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Barack Obama: An American Story
By Bob Carlton Ariele Gentiles
Copyright © 2008
Bob Carlton and Ariele Gentiles
All right reserved.
Chapter One HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
In no other country on earth is my story even possible. -BARACK OBAMA
In the early 1960s, Hawaii was a center of great change. People all over the world came to the state, attracted by the mystery and beauty of this volcanic island chain. Hawaii is made up of hundreds of islands spread over 1,500 miles. It became our 49th state in 1959, one of only four current states that were independent prior to becoming part of the United States. As the new decade dawned, a modern state was emerging with a construction boom and rapidly growing economy.
Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in the state capital of Honolulu, the only son of his parents' short union. His parents met and fell in love at college, as many people do. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in 1936 on the shores of Lake Victoria in Nyang'oma Kogelo, Alego, Siaya District, Kenya. The elder Obama grew up herding goats in his native country, but longed for a different life. He won a scholarship from a program offering Western educational opportunities to outstanding Kenyan students. Obama Sr. traveled thousands of miles to Hawaii, where he would study economics at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Obama was one of the school's first African students. "He had this very magnetic personality," college friend and Hawaiian congressman Neil Abercrombie recalled in an interview with the Washington Post.
The magnetic Obama Sr. attracted the attentions of a young Kansas girl, Ann Dunham, whose family had recently moved to Hawaii. Dunham has been described as a quiet young woman, intelligent and independent, prone to the role of observer. One high school friend commented to the LA Times: "If you were concerned about something going wrong in the world, Ann would know about it first ... We were liberals before we knew what liberals were." In the same article, another friend called Ann "the original feminist."
Ann Dunham enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she studied anthropology. She and Obama met one another in a Russian language class. They began dating, ignoring the social perceptions of that time regarding interracial relationships. A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 96 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage, and laws prohibiting interracial relationships were still on the books in 16 states, mostly in the South and the Midwest. By the 1960s civil rights organizations were helping interracial couples that were being penalized for their relationships take their cases to the Supreme Court.
Although Hawaii did not outlaw interracial relationships, they were extremely rare. When Obama and Dunham became engaged, both sets of parents opposed the marriage. Obama Sr.'s father was particularly upset, writing that he "didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman." After discovering Dunham was pregnant, the couple married on February 2, 1961, in a civil ceremony at the courthouse in Maui, Hawaii. Dunham was still just a teenager, only 18 at the time. Barack Obama Jr. was born several months later.
With a young child at home, Dunham made the difficult decision not to return to school. Just a year later, Obama Sr. was offered a scholarship to study toward a doctorate at Harvard University. He left his family in Hawaii with a plan of studying at Harvard and then returning to his Kenyan home to use his education to reinvent the country. Dunham chose not to follow, and when baby Obama was only two years old, his parents signed the divorce papers.
Obama's mother returned to school shortly after her divorce. Balancing college and caring for a young child, Dunham subsisted primarily on food stamps and the loyal aid of friends and family while she completed her degree. During this time, she fell in love again, this time with a young student from Indonesia, Lolo Soetoro. They were married in 1967. The same year, Dunham (now Ann Soetoro) and her son made the move of more than 6,000 miles to her new husband's homeland.
Indonesia was a very different world from Honolulu. Many years later, Barack Obama would recall in his memoir his arrival to the new land with his mother, "Walking off the plane, the tarmac rippling with heat, the sun bright as a furnace. I clutched her hand, determined to protect her." He was just six years old.
The multiethnic family expanded when Barack's half-sister Maya was born. Lolo Soetoro worked for the Indonesian army as a geologist for some time, and then took a job as a government relations consultant with Mobil Oil. Little "Barry," as Barack was known then, adjusted to his new home and quickly made friends with other children, though he and his mother were the first foreigners in their community. Barack began attending classes at a Catholic primary school then transferred to a closer public school. His classes were all in Indonesian, which made it very hard on Obama. Concerned about his education, Obama's mother woke him up before dawn every morning to teach him English because the family couldn't afford the private international school. Obama's mother also worked hard to help him learn about the U.S. civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and other African-American figures and activists.
When Obama was 10, his mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham. In his book Dreams from My Father, Obama described his grandmother as "quiet, yet firm"-in contrast to his "boisterous" grandfather. Obama considered his grandmother "a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice president of a local bank in Hawaii." Stanley Dunham had been working in Kansas when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. He immediately enlisted in the army, where he served on the European front in World War II under the leadership of the esteemed General George S. Patton. Obama's grandmother, Madelyn, also did what she could to support the war effort, going to work on a bomber assembly line.
