Though Obama Had to Leave to Find Himself, It Is Hawaii That Made His Rise Possible
Friday, August 22, 2008; 1:55 PM
On weekday mornings as a teenager, Barry Obama left his grandparents' apartment on the 10th floor of the 12-story high-rise at 1617 South Beretania, a mile and half above Waikiki Beach, and walked up Punahou Street in the shadows of capacious banyan trees and date palms. Before crossing the overpass above the H1 freeway, where traffic zoomed east to body-surfing beaches or west to the airport and Pearl Harbor, he passed Kapiolani Medical Center, walking below the hospital room where he was born on Aug. 4, 1961. Two blocks further along, at the intersection with Wilder, he could look left toward the small apartment on Poki where he had spent a few years with his little sister, Maya, and his mother, Ann, back when she was getting her master's degree at the University of Hawaii before she left again for Indonesia. Soon enough he was at the lower edge of Punahou School, the gracefully sloping private campus where he studied some and played basketball more.
An adolescent life told in five Honolulu blocks, confined and compact, but far, far away. Apart from other unprecedented aspects of his rise, it is a geographical truth that no politician in American history has traveled farther than Barack Obama to be within reach of the White House. He was born and spent most of his formative years on Oahu, in distance the most removed population center on the planet, some 2,390 miles from California, farther from a major landmass than anywhere but Easter Island. In the westward impulse of American settlement, his birthplace was the last frontier, an outpost with its own time zone, the 50th of the United States, admitted to the union only two years before Obama came along.
Those who come from islands are inevitably shaped by the experience. For Obama, the experience was all contradiction and contrast.
As the son of a white woman and a black man, he grew up as a multiracial kid, a "hapa," "half-and-half" in the local lexicon, in one of the most multiracial places in the world, with no majority group. There were native Hawaiians, Japanese, Filipinos, Samoans, Okinawans, Chinese and Portuguese, along with Anglos, commonly known as haole (pronounced howl-lee), and a smaller population of blacks, traditionally centered at the U.S. military installations. But diversity does not automatically translate into social comfort: Hawaii has its own difficult history of racial and cultural stratification, and young Obama struggled to find his place even in that many-hued milieu.
He had to leave the island to find himself as a black man, eventually rooting in Chicago, the antipode of remote Honolulu, deep in the fold of the mainland, and there setting out on the path that led toward politics. Yet life circles back in strange ways, and in essence it is the promise of the place he left behind -- the notion if not the reality of Hawaii, what some call the spirit of aloha, the transracial if not post-racial message -- that has made his rise possible. Hawaii and Chicago are the two main threads weaving through the cloth of Barack Obama's life. Each involves more than geography.
Hawaii is about the forces that shaped him, and Chicago is about how he reshaped himself. Chicago is about the critical choices he made as an adult: how he learned to survive in the rough-and-tumble of law and politics, how he figured out the secrets of power in a world defined by it, and how he resolved his inner conflicts and refined the subtle, coolly ambitious persona now on view in the presidential election. Hawaii comes first. It is what lies beneath, what makes Chicago possible and understandable.
Hawaii involves the struggles of a teenage hapa at Punahou School who wanted nothing more than to be a professional basketball player. It is about his extraordinary mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, deeply loving if frequently absent. While politicians burnish their histories by laying claim to early years of community work and lives of public service, she was the real deal, devoting her career, unsung and underpaid, to helping poor women make their way in the modern world.
It is about his mysterious father, Barack Hussein Obama, an imperious if alluring voice gone distant and then missing. It is about his grandparents, Madelyn and Stan Dunham, Toot and Gramps, the white couple with whom he lived for most of his teenage years, she practical and determined, he impulsive, hokey, well-intentioned and, by his grandson's account, burdened with the desperate lost hopes of a Willy Loman-style salesman. It is about their family's incessant migration away from the heartland, from the Great Plains to the West Coast to Hawaii.
And that was not far enough for their daughter, who followed the Pacific farther to Indonesia and traveled the world until, at the too-early age of 52, she made her way back to Honolulu, taking an apartment next to her parents' in the high-rise on the corner of Beretania and Punahou, to die there of cancer. It was the same year, 1995, that her son made his debut on the national stage with a book about himself that searched for the missing, the void -- his dad, Kenya, Africa -- and paid less attention to the people and things that had shaped his life, especially his mother.
The simple fact is that he would not exist as a human being, let alone as a politician, without his mother's sensibility, naive or adventurous or both. Of all the relationships in Obama's life, none has been deeper, more complex or more important. They lived under the same roof for only perhaps 12 years and were frequently apart during his adolescence, but her lessons and judgments were always with him. In some sense, because they were just 18 years apart, they grew up together, each following a singular path toward maturity.
Like many presidential aspirants before him, and perhaps most like Bill Clinton, Obama grew up surrounded by strong women, the male figures either weak or absent. Once, during the heat of the primary race between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a claim came from Bill Clinton that he "understood" Obama. As different as their backgrounds and families were, it was no doubt this strong-female-weak-male similarity that he had in mind.
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