Part 1 was an introduction to this essay, explaining the various areas of Obama’s life and that of the African American that I would be dealing with. Now we start with Chapter 1: Obama’s childhood.
A Brief Parental History
Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961, to Barack Hussein Obama Snr., who is from Nyanza Province, Kenya and Ann Dunham from Wichita, Kansas. The couple met in a Russian language class whilst attending the University of Hawaii in 1960. Obama writes in Dreams from my Father, “In 1959, at the age of twenty-three, he [Barack Sr.] arrived at the University of Hawaii as that institution’s first African student” and was apparently the focus of great curiosity. He made many friends and was quite opinionated.
”He had this magnetic personality,” remembers Neil Abercrombie, a member of Congress from Hawaii who was friends with Obama Sr. in college. “Everything was oratory from him, even the most commonplace observation.
”We would drink beer, eat pizza and play records,” Abercrombie says. They talked about Vietnam and politics. “Everyone had an opinion about everything, and everyone was of the opinion that everyone wanted to hear their opinion—no one more so than Barack.” His mother, however, was quite the opposite; she was quiet, studious. The aforementioned Abercrombie said of Ann, “She was scarcely out of high school. She was mostly kind of an observer.”
The referenced Time article goes on to say that Abercrombie and his cronies made a point of ignoring the fact that Barack Sr. was black and Ann was white, it was all in keeping with Hawaii’s modern, “melting pot” reputation: “One thing nations can learn from Hawaii,” recounts Obama, “is the willingness of races to work together toward common development, something he [Barack Sr.] has found whites elsewhere too often unwilling to do.” However, as the Time piece points out, when the couple met in 1960, the “melting pot” status of country could only really apply to white people blending with Asians.At the time of the future Mr. and Mrs. Barack Obama’s union, 19 percent of white women married Chinese men which back in those days was considered radical, to say the least. Black people only made up a meagre 1 percent of Hawaii’s population, although interracial marriage was permitted there, unlike almost half of the other US States. The couple married on February 2, 1961. Three years later in January 1964, Anne Obama filed for divorce.
Barack Sr. was also a man with a mission: he had always planned to return to Kenya and help rebuild the country after he had attended the Harvard School of Economics, or as Obama puts it, “…he returned to Africa to fulfil his promise to the continent.” (ibid. 10) Bold words amid lofty aspirations something that could be applied to his son, Barack.
Barack Obama II was two years old when his father left. The indirect influence he would have on his life was immense however. He would not only become the muse for his biography, Dreams from my Father, but more specifically the benchmark of his racial identity. That isn’t to say that because his mother was white she played no part in Barack’s own sense of what it is to be black. “Her message came to embrace black people generally,” writes Obama. “She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King.” (ibid. 50)
However, after reading an article in Life Magazine as a boy about a black man trying to peel off his own skin, a young Obama found himself locked in a bathroom staring at himself wondering why there was no-one like him in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas Catalogue. He started to question the motives of his mother, asking himself whether his mother saw what he saw, knew what he knew, or was she simply trying to protect him. Whatever the answer, he thought; he knew that there was something he wasn’t being told. (ibid. 51-52) This, for all intents and purposes, is the start of Barack Obama’s journey not only into manhood, but a journey of exploration of identity. How he saw the world, how he saw black people, white people and his relationship to them. It is here that we must investigate his findings and their consequences.
The Rosa Parks affair
Whilst reflecting on his youth, Barack Obama focussed on a time when, whilst at high school, he found an article by his father with an accompanying picture. Although this quite understandably stirred emotion in Barack – the smallest artefact of his father made him wonder about his father’s life – what is telling is the way he ties race into the feeling of estrangement and uncertainty: “I wonder, too, whether the omission [of any mention of him and his mother in the aforementioned article] caused a fight between my parents. I would not have known at the time, for 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.” (ibid. 27)
It is apparent that the question of race is something that Barack Obama feels strongly about and has always felt strongly about, so it begs the question as to why when running for President, there was very little focus on race from Obama? That question will be answered in the final chapter of this piece, as now I feel it is important to focus on Obama’s own sense of who he is, his place in the world, his measure of a black man.
In the chapter entitled ‘Race’ in his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama reflects on the wake of Hurricane Katrina (2005), what it stood for, and the racial connotations it represented. He appeared on national television rejecting the idea that the government’s refusal to act quicker had anything to do with race. This is a surprising move as many of the world’s press were united behind the idea that the US government’s failure to act more quickly was because those affected were poor and black. From the respected UK broadsheet, The Independent:
“America’s old racial demons have been reawakened by the crisis unfolding in a city that is 67 per cent black, and where almost a third of the population already lived below the poverty level.”
However Barack Obama, rather than jumping on the band-wagon, pointed out that it was poverty that was the overriding issue that the country should be focusing on, and not race. “[America’s] incompetence is colour blind,” he announced to the nation whilst giving interviews to Sunday morning TV shows. He went on to stress that “the Administration’s inadequate planning showed a degree of remove from, and indifference toward, the problems of inner-city poverty that had to be addressed.”Obama also ruminates about Rosa Park’s funeral. Rosa Parks was the lady who famously refused to give up her seat for a white passenger back in 1955. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks became what many call the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement.” The funeral was attended by over 4000 mourners all celebrating her life and what she stood for. But whilst nearly every Civil Rights icon was in attendance and were “eulogising Rosa Parks, reminiscing about past victories, entombed in nostalgia,” Barack Obama appears to be thinking on a whole other level – at least that is what he projects in Audacity of Hope. Obama recalls that people such as Reverend Al Sharpton, in his typical, confrontational style, were saying that Rosa Parks was not “only the mother of the civil rights movement but the mother of the nation,” going on to explaining the statement by saying that at the time when George Washington was dubbed father of the nation, “we” – meaning black people – were not included at that time, and the only time black people became included, was back in 1955 when Rosa Parks reached infamy: hence, the mother of the nation. Obama listened to civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson’s plea that a statue should be erected in Parks’ honour, something that came to fruition November 2005. “’This is an extraordinarily historical day for Rosa Parks, for her legacy and all who have benefited from the extraordinary achievements of this woman,’” said Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. , who sponsored the House bill.” However, instead of pointing out the relevance of the two statements, or perhaps even echoing the sentiments, Obama chose to use exactly that latter plea to dismiss and gently mock the notion. This indirectly challenged not only the entire civil rights movement’s old guard and the outpouring it expressed at the funeral, but it also directly challenges the most prominent figure in the civil rights movement today.
Here are Obama’s feelings during the Rosa Parks funeral in full:
So here Obama is not only throwing down the gauntlet in terms of how Rosa Parks should be remembered, he is both deflecting the issue from a question of race and taking a huge stride in the opposite direction of various civil rights luminaries, all of whom united at Parks’ funeral.
“Instead [of relaunching a new war on poverty] we sat in church, eulogizing Rosa Parks, reminiscing about past victories, entombed in nostalgia. Already, legislation was moving to place a statue of Mrs. Parks under the Capitol dome. There would be a commemorative stamp bearing her likeness…countless, streets, schools, and libraries…would be bearing her name. I wondered what Rosa Parks would make of all this – whether stamps or statues could summon her spirit, or whether honoring her memory demanded something more.”
Obama has grown from the boy whose mother brought home books on the civil rights movement and the readings of Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King – the child who “needed a race” – to the man who seemingly does not want to align himself with the triumphalism of his supposed peers in what could be construed as yet another platform for Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to pat themselves on the back. He removed himself from the established black order, a move that hasn’t been without consequence.