Nested in the soft, forgiving bosom of America’s consumer culture, I felt safe; it was as if I had dropped into a long hibernation. I wonder sometimes how long I might have stayed there had it not been for the telegram Toot found in the mailbox one day.
“Your father’s coming to see you,” she said. “Next month. Two weeks after your mother gets here.
They’ll both stay through New Year’s.”
She carefully folded the paper and slipped it into a drawer in the kitchen. Both she and Gramps fell silent, the way I imagine people react when the doctor tells them they have a serious, but curable, illness.
For a moment the air was sucked out of the room, and we stood suspended, alone with our thoughts. “Well,” Toot said finally, “I suppose we better start looking for a place where he can stay.” Gramps took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“Should be one hell of a Christmas.”
Over lunch, I explained to a group of boys that my father was a prince.
“My grandfather, see, he’s a chief. It’s sort of like the king of the tribe, you know…like the Indians. So that makes my father a prince. He’ll take over when my grandfather dies.”
“What about after that?” one of my friends asked as we emptied our trays into the trash bin. “I mean, will you go back and be a prince?”
“Well…if I want to, I could. It’s sort of complicated, see, ’cause the tribe is full of warriors. Like Obama…that means ‘Burning Spear.’ The men in our tribe all want to be chief, so my father has to settle these feuds before I can come.”
As the words tumbled out of my mouth, and I felt the boys readjust to me, more curious and familiar as we bumped into each other in the line back to class, a part of me really began to believe the story. But another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie, something I’d constructed from the scraps of information I’d picked up from my mother. After a week of my father in the flesh, I had decided that I preferred his more distant image, an image I could alter on a whim-or ignore when convenient. If my father hadn’t exactly disappointed me, he remained something unknown, something volatile and vaguely threatening.
My mother had sensed my apprehension in the days building up to his arrival-I suppose it mirrored her own-and so, in between her efforts to prepare the apartment we’d sublet for him, she would try to assure me that the reunion would go smoothly. She had maintained a correspondence with him throughout the time we had been in Indonesia, she explained, and he knew all about me. Like her, my father had remarried, and I now had five brothers and one sister living in Kenya. He had been in a bad car accident, and this trip was part of his recuperation after a long stay in the hospital.
“You two will become great friends,” she decided.
Along with news of my father, she began to stuff me with information about Kenya and its history-it was from a book about Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, that I’d pilfered the name Burning Spear. But nothing my mother told me could relieve my doubts, and I retained little of the information she offered. Only once did she really spark my interest, when she told me that my father’s tribe, the Luo, were a Nilotic people who had migrated to Kenya from their original home along the banks of the world’s greatest river. This seemed promising; Gramps still kept a painting he had once done, a replica of lean, bronze Egyptians on a golden chariot drawn by alabaster steeds. I had visions of ancient Egypt, the great kingdoms I had read about, pyramids and pharaohs, Nefertiti and Cleopatra.
One Saturday I went to the public library near our apartment and, with the help of a raspy-voiced old librarian who appreciated my seriousness, I found a book on East Africa. Only there was no mention of pyramids. In fact, the Luos merited only a short paragraph. Nilote, it turned out, described a number of nomadic tribes that had originated in the Sudan along the White Nile, far south of the Egyptian empires. The Luo raised cattle and lived in mud huts and ate corn meal and yams and something called millet. Their traditional costume was a leather thong across the crotch. I left the book open-faced on a table and walked out without thanking the librarian.
The big day finally arrived, and Miss Hefty let me out early from class, wishing me luck. I left the school building feeling like a condemned man. My legs were heavy, and with each approaching step toward my grandparents’ apartment, the thump in my chest grew louder. When I entered the elevator, I stood without pressing the button. The door closed, then reopened, and an older Filipino man who lived on the fourth floor got on.
“Your grandfather says your father is coming to visit you today,” the man said cheerfully. “You must be very happy.”
When-after standing in front of the door and looking out across the Honolulu skyline at a distant ship, and then squinting at the sky to watch sparrows spiral through the air-I could think of no possible means of escape, I rang the doorbell. Toot opened the door.
“There he is! Come on, Bar…come meet your father.”
And there, in the unlit hallway, I saw him, a tall, dark figure who walked with a slight limp. He crouched down and put his arms around me, and I let my arms hang at my sides. Behind him stood my mother, her chin trembling as usual.
“Well, Barry,” my father said. “It is a good thing to see you after so long. Very good.” He led me by the hand into the living room, and we all sat down.
“So, Barry, your grandmama has told me that you are doing very well in school.” I shrugged.
