Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 15

Our audience over, my mother sat me down in the library while she went off to do some work. I finished
my comic books and the homework my mother had made me bring before climbing out of my chair to
browse through the stacks. Most of the books held little interest for a nine-year-old boy-World Bank reports,
geological surveys, five-year development plans. But in one corner I found a collection of Life magazines
neatly displayed in clear plastic binders. I thumbed through the glossy advertisements-Goodyear Tires and
Dodge Fever, Zenith TV (“Why not the best?”) and Campbell’s Soup (“Mm-mm good!”), men in white
turtlenecks pouring Seagram’s over ice as women in red miniskirts looked on admiringly-and felt vaguely
reassured. When I came upon a news photograph, I tried to guess the subject of the story before reading
the caption. The photograph of French children dashing over cobblestoned streets: that was a happy scene,
a game of hide-and-go-seek after a day of schoolbooks and chores; their laughter spoke of freedom. The
photograph of a Japanese woman cradling a young, naked girl in a shallow tub: that was sad; the girl was
sick, her legs twisted, her head fallen back against the mother’s breast, the mother’s face tight with grief,
perhaps she blamed herself….
Eventually I came across a photograph of an older man in dark glasses and a raincoat walking down
an empty road. I couldn’t guess what this picture was about; there seemed nothing unusual about the
subject. On the next page was another photograph, this one a close-up of the same man’s hands. They had
a strange, unnatural pallor, as if blood had been drawn from the flesh. Turning back to the first picture, I now
saw that the man’s crinkly hair, his heavy lips and broad, fleshy nose, all had this same uneven, ghostly
He must be terribly sick, I thought. A radiation victim, maybe, or an albino-I had seen one of those on
the street a few days before, and my mother had explained about such things. Except when I read the
words that went with the picture, that wasn’t it at all. The man had received a chemical treatment, the article
explained, to lighten his complexion. He had paid for it with his own money. He expressed some regret
about trying to pass himself off as a white man, was sorry about how badly things had turned out. But the
results were irreversible. There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America
who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white
I felt my face and neck get hot. My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page. Did my
mother know about this? What about her boss-why was he so calm, reading through his reports a few feet
down the hall? I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show them what I had learned, to demand
some explanation or assurance. But something held me back. As in a dream, I had no voice for my
newfound fear. By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines
were back in their proper place. The room, the air, was quiet as before.

We had lived in Indonesia for over three years by that time, the result of my mother’s marriage to an
Indonesian named Lolo, another student she had met at the University of Hawaii. His name meant “crazy” in
Hawaiian, which tickled Gramps to no end, but the meaning didn’t suit the man, for Lolo possessed the
good manners and easy grace of his people. He was short and brown, handsome, with thick black hair and
features that could have as easily been Mexican or Samoan as Indonesian; his tennis game was good, his
smile uncommonly even, and his temperament imperturbable. For two years, from the time I was four until I
was six, he endured endless hours of chess with Gramps and long wrestling sessions with me. When my
mother sat me down one day to tell me that Lolo had proposed and wanted us to move with him to a
faraway place, I wasn’t surprised and expressed no objections. I did ask her if she loved him-I had been
around long enough to know such things were important. My mother’s chin trembled, as it still does when
she’s fighting back tears, and she pulled me into a long hug that made me feel very brave, although I wasn’t
sure why.
Lolo left Hawaii quite suddenly after that, and my mother and I spent months in preparation-passports,
visas, plane tickets, hotel reservations, an endless series of shots. While we packed, my grandfather pulled
out an atlas and ticked off the names in Indonesia’s island chain: Java, Borneo, Sumatra, Bali. He
remembered some of the names, he said, from reading Joseph Conrad as a boy. The Spice Islands, they
were called back then, enchanted names, shrouded in mystery. “Says here they still got tigers over there,”
he said. “And orangutangs.” He looked up from the book and his eyes widened. “Says here they even got
headhunters!” Meanwhile, Toot called the State Department to find out if the country was stable. Whoever
she spoke to there informed her that the situation was under control. Still, she insisted that we pack several
trunks full of foodstuffs: Tang, powdered milk, cans of sardines. “You never know what these people will

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