Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 7

point, to capture the full effect. “‘Relax, Anna,’ he said. ‘I only wanted to teach the chap a lesson about the
proper care of other people’s property!’ ”
Gramps would start to laugh again until he started to cough, and Toot would mutter under her breath
that she supposed it was a good thing that my father had realized that dropping the pipe had just been an
accident because who knows what might have happened otherwise, and my mother would roll her eyes at
me and say they were exaggerating.
“Your father can be a bit domineering,” my mother would admit with a hint of a smile. “But it’s just that
he is basically a very honest person. That makes him uncompromising sometimes.”
She preferred a gentler portrait of my father. She would tell the story of when he arrived to accept his
Phi Beta Kappa key in his favorite outfit-jeans and an old knit shirt with a leopard-print pattern. “Nobody told
him it was this big honor, so he walked in and found everyone standing around this elegant room dressed in
tuxedos. The only time I ever saw him embarrassed.”
And Gramps, suddenly thoughtful, would start nodding to himself “It’s a fact, Bar,” he would say. “Your
dad could handle just about any situation, and that made everybody like him. Remember the time he had to
sing at the International Music Festival? He’d agreed to sing some African songs, but when he arrived it
turned out to be this big to-do, and the woman who performed just before him was a semi-professional
singer, a Hawaiian gal with a full band to back her up. Anyone else would have stopped right there, you
know, and explained that there had been a mistake. But not Barack. He got up and started singing in front
of this big crowd-which is no easy feat, let me tell you-and he wasn’t great, but he was so sure of himself
that before you knew it he was getting as much applause as anybody.”
My grandfather would shake his head and get out of his chair to flip on the TV set. “Now there’s
something you can learn from your dad,” he would tell me. “Confidence. The secret to a man’s success.”

That’s how all the stories went-compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one
evening, then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory. Like the few photographs
of my father that remained in the house, old black-and-white studio prints that I might run across while
rummaging through the closets in search of Christmas ornaments or an old snorkle set. At the point where
my own memories begin, my mother had already begun a courtship with the man who would become her
second husband, and I sensed without explanation why the photographs had to be stored away. But once in
a while, sitting on the floor with my mother, the smell of dust and mothballs rising from the crumbling album,
I would stare at my father’s likeness-the dark laughing face, the prominent forehead and thick glasses that
made him appear older than his years-and listen as the events of his life tumbled into a single narrative.
He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a
place called Alego. The village was poor, but his father-my other grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama-
had been a prominent farmer, an elder of the tribe, a medicine man with healing powers. My father grew up
herding his father’s goats and attending the local school, set up by the British colonial administration, where
he had shown great promise. He eventually won a scholarship to study in Nairobi; and then, on the eve of
Kenyan independence, he had been selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a
university in the United States, joining the first large wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western
technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa.
In 1959, at the age of twenty-three, he arrived at the University of Hawaii as that institution’s first
African student. He studied econometrics, worked with unsurpassed concentration, and graduated in three
years at the top of his class. His friends were legion, and he helped organize the International Students
Association, of which he became the first president. In a Russian language course, he met an awkward, shy
American girl, only eighteen, and they fell in love. The girl’s parents, wary at first, were won over by his
charm and intellect; the young couple married, and she bore them a son, to whom he bequeathed his name.
He won another scholarship-this time to pursue his Ph.D. at Harvard-but not the money to take his new
family with him. A separation occurred, and he returned to Africa to fulfill his promise to the continent. The
mother and child stayed behind, but the bond of love survived the distances….
There the album would close, and I would wander off content, swaddled in a tale that placed me in the
center of a vast and orderly universe. Even in the abridged version that my mother and grandparents
offered, there were many things I didn’t understand. But I rarely asked for the details that might resolve the
meaning of “Ph.D.” or “colonialism,” or locate Alego on a map. Instead, the path of my father’s life occupied
the same terrain as a book my mother once bought for me, a book called Origins, a collection of creation
tales from around the world, stories of Genesis and the tree where man was born, Prometheus and the gift

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