“He’s feeling a little shy, I think,” Toot offered. She smiled and rubbed my head.
“Well,” my father said, “you have no reason to be shy about doing well. Have I told you that your brothers and sister have also excelled in their schooling? It’s in the blood, I think,” he said with a laugh.
I watched him carefully as the adults began to talk. He was much thinner than I had expected, the bones of his knees cutting the legs of his trousers in sharp angles; I couldn’t imagine him lifting anyone off the ground. Beside him, a cane with a blunt ivory head leaned against the wall. He wore a blue blazer, and a white shirt, and a scarlet ascot. His horn-rimmed glasses reflected the light of the lamp so that I couldn’t see his eyes very well, but when he took the glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose, I saw that they were slightly yellow, the eyes of someone who’s had malaria more than once. There was a fragility about his frame, I thought, a caution when he lit a cigarette or reached for his beer. After an hour or so, my mother suggested that he looked tired and should take a nap, and he agreed. He gathered up his travel bag, then stopped in mid-stride and began to fish around in it, until he finally pulled out three wooden figurines-a lion, an elephant, and an ebony man in tribal dress beating a drum-and handed them to me. “Say thank you, Bar,” my mother said.
“Thank you,” I muttered.
My father and I both looked down at the carvings, lifeless in my hands. He touched my shoulder.
“They are only small things,” he said softly. Then he nodded to Gramps, and together they gathered up his luggage and went downstairs to the other apartment.
A month. That’s how long we would have together, the five of us in my grandparents’ living room most evenings, during the day on drives around the island or on short walks past the private landmarks of a family: the lot where my father’s apartment had once stood; the remodeled hospital where I had been born; my grandparents’ first house in Hawaii, before the one on University Avenue, a house I had never known. There was so much to tell in that single month, so much explaining to do; and yet when I reach back into my memory for the words of my father, the small interactions or conversations we might have had, they seem irretrievably lost. Perhaps they’re imprinted too deeply, his voice the seed of all sorts of tangled arguments that I carry on with myself, as impenetrable now as the pattern of my genes, so that all I can perceive is the worn-out shell. My wife offers a simpler explanation-that boys and their fathers don’t always have much to say to each other unless and until they trust-and this may come closer to the mark, for I often felt mute before him, and he never pushed me to speak. I’m left with mostly images that appear and die off in my mind like distant sounds: his head thrown back in laughter at one of Gramps’s jokes as my mother and I hang Christmas ornaments; his grip on my shoulder as he introduces me to one of his old friends from college; the narrowing of his eyes, the stroking of his sparse goatee, as he reads his important books.
Images, and his effect on other people. For whenever he spoke-his one leg draped over the other, his large hands outstretched to direct or deflect attention, his voice deep and sure, cajoling and laughing-I would see a sudden change take place in the family. Gramps became more vigorous and thoughtful, my mother more bashful; even Toot, smoked out of the foxhole of her bedroom, would start sparring with him about politics or finance, stabbing the air with her blue-veined hands to make a point. It was as if his presence had summoned the spirit of earlier times and allowed each of them to reprise his or her old role; as if Dr. King had never been shot, and the Kennedys continued to beckon the nation, and war and riot and famine were nothing more than temporary setbacks, and there was nothing to fear but fear itself.
It fascinated me, this strange power of his, and for the first time I began to think of my father as something real and immediate, perhaps even permanent. After a few weeks, though, I could feel the tension around me beginning to build. Gramps complained that my father was sitting in his chair. Toot muttered, while doing the dishes, that she wasn’t anybody’s servant. My mother’s mouth pinched, her eyes avoiding her parents, as we ate dinner. One evening, I turned on the television to watch a cartoon special-How the Grinch Stole Christmas-and the whispers broke into shouts.
“Barry, you have watched enough television tonight,” my father said. “Go in your room and study now, and let the adults talk.”
Toot stood up and turned off the TV. “Why don’t you turn the show on in the bedroom, Bar.”
“No, Madelyn,” my father said, “that’s not what I mean. He has been watching that machine constantly, and now it is time for him to study.”
My mother tried to explain that it was almost Christmas vacation, that the cartoon was a Christmas favorite, that I had been looking forward to it all week. “It won’t last long.”
“Anna, this is nonsense. If the boy has done his work for tomorrow, he can begin on his next day’s assignments. Or the assignments he will have when he returns from the holidays.” He turned to me. “I tell you, Barry, you do not work as hard as you should. Go now, before I get angry at you.”
