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Yes We Can
A Biography of Barack Obama
By Garen Thomas
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2008 Garen Thomas
All rights reserved.
Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., met Stanley Ann Dunham at the University of Hawaii in Manoa in 1960. He had been born into the Luo tribe in 1936 near Lake Victoria in Alego, Kenya, and was lucky to be studying in the United States. Although he was, by all accounts, a remarkable student, he was also mischievous and had gotten kicked out of the prestigious Maseno School in Kenya for troublemaking and skipping class. His father, Hussein Onyango Obama, was disappointed in him, fearing that he wouldn't succeed in life because he wasn't taking his education seriously. His mother, Akumu, Onyango's second wife, had left the family when Barack Sr. and his sister, Sarah, were small because she thought that Onyango was too strict. So Barack and Sarah were raised by Sarah Hussein Onyango, their stepmother and Onyango's third wife. (In many nations in Africa, men are allowed by custom and law to have several wives at one time.)
Barack grew close to his stepmother, but his sister, Sarah, remained loyal to their mother, Akumu, and resented her father because he didn't think girls needed an education. Onyango had taken pride in Barack's intelligence as a youth and wanted his son to be as educated as the white people he knew. Barack found school boring and would not go for weeks, yet when it came time for exams, he would study the lessons himself, take the tests, and come in first! When Barack was expelled, Onyango sent him to Mombasa on the coast of Kenya to work as a clerk.
Barack couldn't keep a job for long because he often spoke up when his bosses were making decisions that he thought were not good ones, angering his employers. He was stubborn with a sharp wit, strong opinions, and a strong moral character, which meant that he didn't let things go when he thought people were behaving badly or unjustly. When Barack was no longer welcome at a job, he would find other low-skill, low-paying work, but it wouldn't challenge him. And he stopped practicing Islam, the religion of his father, or any religion for that matter.
Soon he got distracted by talk of Kenya's fight for independence from "white rule" (the United Kingdom). Kenyans wanted to run their own country, the way Americans had wanted freedom from the British during the American Revolutionary War almost two hundred years earlier. The Kenyans wanted to be treated equally to white people and eventually won their independence in 1963. At the same time blacks and progressive white people were fighting for equal rights for all Americans during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
While working various clerking jobs, Barack met a woman named Kezia and married her. His father initially refused to give them his blessing in the form of a dowry (a gift to the parents of the bride). But soon Onyango gave in, and Barack and Kezia welcomed a child into their family: a boy named Roy.
Barack's friends who had stayed in school were now attending universities in Uganda, another African country, and England, a country in Europe. Barack realized that he had to start behaving like a grown-up and make something of his life, especially since he had a family to support. One day he met two American women teachers who told him he still had a chance to pursue higher education if he took a correspondence course. He worked on his lessons at home and mailed in his homework for grading. After a few months he knew enough to take the final exam, and months after that, he received word that he'd passed! Now he could go to university! However, Barack didn't have any money to pay for school, so he wrote to several universities in the United States explaining his situation. After a long time, the University of Hawaii replied — the only place to do so — and offered him full tuition. They would pay for his education.
Barack asked his stepmother, Sarah, if, while he was away, she would take care of his son, Roy, and his wife, Kezia, who was pregnant again, this time with a girl she'd later name Auma. In no time Barack, at twenty-three years old, set out for Hawaii, the newest state in America's union.
When eighteen-year-old Stanley Ann Dunham, better known as Ann, met Barack Obama, Sr., in their Russian language class at the university, she thought he was handsome, principled, and brilliant. He was the first, and only, African student studying there then. She told her parents about the boy she'd gotten to know from Kenya, and they insisted that she invite him over. At dinner, they too were impressed by his manners and swift mind.
For their first date, Ann and Barack were to meet at the library at one o'clock in the afternoon. She arrived on time, but Barack was late, so Ann decided to give him a few minutes to show up while she got some sun reclining on a bench. Without intending to, she fell asleep and an hour later, Barack arrived with three friends. Barack, who had a habit of bragging to others, declared that Ann was a good woman because she had waited for him. In Kenya, women were expected to obey the men they married.