After the war ended Madelyn and Stanley both worked full-time. They struggled to make ends meet, living for a time in California, Kansas, Texas, and Seattle. In 1960 the family moved to Hawaii, where Stanley found a good job working in a furniture store. Madelyn began working at the Bank of Hawaii, and would eventually become one of its vice presidents. Obama has said his grandparents had a profound influence upon his character, teaching him the Midwest virtues of hard work and service to one's country.
Moving back to Hawaii at age 10 was difficult for Obama, but he had the chance to attend the renowned Punahou School on scholarship. Founded in 1841, Punahou School was designed originally to provide a quality education to the children of Congregational missionaries, allowing these young people to stay in Hawaii with their families rather than being sent away to school. The school's first class had only 15 students. The prestigious school draws its name from a local legend: An aged Hawaiian couple lived in Manoa and had to travel far for water. They prayed for a spring. In a dream, they were told to uproot the stump of an old hala tree. When they removed the tree stump, they uncovered a spring of clear, sweet water, which they named Ka Punahou-the New Spring.
It was in his years at this elite private school that Obama first developed an intense appreciation of his multiethnic background (a Kenyan father, a white mother, an Indonesian half-sister) and an acute awareness of racism. Following a pattern that was to mark his life, Obama was one of only three African-American students at Punahou. The racial dynamics of Obama's own experience in Hawaii were quite complicated. Due to his skin color, Obama was perceived as African American by nearly everybody he met. But in living with his grandparents, his own home was a white household. It was at this point in his life that Obama first became conscious of racism and what it means to be an African American. He was also much less affluent than the other students at Punahou School.
* * *
In 1971, Obama and his father would meet for the first time since his parents' divorce-and it would turn out to be the last time Barack would ever see his father. "He and my mother divorced when I was only two years old, and for most of my life I knew him only through the letters he sent and the stories my mother and grandparents told," Obama said in a speech just before Father's Day in 2008. His father's life in Kenya had taken a tailspin into drinking and poverty, from which he never fully recovered. The elder Obama lost both legs in an automobile accident, and subsequently lost his job. He died not long afterward at the age of 46 in a car crash in Nairobi. Barack Obama Sr. is the main subject of his son's memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Any child is greatly affected by the absence of a parent, and Obama was no exception. The experience of being raised in a home without his father had a profound effect on him that would lead him to take his own role as a dad very seriously. These years in Hawaii were especially difficult for him because his mother, too, was not always there. For much of the time, he actually lived with his grandparents, beginning when he first left Indonesia to attend Punahou. After separating from her second husband, Obama's mother rejoined him in Hawaii to study at graduate school. During the years that he lived with his mother, the family slept in a tiny apartment, and their primary source of income was Dunham's student grants. Just a few years later, when Obama was 14, Obama's mother and Maya went back to Indonesia, while Obama decided to remain with his grandparents. Obama has said of this period, "I didn't feel [her absence] as a deprivation, but when I think about the fact that I was separated from her, I suspect it had more of an impact than I know."
Obama has said that this deeply felt conflict during his early teen years led him to act out and rebel. Obama spent a great deal of time in high school on the basketball court-releasing tension, perfecting his game-but gave limited attention to his studies. Though he's not remembered as a great orator or debater by his peers, he did begin developing his writing voice; he even wrote poetry for his school's literary magazine.
Obama has also been quite candid about his engagement in some self-destructive behavior during these years, including his experimenting with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine during this time of social confusion. He has been very honest about this time in his life, regarding his involvement with those substances as very poor decisions. Many young people today are appreciative of Obama's honesty about these struggles. Jason Marcil, a high school senior in New Hampshire, praises Obama for his candor. "I'm glad that he was honest about it," he said. "It's obvious that he's learned from his mistakes. He's been there. He knows what not to do."
Despite all these challenges, Barack Obama graduated from the Punahou School and was offered a full scholarship to a small, liberal arts college in California. Looking back on this period in his life, Obama has observed, "In no other country on earth is my story even possible."
Excerpted from Barack Obama: An American Story by Bob Carlton Ariele Gentiles Copyright © 2008 by Bob Carlton and Ariele Gentiles. Excerpted by permission.
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