I went to my room and slammed the door, listening as the voices outside grew louder, Gramps insisting that this was his house, Toot saying that my father had no right to come in and bully everyone, including me, after being gone all this time. I heard my father say that they were spoiling me, that I needed a firm hand, and I listened to my mother tell her parents that nothing ever changed with them. We all stood accused, and even after my father left and Toot came in to say that I could watch the last five minutes of my show, I felt as if something had cracked open between all of us, goblins rushing out of some old, sealed-off lair. Watching the green Grinch on the television screen, intent on ruining Christmas, eventually transformed by the faith of the doe-eyed creatures who inhabited Whoville, I saw it for what it was: a lie. I began to count the days until my father would leave and things would return to normal.
The next day, Toot sent me down to the apartment where my father was staying to see if he had any laundry to wash. I knocked, and my father opened the door, shirtless. Inside, I saw my mother ironing some of his clothes. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and her eyes were soft and dark, as if she’d been crying. My father asked me to sit down beside him on the bed, but I told him that Toot needed me to help her, and left after relaying the message. Back upstairs, I had begun cleaning my room when my mother came in.
“You shouldn’t be mad at your father, Bar. He loves you very much. He’s just a little stubborn sometimes.”
“Okay,” I said without looking up. I could feel her eyes follow me around the room until she finally let out a slow breath and went to the door.
“I know all this stuff is confusing for you,” she said. “For me, too. Just try to remember what I said, okay?” She put her hand on the doorknob. “Do you want me to close the door?”
I nodded, but she had been gone for only a minute when she stuck her head back into the room.
“By the way, I forgot to tell you that Miss Hefty has invited your father to come to school on Thursday.
She wants him to speak to the class.”
I couldn’t imagine worse news. I spent that night and all of the next day trying to suppress thoughts of the inevitable: the faces of my classmates when they heard about mud huts, all my lies exposed, the painful jokes afterward. Each time I remembered, my body squirmed as if it had received a jolt to the nerves.
I was still trying to figure out how I’d explain myself when my father walked into our class the next day. Miss Hefty welcomed him eagerly, and as I took my seat I heard several children ask each other what was going on. I became more desperate when our math teacher, a big, no-nonsense Hawaiian named Mr.
Eldredge, came into the room, followed by thirty confused children from his homeroom next door.
“We have a special treat for you today,” Miss Hefty began. “Barry Obama’s father is here, and he’s come all the way from Kenya, in Africa, to tell us about his country.”
The other kids looked at me as my father stood up, and I held my head stiffly, trying to focus on a vacant point on the blackboard behind him. He had been speaking for some time before I could finally bring myself back to the moment. He was leaning against Miss Hefty’s thick oak desk and describing the deep gash in the earth where mankind had first appeared. He spoke of the wild animals that still roamed the plains, the tribes that still required a young boy to kill a lion to prove his manhood. He spoke of the customs of the Luo, how elders received the utmost respect and made laws for all to follow under great-trunked trees. And he told us of Kenya’s struggle to be free, how the British had wanted to stay and unjustly rule the people, just as they had in America; how many had been enslaved only because of the color of their skin, just as they had in America; but that Kenyans, like all of us in the room, longed to be free and develop themselves through hard work and sacrifice.
When he finished, Miss Hefty was absolutely beaming with pride. All my classmates applauded heartily, and a few struck up the courage to ask questions, each of which my father appeared to consider carefully before answering. The bell rang for lunch, and Mr. Eldredge came up to me.
“You’ve got a pretty impressive father.”
The ruddy-faced boy who had asked about cannibalism said, “Your dad is pretty cool.”
And off to one side, I saw Coretta watch my father say good-bye to some of the children. She seemed too intent to smile; her face showed only a look of simple satisfaction.
Two weeks later he was gone. In that time, we stand together in front of the Christmas tree and pose for pictures, the only ones I have of us together, me holding an orange basketball, his gift to me, him showing off the tie I’ve bought him (“Ah, people will know that I am very important wearing such a tie”). At a Dave Brubeck concert, I struggle to sit quietly in the dark auditorium beside him, unable to follow the spare equations of sound that the performers make, careful to clap whenever he claps. For brief spells in the day I will lie beside him, the two of us alone in the apartment sublet from a retired old woman whose name I forget, the place full of quilts and doilies and knitted seat covers, and I read my book while he reads his. He remains opaque to me, a present mass; when I mimic his gestures or turns of phrase, I know neither their origins nor their consequences, can’t see how they play out over time. But I grow accustomed to his company.
The day of his departure, as my mother and I helped him pack his bags, he unearthed two records, forty-fives, in dull brown dust jackets.
