hill, I can retrace the first steps I took as a child and be stunned by the beauty of the islands. The trembling
blue plane of the Pacific. The moss-covered cliffs and the cool rush of Manoa Falls, with its ginger blossoms
and high canopies filled with the sound of invisible birds. The North Shore’s thunderous waves, crumbling
as if in a slow-motion reel. The shadows off Pali’s peaks; the sultry, scented air.
Hawaii! To my family, newly arrived in 1959, it must have seemed as if the earth itself, weary of
stampeding armies and bitter civilization, had forced up this chain of emerald rock where pioneers from
across the globe could populate the land with children bronzed by the sun. The ugly conquest of the native
Hawaiians through aborted treaties and crippling disease brought by the missionaries; the carving up of rich
volcanic soil by American companies for sugarcane and pineapple plantations; the indenturing system that
kept Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants stooped sunup to sunset in these same fields; the
internment of Japanese-Americans during the war-all this was recent history. And yet, by the time my family
arrived, it had somehow vanished from collective memory, like morning mist that the sun burned away.
There were too many races, with power among them too diffuse, to impose the mainland’s rigid caste
system; and so few blacks that the most ardent segregationist could enjoy a vacation secure in the
knowledge that race mixing in Hawaii had little to do with the established order back home.
Thus the legend was made of Hawaii as the one true melting pot, an experiment in racial harmony. My
grandparents-especially Gramps, who came into contact with a range of people through his furniture
business-threw themselves into the cause of mutual understanding. An old copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to
Win Friends and Influence People still sits on his bookshelf. And growing up, I would hear in him the breezy,
chatty style that he must have decided would help him with his customers. He would whip out pictures of the
family and offer his life story to the nearest stranger; he would pump the hand of the mailman or make off-
color jokes to our waitresses at restaurants.
Such antics used to make me cringe, but people more forgiving than a grandson appreciated his
curiosity, so that while he never gained much influence, he made himself a wide circle of friends. A
Japanese-American man who called himself Freddy and ran a small market near our house would save us
the choicest cuts of aku for sashimi and give me rice candy with edible wrappers. Every so often, the
Hawaiians who worked at my grandfather’s store as deliverymen would invite us over for poi and roast pig,
which Gramps gobbled down heartily (Toot would smoke cigarettes until she could get home and fix herself
some scrambled eggs). Sometimes I would accompany Gramps to Ali’i Park, where he liked to play
checkers with the old Filipino men who smoked cheap cigars and spat up betel-nut juice as if it were blood.
And I still remember how, one early morning, hours before the sun rose, a Portuguese man to whom my
grandfather had given a good deal on a sofa set took us out to spear fish off Kailua Bay. A gas lantern hung
from the cabin on the small fishing boat as I watched the men dive into inky-black waters, the beams of their
flashlights glowing beneath the surface until they emerged with a large fish, iridescent and flopping at the
end of one pole. Gramps told me its Hawaiian name, humu-humu-nuku-nuku-apuaa, which we repeated to
each other the entire way home.
In such surroundings, my racial stock caused my grandparents few problems, and they quickly adopted
the scornful attitude local residents took toward visitors who expressed such hang-ups. Sometimes when
Gramps saw tourists watching me play in the sand, he would come up beside them and whisper, with
appropriate reverence, that I was the great-grandson of King Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first monarch. “I’m
sure that your picture’s in a thousand scrapbooks, Bar,” he liked to tell me with a grin, “from Idaho to
Maine.” That particular story is ambiguous, I think; I see in it a strategy to avoid hard issues. And yet
Gramps would just as readily tell another story, the one about the tourist who saw me swimming one day
and, not knowing who she was talking to, commented that “swimming must just come naturally to these
Hawaiians.” To which he responded that that would be hard to figure, since “that boy happens to be my
grandson, his mother is from Kansas, his father is from the interior of Kenya, and there isn’t an ocean for
miles in either damn place.” For my grandfather, race wasn’t something you really needed to worry about
anymore; if ignorance still held fast in certain locales, it was safe to assume that the rest of the world would
be catching up soon.
In the end I suppose that’s what all the stories of my father were really about. They said less about the
man himself than about the changes that had taken place in the people around him, the halting process by
which my grandparents’ racial attitudes had changed. The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the
nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy’s election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the
seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where