Although Ann was willing to compromise at times, and put other people's wishes before hers, she was an independent thinker. She had spent her childhood doing things her own way, in spite of what other kids thought of her. She was not afraid to stand alone. Her father, Stanley Armour Dunham, who was raised Baptist, and her mother, Madelyn Lee Payne, whom he'd met when they both lived in Wichita, Kansas, were also liberal-minded.
Before Ann was born, Stanley had promised Madelyn that they would be free spirits and live a life of adventure. They eloped in 1940. A year and a half later, the United States got involved in World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. On January 18, Stanley enlisted in the army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Madelyn gave birth to Stanley Ann Dunham (named after her father because he had wanted a boy) on an army base on November 29, 1942, and later, when Stanley returned from his tour of duty, they all moved to California. Stanley tried taking courses at a local college, but his desire for adventure got the best of him. They moved back to Kansas and then to Texas, where they encountered their first real taste of the racism that seemed to drench the United States at that time.
At the furniture store where he worked, Stanley was warned not to help black or Mexican customers until the shop was closed. That way the white customers would not have to be in the store at the same time as black or Mexican people. Madelyn, who worked at a bank, was scolded for politely referring to a black janitor as "mister," as in "Mr. Reed." This was a man, a patriot, who had served in World War II, just as Madelyn's husband had, and yet, because of his skin color, he was treated differently — disrespectfully. Stanley and Madelyn were sickened by this inequality, and though they tried to hide their feelings from Ann, who was not yet a teenager at the time, their daughter was sharp enough to catch on.
One day Madelyn returned from work at the bank and came upon a group of children clustered outside the picket fence bordering her home. They were shouting vulgar things, including the n-word. Madelyn saw that her daughter was lying beside a tree with a playmate, a black girl her age. A child outside the fence threw a stone at the girls, and Madelyn noticed that the two girls were terrified and upset. She suggested that they go with her inside the house, but the black child ran away as soon as Madelyn reached for her. When Stanley learned what had happened, he confronted the neighbors about the behavior of their children. He was told that he needed to have a talk with his own child, because in that town, children of different races didn't play together. Not too long afterward, the family moved to Seattle, Washington, in part to escape the injustice around them. Ann would soon attend Mercer Island High School, and Stanley briefly enrolled the family in a Unitarian Universalist congregation because he liked how that religion was inclusive and embraced teachings of several different faiths.
Ann was an exceptional student. At sixteen, she was accepted to the University of Chicago, but her father thought she was too young to live on her own and wouldn't let her go. The entire family eventually moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where a furniture store owned by the same company for which Stanley worked in Seattle was opening up. Ann enrolled in the university there to study anthropology.
Soon, in 1960, Barack Obama, Sr., and Ann Dunham were in love and planned to marry. Barack, who was studying econometrics (essentially using math to figure out how to help a nation control and distribute its wealth), wrote home to his father in Kenya about the engagement. Onyango was not happy about the union because he believed that white people's customs and priorities were different from Africans'. He didn't think that Ann would return to Kenya with Barack to live as a Luo woman. He knew that white people did not believe a man should have more than one wife, and Barack had another wife at home. (Ann had gotten the sense that Barack and his wife from Kenya were separated and no longer bound to each other.) Onyango felt that Ann's father should visit him in Kenya so they could talk in person about the marriage, since, according to Kenyan custom, marriages were to be arranged by the parents. But most important, Onyango believed that returning to Kenya was Barack's duty, as the people of Kenya looked to Barack as someone who would help fix their troubled government. A man with such smarts and an education from the United States had to invest his time and energy in helping his family — and, in spirit, everyone in Kenya was family.
Ann's parents loved Barack. They enjoyed it when he gave them his assessment of politics or government. Stanley even began taking an interest in those things and the political discourse and racial dynamics of America. But they were also worried that their daughter wanted to marry Barack — a black man from Africa. Perhaps they were afraid of how Ann would be treated in America, since it was against the law in most of the United States for a white person to marry a "Negro," a person of African descent. Not only was it against the law, but if somebody got it in his head to capture Barack and hang him by his neck until he was dead, law enforcement, especially in some southern states, most likely would have looked the other way, because black people were not given the same protections as people of other races.
Hawaii was somewhat different from the rest of the states. It had just joined the union and wasn't as caught up in the same racial divides that haunted the rest of the nation. The group of islands was home to a diverse population of people, though it too had its own troubled history. Ann and Barack believed that they could make their marriage work in Hawaii or any other place. So they wed in a civil ceremony, with very few others in attendance.
