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BARACK OBAMA FOR BEGINNERS
AN ESSENTIAL GUIDE
By Bob Neer, JOE LEE
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2009 Bob Neer
All rights reserved.
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, is a blend of extraordinary diversity: parents from Kenya and Kansas; an education in Indonesia, Hawaii, California, New York, and Massachusetts; employment in Chicago's poorest communities, leading law firms, and premier university; best-selling books that merge personal history and political action; and elected positions in the Illinois and United States Senates before the Presidency.
The result is a politician who asserts that we all are linked, and that while idealism must serve realism, pragmatism requires purpose. His latest book, which carries the inspirational title The Audacity of Hope, contains the following conclusion: "We should be guided by what works."
The Obama family traces its modern lineage to Hussein Onyango Obama, a Kenyan member of the Luo tribe born in 1895 near Lake Victoria. Onyango was a restless man of ambition. He was one of the first in his village to wear western clothing, walked for two weeks to Nairobi to find work, braving leopards and other dangers, and served with the British armed forces in World War I. He visited Europe, Myanmar and Sri Lanka as a soldier and briefly converted to Christianity, but abandoned it for Islam and added "Hussein" to his name after the war. He was arrested by British colonial authorities in 1949 during the struggle for Kenyan independence, tortured and jailed for two years, but eventually found innocent and released, after which he returned to his homeland.
Obama's father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., was born in 1936 in Nyangoma-Kogelo, Siaya District, also near Lake Victoria, to Onyango's second wife Habiba Akumu. She quarreled with her husband and left when her son was nine. The boy was raised by Onyango's third wife Sarah. He was a precocious student but chafed at traditional village employment, which included tending goats. He took success in high school for granted, became boastful and truculent, and was expelled. He squabbled with his father, left the family lands, married his first wife Kezia in 1954 at age 18, and by his early 20s found himself employed as a shop boy in Nairobi with two children and little money. A pair of American teachers befriended him and helped him apply to U.S. universities. In 1959 he secured admission, after many rejections, to the University of Hawaii to study economics: the institution's first African student. A scholarship program organized by Kenyan politicians and financed by over 8,000 American donors paid for his studies.
Obama, Sr. wore religion lightly. "Although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition," his son has written. Indeed Sarah, the step-mother who raised Obama Sr., has said her step-son was never a muslim.
Obama's mother's family history begins with her parents Madelyn Payne and Stanley Dunham—grandparents of Barack Obama who cared for him during high school. Payne was a Kansan raised in Wichita by "stern Methodist parents who did not believe in drinking, playing cards or dancing." Nonetheless, their daughter, one of the best students in her high school graduating class, often went downtown to listen to big bands. On one of these outings she met Stanley Dunham, originally from the oil-town of El Dorado, Kansas, a furniture salesman "who could charm the legs off a couch." Dunham was a Baptist from the "other side of the railroad tracks." (It later emerged that he was also a seventh cousin, once removed, of Vice-President Dick Cheney and also a seventh cousin, twice removed, of President Harry S. Truman.) Payne's family did not approve of the liaison, and the pair married in secret a few weeks before Madelyn graduated from high school. She told her parents after she received her diploma.
During World War II, Dunham joined the Army and served under General George S. Patton. Madelyn worked on a Boeing B-29 assembly line in Wichita. Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was born in 1942 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Her father wanted a boy, thus the name, which grieved the girl.
Dunham moved the family frequently: California, Kansas, Texas, and finally Mercer Island in Washington state—now a high end home for wealthy Seattle residents, then a somewhat isolated and bucolic suburb. Madelyn became vice-president of a local bank. The family attended the East Shore Unitarian Church. Stanley Ann—she dutifully carried the first name through her mid-teens—thrived in the intellectual atmosphere of the local high school, where her philosophy teacher challenged his classes with texts like The Organization Man, The Hidden Persuaders, and 1984. The precocious student was offered admission to the University of Chicago in 1958 at the age of 16, but her father said she was too young to go.
In 1960, Ann graduated from high school and the family moved to Hawaii. Stanley got a job at a large furniture store, Madelyn at the Bank of Hawaii, and they bought a house near the University of Hawaii. Ann, 18, enrolled as a freshman. In a Russian language class, she met Barack Obama, Sr., 23, who told her he was divorced. They gathered with friends on weekends to listen to jazz and discuss politics and world affairs. Ann was the only woman. She was "the original feminist," according to Neil Abercrombie, now a Democratic congressman from Hawaii who participated in the meetings.
