Pursuing the mysteries of an absent father

Mon, Jan 12, 2009, 00:00

BOOK EXTRACT:A Kenyan father 'black as pitch', a mother 'white as milk'; a heritage of tolerance from grandparents Gramps and Toot . . . and early innocence of racism, writes Barack Obama 

AT THE time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two-years-old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told . . .

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 had shown great promise. He eventually won a scholarship to study in Nairobi; and then, on the eve of Kenyan independence, he had been 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 as that institution's first African student. 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 PhD 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 "PhD" 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 my grandfather 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 $100 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 mid-western 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.

MISCEGENATION. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos. And yet it wasn't until 1967 - the year I celebrated my sixth birthday and Jimi Hendrix performed at Monterey, three years after Dr [Martin Luther] King received the Nobel Peace Prize, a time when America had already begun to weary of black demands for equality, the problem of discrimination presumably solved - that the Supreme Court of the United States would get around to telling the state of Virginia that its ban on interracial marriages violated the Constitution.

In 1960, the year that my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the union. In many parts of the south, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated or northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a back-alley abortion - or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption. Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse, a handy retort to the handful of softheaded liberals who supported a civil rights agenda.

Sure - but would you let your daughter marry one?

The fact that my grandparents had answered yes to this question, no matter how grudgingly, remains an enduring puzzle to me. There was nothing in their background to predict such a response, no New England transcendentalists or wild-eyed socialists in their family tree. True, Kansas had fought on the union side of the civil war; Gramps [Obama's grandfather Stanley Dunham] liked to remind me that various strands of the family contained ardent abolitionists. If asked, Toot [Obama's grandmother Madelyn Dunham, nee Payne] would turn her head in profile to show off her beaked nose, which, along with a pair of jet-black eyes, was offered as proof of Cherokee blood . . .

IT WASN'T until my family moved to Texas, after the war, that questions of race began to intrude on their lives. During his first week on the job there, Gramps received some friendly advice from his fellow furniture salesmen about serving black and Mexican customers: "If the coloureds want to look at the merchandise, they need to come after hours and arrange for their own delivery." Later, at the bank where she worked, Toot made the acquaintance of the janitor, a tall and dignified black veteran of the second World War who she remembers only as Mr Reed. While the two of them chatted in the hallway one day, a secretary in the office stormed up and hissed that Toot should never, ever, "call no nigger 'Mister'." Not long afterward, Toot would find Mr Reed in a corner of the building weeping quietly to himself. When she asked him what was wrong, he straightened his back, dried his eyes, and responded with a question of his own.

"What have we ever done to be treated so mean?"

My grandmother didn't have an answer that day, but the question lingered in her mind, one that she and Gramps would sometimes discuss once my mother had gone to bed. They decided that Toot would keep calling Mr Reed "Mister", although she understood, with a mixture of relief and sadness, the careful distance that the janitor now maintained whenever they passed each other in the halls. Gramps began to decline invitations from his co-workers to go out for a beer, telling them he had to get home to keep the wife happy. They grew inward, skittish, filled with vague apprehension, as if they were permanent strangers in town.

This bad new air hit my mother the hardest. She was 11 or 12 by this time, an only child just growing out of a bad case of asthma. The illness, along with the numerous moves, had made her something of a loner - cheerful and easy-tempered but prone to bury her head in a book or wander off on solitary walks - and Toot began to worry that this latest move had only made her daughter's eccentricities more pronounced. My mother made few friends at her new school. She was teased mercilessly for her name, Stanley Ann (one of Gramp's less judicious ideas - he had wanted a son). Stanley Steamer, they called her. Stan the Man. When Toot got home from work, she would usually find my mother alone in the front yard, swinging her legs off the porch or lying in the grass, pulled into some solitary world of her own.

Except for one day. There was that one hot, windless day when Toot came home to find a crowd of children gathered outside the picket fence that surrounded their house. As Toot drew closer, she could make out the sounds of mirthless laughter, the contortions of rage and disgust on the children's faces. The children were chanting, in a high-pitched, alternating rhythm:

"Nigger lover!"

"Dirty Yankee!"

"Nigger lover!"

The children scattered when they saw Toot, but not before one of the boys had sent the stone in his hand sailing over the fence. Toot's eyes followed the stone's trajectory as it came to rest at the foot of a tree. And there she saw the cause for all the excitement: my mother and a black girl of about the same age lying side by side on their stomachs in the grass, their skirts fathered up above their knees, their toes dug into the ground, their heads propped up on their hands in front of one of my mother's books. From a distance the two girls seemed perfectly serene beneath the leafy shade. It was only when Toot opened the gate that she realised the black girl was shaking and my mother's eyes shone with tears. The girls remained motionless, paralysed in their fear, until Toot finally leaned down and put her hands on both their heads.

"If you two are going to play," she said, "then for goodness sake, go on inside. Come on. Both of you."

She picked up my mother and reached for the other girl's hand, but before she could say anything more, the girl was in full sprint, her long legs like a whippet's as she vanished down the street.

Gramps was beside himself when he heard what had happened. He interrogated my mother, wrote down names. The next day he took the morning off work to visit the school principal. He personally called the parents of some of the offending children to give them a piece of his mind. And from every adult that he spoke to, he received the same response:

"You best talk to your daughter, Mr Dunham. White girls don't play with coloureds in this town."

Dreams from my Father - A Story of Race and Inheritanceby Barack Obama, was first published in the US in 1995 by Random House. It is available in Ireland in paperback, published by Canongate Books; Head to Head and Allen Foster's column have been held over.