Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Barack Obama: How I am still haunted by my father"

Extracted and adapted by Zoe Brennan from Dreams From My Father: A Story Of Race And Inheritance by Barack Obama (Canongate)--from The Daily Mail (UK):
A few months after my 21st birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.

I was living in New York at the time, in a small apartment with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn't work.

The telephone line was thick with static.

"Barry? Barry, is this you? This is your Aunt Jane. In Nairobi. Can you hear me? Listen Barry, your father is dead. He was killed in a car accident."

That was all. The line cut off, and I sat down on the couch, smelling fried eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss.

At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man.

He had left my mother and myself in Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old.

As a child, I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told.

They all had their favourites, each one seamless, burnished smooth from repeated use.

After each telling the stories would be packed away, like the few photographs of my father that remained in the house - old black and white studio prints that I might run across while rummaging through the closets in search of Christmas ornaments.

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 and listen.

He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria.

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Obama with his mother Ann and sister Maya

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 was selected to attend university in the United States, being 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, and graduated in three years at the top of his class.

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. He won another scholarship to pursue his PhD at Harvard, but not the money to take his new family with him - or so I was told. A separation occurred, and he returned to Africa to fulfil his promise to the continent.

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.

That my father looked nothing like the people around me - that he was black as pitch, my mother as white as milk - barely registered in my mind.

There was only one problem: my father was missing. Nothing 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 if he had stayed.

Obama's father was killed in a car accident in Nairobi

Later, I'd become troubled by questions. Why didn't my father return? But at the age of five or six, I was satisfied to leave these distant mysteries intact.

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.

In 1960, the year that my parents were married, miscegenation - the interbreeding of races - was still described a felony in over half the states in the U.S.

In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way. Even in the more sophisticated northern cities, the hostile stares and whispers might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a backalley abortion.

Between the ages of six and ten, I lived in Indonesia where my mother had moved with her second husband.

When I was sent back to my grandparents in Hawaii for my education, I was greeted at school with a loud hoot from other pupils, like the sound of a monkey. A ruddy-faced boy asked me if my father ate people.

One day, I came across a picture in Life magazine of a black man who had tried to peel off his skin. He had received a chemical treatment, which went wrong, leaving him an uneven, ghostly hue.

I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation.

Perhaps it comes sooner for most - the parent's warning not to cross the boundaries of a particular neighbourhood, or the frustration of not having hair like Barbie no matter how long you tease and comb, or the tale of a father's humiliation at the hands of an employer or a cop, overheard while you're supposed to be asleep.

Maybe it's easier for a child to receive the bad news in small doses, allowing for a system of defences to be built up - although I suspect I was one of the luckier ones, having been given a stretch of childhood free from self-doubt.

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Promise: Obama's parents separated when he was just a baby

When I was ten, my father came back from Africa to visit us for Christmas. After a week of my father in the flesh, I decided that I preferred his more distant image, an image I could alter on a whim - or ignore when convenient. If my father hadn't exactly disappointed me, he remained something unknown, something volatile and vaguely threatening.

Like my mother, he had remarried, and I now had five brothers and one sister living in Kenya. There was so much to tell, so much explaining to do.

And yet when I reach back into my memory for the words of my father, the small interactions or conversations we might have had, they seem irretrievably lost.

I'm left with mostly images that appear and die off in my mind like distant sounds.

We stand together in front of the Christmas tree and pose for pictures, the only ones I have of us together, me holding an orange basketball, his gift to me, him showing off the tie I've bought him. He stayed a month, then he was gone.

The next five years were a placid time marked by the usual rites and rituals that America expects from its children, part-time jobs at the burger chain, acne and driving tests.

My mother separated from her Indonesian husband, Lolo, and returned to Hawaii with my sister, Maya, and I moved in with her.

I was also engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America. No one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.

The feeling that something wasn't quite right stayed with me, a warning that sounded whenever a white girl mentioned in the middle of conversation how much she liked Stevie Wonder, or when a woman in the supermarket asked me if I played basketball.

Where did I fit in? I grew tired of trying to untangle a mess that wasn't of my making.

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Through the years: Obama plays as a child

I learned not to care. Marijuana helped, and booze, maybe a little cocaine when you could afford it.

Not heroin, though - Micky, my potential initiator, had been just a little too eager for me to go through with that. Said he could do it blindfolded, but he was shaking like a faulty engine when he said it.

Maybe he was just cold, we were standing in a meat freezer in the back of the deli where he worked.

But he didn't look like he was shaking from the cold. Looked more like he was sweating, his face shiny and tight. He had pulled out the needle and the tubing, and I looked at him standing there, surrounded by big slabs of salami and roast beef, and right then an image popped into my head of an air bubble, shiny and round like a pearl, rolling quietly through a vein and stopping my heart.

Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.

The high could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory. And if the high didn't solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world's ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bull**** and cheap moralism.

That's how it had seemed to me then, anyway. At the start of my senior year in high school, my mother marched into my room. My friend Pablo had been arrested.

I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I wouldn't do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned.

People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied, they were relieved - such a pleasant surprise to find a wellmannered young black man who didn't seem angry all the time.

Except my mother hadn't looked satisfied. She had just sat there, studying my eyes, her face as grim as a hearse.

"Don't you think you're being a little casual about your future?" she said.

"One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession. Your grades are slipping. You haven't even started on your college applications."

My mother's worst fears didn't come to pass. In the end, I graduated without mishap, was accepted into several respectable schools, and settled on Occidental College in Los Angeles. I would go on to read law at Harvard.

Eventually, my mother - who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 - would tell me the truth about what had happened between her and my father.

"It wasn't your father's fault that he left, you know," she said.

"I divorced him. When we got married, your grandparents weren't happy with the idea, but came to feel it was the right thing to do.

"Then Barack's father - your grandfather Hussein - wrote Gramps this long, nasty letter saying that he didn't approve of the marriage. He didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman, he said. Well you can imagine how Gramps reacted to that.

"And then there was a problem with your father's first wife. He had told me that they were separated. But it was a village wedding, so there was no legal document that could show a divorce. She paused.

"Even then, it might have worked out. He received two scholarships, one in New York, which paid enough to support all three of us.

"Harvard had just agreed to pay tuition.

"'How can I refuse the best education?' he told me. That's all he could think about, proving that he was the best."

She stopped and laughed to herself.

"Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at 1pm. When I got there he hadn't arrived. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and fell asleep.

"Well an hour later - an hour! - he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and heard your father saying, serious as can be: 'You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.'"

She saw my father as everyone hopes that at least one other person might see him. She had tried to help me, his son, see him in the same way.

And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later, in 1982, I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.

I didn't go to the funeral, but later I would go to Kenya to meet the other half of my family. There, I would discover that after falling foul of the government and losing his job in the Ministry of Tourism, my father had descended into drink.

All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I had later tried to take as my own.

The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader - my father had been all of those things.

All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image.

The fantasy of my father had at least kept me from despair. Now he was dead, truly. He could no longer tell me how to live.

A year after his death, I dreamt of him.

"Barack. I always wanted to tell you how much I love you," he said.

He seemed small in my arms now, the size of a boy. I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him. I remembered his only visit, the basketball he had given me and how he had taught me to dance.

And I realised, perhaps for the first time, how even in his absence his strong image had given me some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to, or disappoint.



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