“Barry! Look here-I forgot that I had brought these for you. The sounds of your continent.”
It took him a while to puzzle out my grandparents’ old stereo, but finally the disk began to turn, and he gingerly placed the needle on the groove. A tinny guitar lick opened, then the sharp horns, the thump of drums, then the guitar again, and then the voices, clean and joyful as they rode up the back beat, urging us on.
“Come, Barry,” my father said. “You will learn from the master.” And suddenly his slender body was swaying back and forth, the lush sound was rising, his arms were swinging as they cast an invisible net, his feet wove over the floor in off-beats, his bad leg stiff but his rump high, his head back, his hips moving in a tight circle. The rhythm quickened, the horns sounded, and his eyes closed to follow his pleasure, and then one eye opened to peek down at me and his solemn face spread into a silly grin, and my mother smiled, and my grandparents walked in to see what all the commotion was about. I took my first tentative steps with my eyes closed, down, up, my arms swinging, the voices lifting. And I hear him still: As I follow my father into the sound, he lets out a quick shout, bright and high, a shout that leaves much behind and reaches out for more, a shout that cries for laughter.
M AN, I’M NOT GOING to any more of these bullshit Punahou parties.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said the last time.”
Ray and I sat down at a table and unwrapped our hamburgers. He was two years older than me, a senior who, as a result of his father’s army transfer, had arrived from Los Angeles the previous year. Despite the difference in age, we’d fallen into an easy friendship, due in no small part to the fact that together we made up almost half of Punahou’s black high school population. I enjoyed his company; he had a warmth and brash humor that made up for his constant references to a former L.A. life-the retinue of women who supposedly still called him long-distance every night, his past football exploits, the celebrities he knew. Most of the things he told me I tended to discount, but not everything; it was true, for example, that he was one of the fastest sprinters in the islands, Olympic caliber some said, this despite an improbably large stomach that quivered under his sweat-soaked jersey whenever he ran and left coaches and opposing teams shaking their heads in disbelief. Through Ray I would find out about the black parties that were happening at the university or out on the army bases, counting on him to ease my passage through unfamiliar terrain. In return, I gave him a sounding board for his frustrations.
“I mean it this time,” he was saying to me now. “These girls are A-1, USDA-certified racists. All of ’em.
White girls. Asian girls-shoot, these Asians worse than the whites. Think we got a disease or something.”
“Maybe they’re looking at that big butt of yours. Man, I thought you were in training.”
“Get your hands out of my fries. You ain’t my bitch, nigger…buy your own damn fries. Now what was I talking about?”
“Just ’cause a girl don’t go out with you doesn’t make her racist.”
“Don’t be thick, all right? I’m not just talking about one time. Look, I ask Monica out, she says no. I say okay…your shit’s not so hot anyway.” Ray stopped to check my reaction, then smiled. “All right, maybe I don’t actually say all that. I just tell her okay, Monica, you know, we still tight. Next thing I know, she’s hooked up with Steve ‘No Neck’ Yamaguchi, the two of ’em all holding hands and shit, like a couple of lovebirds. So fine-I figure there’re more fish in the sea. I go ask Pamela out. She tells me she ain’t going to the dance. I say cool. Get to the dance, guess who’s standing there, got her arms around Rick Cook. ‘Hi, Ray,’ she says, like she don’t know what’s going down. Rick Cook! Now you know that guy ain’t shit. Sorryassed motherfucker got nothing on me, right? Nothing.”
He stuffed a handful of fries into his mouth. “It ain’t just me, by the way. I don’t see you doing any better in the booty department.”
Because I’m shy, I thought to myself; but I would never admit that to him. Ray pressed the advantage.
“So what happens when we go out to a party with some sisters, huh? What happens? I tell you what happens. Blam! They on us like there’s no tomorrow. High school chicks, university chicks-it don’t matter. They acting sweet, all smiles. ‘Sure you can have my number, baby.’ Bet.”
“Well what? Listen, why don’t you get more playing time on the basketball team, huh? At least two guys ahead of you ain’t nothing, and you know it, and they know it. I seen you tear ’em up on the playground, no contest. Why wasn’t I starting on the football squad this season, no matter how many passes the other guy dropped? Tell me we wouldn’t be treated different if we was white. Or Japanese. Or Hawaiian. Or fucking Eskimo.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“So what are you saying?”
“All right, here’s what I’m saying. I’m saying, yeah, it’s harder to get dates because there aren’t any black girls around here. But that don’t make the girls that are here all racist. Maybe they just want somebody that looks like their daddy, or their brother, or whatever, and we ain’t it. I’m saying yeah, I might not get the breaks on the team that some guys get, but they play like white boys do, and that’s the style the coach likes to play, and they’re winning the way they play. I don’t play that way.