On 2 February 1961, the pair slipped away to Maui and were married. The wedding—Obama "black as pitch," Ann "white as milk"—would have been illegal in 22 states. Ann dropped out of college. On 4 August Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was born at the Kapi' olani Medical Center in Honolulu.
The couple moved into a small apartment near the university. The following year, just three years after he had arrived, Obama Sr. completed his studies. He obtained two offers of admission to Ph.D. programs in economics. The first, from Harvard, did not include enough funding to support his family. The second, from the New School in New York, included a more generous stipend. Obama chose Harvard, and did not take his family to Cambridge.
In 1963, Ann returned to college. Food stamps helped support the family. After two years, her husband still absent, she filed for divorce.
At the East-West Center at the university she met Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student. In 1967, he proposed, she graduated, and the three moved to his home on the outskirts of Jakarta. Soetoro, who was drafted into the Indonesian Army as a lieutenant on his return, was not wealthy—they had no air conditioning, refrigerator, flush toilet, or car—but the six year old Obama was impressed nonetheless. His step-father had acquired a pet monkey for him. Baby crocodiles inhabited the garden. He learned to speak Indonesian and attended the local Catholic Franciscus Assisi Primary School. "The children of farmers, servants and low-level bureaucrats had become my friends, and together we ran the streets morning and night, hustling odd jobs, catching crickets, battling swift kites with razor-sharp lines—the loser watching his kite soar off with the wind," he wrote later in his memoir. His mother was hired to teach english at the U.S. embassy.
The family prospered when Soetoro was discharged and got a job in the government relations office of a U.S. oil firm. They moved to the affluent Menteng neighborhood and acquired a refrigerator, television, and car and driver. Obama transferred to SDN Menteng 1, an elite secular public elementary school that served primarily middle- and upper-class children, including several grandchildren of Indonesian President Suharto. He was the only foreigner.
For administrative purposes, Obama was registered as a Muslim at this school, as at the Catholic institution, because that was the religion of his stepfather. He learned about Islam for two hours each week. His mother did not belong to any denomination. Nonetheless, Obama wrote, "My mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person I have ever known.... She possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature." As a child, she would wake him to see a spectacular moon, or tell him to close his eyes to listen to the rustle of leaves as they walked together at twilight. "But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I." His step-father enjoyed alcohol and was not devout. Obama has never been a practicing Muslim.
The harshness of life was never distant in Jakarta. Later, Obama remembered "The face of the man who had come to our door one day with a gaping hole where his nose should have been: the whistling sound he made as he asked my mother for food.... The time that one of my friends told me in the middle of recess that his baby brother had died the night before of an evil spirit brought in by the wind."
His mother understood. "She had learned ... the chasm that separated the life chances of an American from those of an Indonesian. She knew which side of the divide she wanted her child to be on. I was an American, she decided, and my true life lay elsewhere," Obama wrote.
The means she chose to achieve this end was education. The family did not have enough money for their son to attend a private international school, so his mother subscribed to a series of elementary school correspondence courses. Each weekday, Obama remembered, "She came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she went to work. I offered stiff resistance to this regimen, but in response to every strategy I concocted, whether unconvincing ('My stomach hurts') or indisputably true (my eyes kept closing every five minutes), she would patiently repeat her most powerful defense: This is no picnic for me either, buster.'"
She also taught him values. "'If you want to grow into a human being,' she would say to me, 'you're going to need some values.' Honesty ... Fairness ... Straight talk ... and independent judgment," Obama wrote. "In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship, where ultimate truths were kept separate from day-to-day realities, she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism," he added.
His stepfather taught him how to fight, and about the nature of power. One afternoon he laced boxing gloves onto the boy's hands. "My hands dangled at my sides like bulbs at the ends of thin stalks.... He adjusted my elbows, then crouched into a stance and started to bob. 'You want to keep moving, but always stay low—don't give them a target. How does that feel?'" Obama wrote. Later he offered advice. "The strong man takes the weak man's land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man's woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.' He paused to take another sip of water, then asked, 'Which would you rather be?' ... 'Better to be strong ... If you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.'" Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro, was born in 1970.
