Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 12

“You best talk to your daughter, Mr. Dunham. White girls don’t play with coloreds in this town.”

It’s hard to know how much weight to give to these episodes, what permanent allegiances were made
or broken, or whether they stand out only in the light of subsequent events. Whenever he spoke to me
about it, Gramps would insist that the family left Texas in part because of their discomfort with such racism.
Toot would be more circumspect; once, when we were alone, she told me that they had moved from Texas
only because Gramps wasn’t doing particularly well on his job, and because a friend in Seattle had
promised him something better. According to her, the word racism wasn’t even in their vocabulary back
then. “Your grandfather and I just figured we should treat people decently, Bar. That’s all.”
She’s wise that way, my grandmother, suspicious of overwrought sentiments or overblown claims,
content with common sense. Which is why I tend to trust her account of events; it corresponds to what I
know about my grandfather, his tendency to rewrite his history to conform with the image he wished for
And yet I don’t entirely dismiss Gramps’s recollection of events as a convenient bit of puffery, another
act of white revisionism. I can’t, precisely because I know how strongly Gramps believed in his fictions, how
badly he wanted them to be true, even if he didn’t always know how to make them so. After Texas I suspect
that black people became a part of these fictions of his, the narrative that worked its way through his
dreams. The condition of the black race, their pain, their wounds, would in his mind become merged with his
own: the absent father and the hint of scandal, a mother who had gone away, the cruelty of other children,
the realization that he was no fair-haired boy-that he looked like a “wop.” Racism was part of that past, his
instincts told him, part of convention and respectability and status, the smirks and whispers and gossip that
had kept him on the outside looking in.
Those instincts count for something, I think; for many white people of my grandparents’ generation and
background, the instincts ran in an opposite direction, the direction of the mob. And although Gramps’s
relationship with my mother was already strained by the time they reached Hawaii-she would never quite
forgive his instability and often-violent temper and would grow ashamed of his crude, ham-fisted manners-it
was this desire of his to obliterate the past, this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from
whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony. Whether Gramps realized it or not, the sight of his
daughter with a black man offered at some deep unexplored level a window into his own heart.
Not that such self-knowledge, even if accessible, would have made my mother’s engagement any
easier for him to swallow. In fact, how and when the marriage occurred remains a bit murky, a bill of
particulars that I’ve never quite had the courage to explore. There’s no record of a real wedding, a cake, a
ring, a giving away of the bride. No families were in attendance; it’s not even clear that people back in
Kansas were fully informed. Just a small civil ceremony, a justice of the peace. The whole thing seems so
fragile in retrospect, so haphazard. And perhaps that’s how my grandparents intended it to be, a trial that
would pass, just a matter of time, so long as they maintained a stiff upper lip and didn’t do anything drastic.
If so, they miscalculated not only my mother’s quiet determination but also the sway of their own
emotions. First the baby arrived, eight pounds, two ounces, with ten toes and ten fingers and hungry for
food. What in the heck were they supposed to do?
Then time and place began to conspire, transforming potential misfortune into something tolerable,
even a source of pride. Sharing a few beers with my father, Gramps might listen to his new son-in-law
sound off about politics or the economy, about far-off places like Whitehall or the Kremlin, and imagine
himself seeing into the future. He would begin to read the newspapers more carefully, finding early reports
of America’s newfound integrationist creed, and decide in his mind that the world was shrinking, sympathies
changing; that the family from Wichita had in fact moved to the forefront of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Dr.
King’s magnificent dream. How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in
bondage? One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders as the astronauts from
one of the Apollo missions arrived at Hickam Air Force Base after a successful splashdown. I remember the
astronauts, in aviator glasses, as being far away, barely visible through the portal of an isolation chamber.
But Gramps would always swear that one of the astronauts waved just at me and that I waved back. It was
part of the story he told himself. With his black son-in-law and his brown grandson, Gramps had entered the
space age.
And what better port for setting off on this new adventure than Hawaii, the Union’s newest member?
Even now, with the state’s population quadrupled, with Waikiki jammed wall to wall with fast-food
emporiums and pornographic video stores and subdivisions marching relentlessly into every fold of green

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