Dirt off his shoulders: Barack Obama and the question of race

Copyright The National
A new biography of Barack Obama, The Bridge, takes its cue from his youthful struggle with identity but, Howard W French writes, race is far from the whole story.
Just who is Barack Obama?
Fifteen months into his presidency, we may have acquired an intuitive sense of the answer to this question, and yet Obama remains elusive, like a fidgety subject posing for a daguerreotype. He nods and bobs forward and back, in and out of focus, never altogether fixed.
By now we have all been sufficiently exposed to the Obama act to suspect real method. The recent passage of major healthcare reform presents one case in point: early in his term, Obama placed healthcare at the centre of his domestic agenda, and yet he long seemed content to avoid defining his own parameters for the reform, or even, for that matter, establishing a bottom line.
Along the way, compromise with irredentist Republicans was treated as an almost sacred virtue – maddeningly so for Obama supporters, who began to suspect that he was weak, or worse, fired by insipid conciliatory instincts. Until, at the 11th hour, the president revealed a hitherto unseen mailed fist, and the bill was pushed through Congress without a single supporting vote from an opposition that had been marginalised by its very refusal to negotiate.
The key to this unusual style, if one is to be found, would seem to exist in Obama’s own life story, uncommonly rich in crossed genes and mixed signals. This story has now received its third major retelling, in the form of a massive new biography by the New Yorker editor David Remnick. The first version, of course, was Obama’s own extraordinary memoir, Dreams from my Father; the second was a more collective affair, composed of thousands of articles about candidate Obama that obsessively excavated his mixed racial background.
It is a story that begins with the shadowy figure of Obama’s father, a familiar-seeming character of the African independence era. Barack Obama Sr came to the United States in 1959 in pursuit of a first-rate education, and his clear hope was to use this gift as a springboard to leadership of his own newly born nation. There is breathtaking ambition here, to be sure, though the arrogance is leavened in part by something like altruism: the desire to modernise his country and to help realise the potential of Africa.
But as a member of Kenya’s emerging elite – or, more pointedly, as one of what the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah called the “been-to generation” who spent quality time in the West – he experienced a kind of schizophrenia as he struggled to reconcile new and old world views.
The senior Obama would leave an unfulfilled legacy in both places: his American record is that of a selfish husband and abandoning father, and when the prodigal son returns to Kenya, he discovers that far from preparing him to become a transformative national hero, his exposure to the broader world has somehow ruined him for his own country, where he’ll never quite fit in. He had earned fancy degrees and lost the African art of palaver; no longer could he bring himself to listen or persuade, preferring to bluntly speak his mind instead.
The tragic beauty in this story is that the Obama we know, the abandoned son, seems to have studied his father’s example intently. There is a similar ambition, and even arrogance, and yet the son manages a reverse trajectory, realising his extravagant goals through mastery of his tongue, through sublimation and restraint.
From his mother Barack Obama would seem to have inherited many of the traits that made this possible: a serene faith in things working out, equipoise and bedrock idealism. Her roots may be less exotic to most Americans than his father’s, but hers is a story with its own deep and abiding mystery: of corn-fed Kansans (her parents) who married young and in secret and quickly grew restless, moving all about the country as they reared their only child. Having dreamed of a boy, they named her Stanley Ann.
As Ann was graduating from high school, in Seattle, the family made a final move – to Hawaii, then a still truly remote American outpost in the Pacific. The family wanderlust impacted her lastingly. Amid the generalised conformity of the Eisenhower era, while her high school peers amused themselves with sock hops and Elvis records, she developed a taste for jazz, for progressive politics, and for challenging books on sociology and cultural anthropology.
As her intellectual curiosity blossomed, its focus turned increasingly overseas, toward the developing world, in particular, which in the occurrence meant toward darker skinned peoples, to whom she would seem to have had precious little exposure as a girl.
In spite of this, with time it is she, not Barack Sr, who will prove easily the more adaptive of the two parents, the most comfortable in her skin, the best at assimilation. Years later, while doing field research, she would appear more at home in the villages of rural Indonesia than urban Indonesians; it was she who tutored her young son on the moral power of Martin Luther King’s oratory and the brilliance of the black gospel giant Mahalia Jackson.
At the University of Hawaii, Ann met and was promptly swept off her feet by the significantly older, self-prepossessed intellectual newly arrived from Kenya. One strains to imagine their story unfolding in Moline or Omaha, or to be fair, in anything but the most cosmopolitan of American cities of the day. And even then it would have been an unusual coupling. But the backdrop turns out to have been special.
“Since the 1920s,” as Remnick writes, Hawaii had been celebrated “as a kind of racial Eden”, where no group, including whites, was numerous enough to become an oppressive majority.
Shoulder rubbing, and more, between natives, whites, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and even a tiny dash of African-Americans, usually brought to the mid-Pacific by the United States Armed Forces, was typically relaxed. So much so that when Paul Robeson visited Hawaii in 1948 on a concert tour, Remnick quotes him telling reporters: “It would be a tremendous impact on the United States if Hawaii is admitted as a state. Americans wouldn’t believe the racial harmony that exists here. It could speed democracy in the United States.”
I know more than a little of this world myself, having brought my own heterogeneous family here – a West African wife and me, her pale-skinned African-American husband – between assignments on her continent and in East Asia, and watching my nappy-headed sons settle in with few of the strained racial vibes I had known growing up or working on the mainland.
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