had friends in jail. “His lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off-balance.”
The strategy, to show that he was just as righteous as his dorm mate, backfired when, to Obama’s lingering shame, he mocked another friend, a black student, but one from a middle-class background who dressed like a preppy, “talked like Beaver Cleaver” and had a white girlfriend, for being a bogus brother.
“Why you say that, man?” said his dorm mate. “Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff’s together instead of passing judgement on how other folks are supposed to act.”
Later, the memory of that incident and the shame it induced, helped snap him out of his pot haze. It was his own fear of not belonging, he realised, that led him to ridicule his friend—the fear “that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.”
He understood finally that he did not have to be slave to fear and anger and despair, that both worlds, black and white — his father’s and mother’s — were part of him and “only a lack of imagination, a failure of nerve,” he wrote, “had made me think that I had to choose” between them.
Glimpse into the future
A glimpse into the future occurred during his sophomore year, his last at Occidental, when, with the encouragement of a girlfriend, he became involved in the nationwide student movement to demand that colleges and universities divest themselves of financial interests that helped support the apartheid government of South Africa.
At a student rally, Obama rose to speak in public for the first time. “There’s a struggle going on,” he said as students playing Frisbee on the campus common turned to listen along with a throng of students and professors. “It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us … a struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor.
No .. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.”
“Go on with it, Barack! Tell it like it is!” someone shouted.
But by pre-arrangement, he was dragged off stage by two students dressed as soldiers, as an agitprop bit to dramatise the lack of free-speech rights in South Africa. As his friends pulled him away, however, he didn’t want to give up the microphone.
The audience was “clapping and cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made … I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.”