By 1971, the correspondence courses were complete. His grandfather, who had abandoned the furniture business for insurance sales, enlisted the help of his boss, an alumnus, to gain admission for Obama to Punahou Academy, founded in 1841: the most prestigious private school in Hawaii. Current tuition for the school is $15,725 a year. Obama won a scholarship. "My first experience with affirmative action, it seems, had little to do with race," he wrote. He returned to Hawaii in the summer, moved back in with his grandparents, who now lived in a modest two bedroom apartment, and started fifth grade.
The new school was a shock: socially, culturally, and racially. Many of the other fifth graders had been together since kindergarten, Obama's Indonesian sandals were dowdy and his clothes out of style, and he was one of just two black children in the class. Happily, his mother and sister joined him after only a few months: Ann had been admitted to study the anthropology of Indonesia in a master's program at the University of Hawaii.
Just weeks after Ann's return, Obama's father unexpectedly announced that he was coming for a visit. He had received an M.A. from Harvard, taken a job with a U.S. oil company, returned to Kenya, married a woman he met in Cambridge named Ruth Nidesand, and fathered two children with her. He also continued to see his first wife and their children. He worked as an economist for the Kenyan Ministry of Transportation and later as a senior economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance, before falling out with Kenya's President Kenyatta. He then lost his position and began a decline into poverty and drinking from which he never recovered. He had been in a car accident and decided to spend a month in Hawaii to recuperate. Obama's time with his father was short, but poignant. "For brief spells in the day I will lie beside him, the two of us alone in the apartment sublet from a retired old woman whose name I forget ... and I read my book while he reads his. He remains opaque to me ... But I grow accustomed to his company," he wrote. "Two weeks later he was gone," he added. Forever.
The postscript to the story of Obama's father was a sad one. He was divorced from Ruth and experienced a period of destitution. He suffered another bad automobile accident. Both legs were amputated and he lost his job. He married for a fourth time, despite continued problems with alcohol, and had a son. He died in 1982 at age 46 in a final automobile accident. Obama learned of his death, a few months after his 21st birthday, in a brief telephone call from a relative in Kenya he had never met.
Ann and the children moved into a small apartment and made do on her graduate student grants. Their circumstances were a sharp contrast to the affluence of some of Obama's classmates. "Sometimes, when I brought friends home after school, my mother would hear them remark about the lack of food in the fridge or the less-than-stellar housekeeping, and she would pull me aside and let me know that she was a single mother going to school again and raising two kids, so that baking cookies wasn't exactly at the top of her priority list," he recalled. Lolo visited occasionally from Jakarta.
His mother persevered. She completed her master's degree and advanced to a Ph.D. program in anthropology. In 1975, she finished her coursework and returned to Indonesia with Maya to do field work. Obama, about to begin high school, chose to remain in Hawaii and moved back in with his grandparents.
This was a time of searching. "I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant," Obama wrote. He looked for answers in books, and read the works of great black American intellectuals: James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and W. E. B. DuBois. Each of these men, however, wound up disappointed and withdrawn. Only Malcolm X's autobiography, his repeated acts of self-creation, Obama wrote, offered something different. But even that did not provide the answers he needed. He found himself "utterly alone."
He sought a release through drugs: marijuana, alcohol, and sometimes cocaine when he could afford it. "I got high ... [to] push questions of who I was out of my mind," he remembered.
Over time, he adopted two responses to race-based realities in the culture around him. At the broadest level, he accepted, did not blame, and hoped for change. He told an African American friend who urged him to push for more basketball playing time, for example, that the other players, "play like white boys do, and that's the style coach likes us to play, and they're winning the way they play. I don't play that way." He could see the possibility, however, of a more inclusive society—he longed for it—and began to consider how he and others might work proactively to bring about change. What he sought to avoid was "withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat." As a practical matter, he wrote, "People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and didn't make any sudden moves."
An important early decision Obama made was where to go to college. It is possible in retrospect to see his choice of Occidental College in Los Angeles as a first step toward broader opportunities on the mainland. That is not how Obama saw it. He had met a girl from Brentwood, a wealthy neighborhood in the city, on vacation in Hawaii and wanted to be closer to her. So he chose Occidental, which also offered a full scholarship, from among the several schools to which he had been admitted, and enrolled in 1979.
Excerpted from BARACK OBAMA FOR BEGINNERS by Bob Neer, JOE LEE. Copyright © 2009 Bob Neer. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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