Barack excelled in his studies at the university. He started the International Students Association and became its first president. In 1961, on August 4, Ann gave birth to their son, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. (whom they called "Barry" or "Bar" for short).
Barack Sr. was intent on furthering his education with a PhD degree. After finishing a four-year program in three years, he received word in 1963 that he had been awarded a full scholarship to the New School in New York City. He had also been given a full scholarship to Harvard University. However, the Harvard scholarship would not cover the cost of bringing his family with him, while the award from the New School would, by providing him with housing and a job on campus. For Barack Sr., there was only one option. He felt he needed to go to Harvard in order to get the best education possible, because Harvard was known worldwide as an exceptional school. That meant the people of Kenya would have heard of the school and would recognize that Barack had done as well as any person could. Barack Sr. had already left one wife behind in Kenya. He'd seen it as a necessary sacrifice. He made the same decision again.
While Barack Sr. was away at school, Ann had time to think about her future with him. Her mother, Madelyn, had heard about the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and knew there was a fight for independence going on. She was afraid for her daughter's life and didn't want her moving there. By the time Barack Sr. had completed his PhD degree, Ann had decided she no longer wanted to be in their marriage. So Barack Sr. returned to Kenya without his American wife and son. And Barack Jr., like his father before him, would grow up missing one of his parents.CHAPTER 2
Madelyn felt she was too young to be called "Granny." On the day Barack Jr. was born, she insisted her family call her "tutu," the Hawaiian word for "grandparent," which the clan later shortened to "Toot." Barack learned about his father from the stories she, her husband, Stanley ("Gramps"), and his mother would tell him. They were wonderful stories, mythic in scale, poetic in their significance. Barack's dad came across as a legend and a hero, accomplishing great things in some noble fight for justice.
Gramps told the story, with Toot and Ann chiming in, of how the elder Barack had taken a friend, another African student, for a sightseeing trip and was swerving all over the road in the car because he was used to driving on the other side of the street in Kenya. At the top of the hill, his friend asked to try Barack Sr.'s pipe. Barack Sr. eventually let him, but his friend accidentally dropped the pipe over the cliff railing. Barack Sr.'s father, Onyango, had taught his son to respect other people's things, and Barack Sr. thought that his friend had not shown the proper respect for his property. So he lifted his friend in the air and made believe that he was going to drop him too. Everyone was in a panic. Though Barack Sr. finally put his friend down, Ann was upset that he had behaved rashly and scared them all. But the way Gramps told the story, the incident was more of a practical joke. Gramps found the whole thing hilarious.
There were many tales the trio recounted to the younger Barack that filled his mind with grand images of his father. Ann recalled the time when Barry's dad, while at the University of Hawaii, arrived to accept a great honor: his key from the Phi Beta Kappa society, in recognition of academic excellence. He was dressed in his favorite blue jeans, while the rest of the crowd was decked out in tuxedos. It was the one time in his life that Ann saw him embarrassed. But there were few indignities that could break his spirit.
His family sometimes discussed the time Barry's father had taken a break from studying to relax with Gramps and some friends at a bar. There was a man there who had issues with black people, and said out loud that he shouldn't have to sit next to one, and he used a derogatory term. Instead of losing his cool, which most people expected him to do, Barack Sr. went up to the man, smiled, and gave him one long lecture on human rights, dignity, and the absurdity of racism. By the time Barack Sr. had finished educating him, the man felt so ashamed of himself he gave Barack $100 as penance. Few but those who were there could believe it.
Even without him in his life, Barry felt his father's presence through photo albums and countless anecdotes. Meanwhile, Gramps had become Barry's surrogate father. He took the child spearfishing with one of his clients off Kailua Bay. In one of Barack's earliest childhood memories, he recalls sitting up high on his grandfather's shoulders watching the astronauts return to Hickam Air Force Base after splashing down in the ocean. If you listened to Gramps tell it, though, he'd swear that an astronaut had waved at Barack and Barack alone, and that Barack had waved back. Gramps wanted Barack to know that he was special — and well loved.
Excerpted from Yes We Can by Garen Thomas. Copyright © 2008 Garen Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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