“As for your greasy-mouthed self,” I added, reaching for the last of his fries, “I’m saying the coaches may not like you ’cause you’re a smart-assed black man, but it might help if you stopped eating all them fries you eat, making you look six months pregnant. That’s what I’m saying.”
“Man, I don’t know why you making excuses for these folks.” Ray got up and crumpled his trash into a tight ball. “Let’s get out of here. Your shit’s getting way too complicated for me.”
Ray was right; things had gotten complicated. It had been five years since my father’s visit, and on the surface, at least, it had been a placid time marked by the usual rites and rituals that America expects from its children-marginal report cards and calls to the principal’s office, part-time jobs at the burger chain, acne and driving tests and turbulent desire. I’d made my share of friends at school, gone on the occasional awkward date; and if I sometimes puzzled over the mysterious realignments of status that took place among my classmates, as some rose and others fell depending on the whims of their bodies or the make of their cars, I took comfort in the knowledge that my own position had steadily improved. Rarely did I meet kids whose families had less than mine and might remind me of good fortune.
My mother did her best to remind me. She had separated from Lolo and returned to Hawaii to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology shortly after my own arrival. For three years I lived with her and Maya in a small apartment a block away from Punahou, my mother’s student grants supporting the three of us. Sometimes, when I brought friends home after school, my mother would overhear them remark about the lack of food in the fridge or the less-than-perfect housekeeping, and she would pull me aside and let me know that she was a single mother going to school again and raising two kids, so that baking cookies wasn’t
exactly at the top of her priority list, and while she appreciated the fine education I was receiving at Punahou, she wasn’t planning on putting up with any snotty attitudes from me or anyone else, was that understood?
It was understood. Despite my frequent-and sometimes sullen-claims of independence, the two of us remained close, and I did my best to help her out where I could, shopping for groceries, doing the laundry, looking after the knowing, dark-eyed child that my sister had become. But when my mother was ready to return to Indonesia to do her field work, and suggested that I go back with her and Maya to attend the international school there, I immediately said no. I doubted what Indonesia now had to offer and wearied of being new all over again. More than that, I’d arrived at an unspoken pact with my grandparents: I could live with them and they’d leave me alone so long as I kept my trouble out of sight. The arrangement suited my purpose, a purpose that I could barely articulate to myself, much less to them. Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.
My father’s letters provided few clues. They would arrive sporadically, on a single blue page with gummed-down flaps that obscured any writing at the margins. He would report that everyone was fine, commend me on my progress in school, and insist that my mother, Maya, and I were all welcome to take our rightful place beside him whenever we so desired. From time to time he would include advice, usually in the form of aphorisms I didn’t quite understand (“Like water finding its level, you will arrive at a career that suits you”). I would respond promptly on a wide-ruled page, and his letters would find their way into the closet, next to my mother’s pictures of him.
Gramps had a number of black male friends, mostly poker and bridge partners, and before I got old enough not to care about hurting his feelings, I would let him drag me along to some of their games. They were old, neatly dressed men with hoarse voices and clothes that smelled of cigars, the kind of men for whom everything has its place and who figure they’ve seen enough not to have to waste a lot of time talking about it. Whenever they saw me they would give me a jovial slap on the back and ask how my mother was doing; but once it was time to play, they wouldn’t say another word except to complain to their partner about a bid.
There was one exception, a poet named Frank who lived in a dilapidated house in a run-down section of Waikiki. He had enjoyed some modest notoriety once, was a contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during his years in Chicago-Gramps once showed me some of his work anthologized in a book of black poetry. But by the time I met Frank he must have been pushing eighty, with a big, dewlapped face and an ill-kempt gray Afro that made him look like an old, shaggy-maned lion. He would read us his poetry whenever we stopped by his house, sharing whiskey with Gramps out of an emptied jelly jar. As the night wore on, the two of them would solicit my help in composing dirty limericks. Eventually, the conversation would turn to laments about women.
“They’ll drive you to drink, boy,” Frank would tell me soberly. “And if you let ’em, they’ll drive you into your grave.”
I was intrigued by old Frank, with his books and whiskey breath and the hint of hard-earned knowledge behind the hooded eyes. The visits to his house always left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable, though, as if I were witnessing some complicated, unspoken transaction between the two men, a transaction I couldn’t fully understand. The same thing I felt whenever Gramps took me downtown to one of his favorite bars, in Honolulu’s red-light district.
“Don’t tell your grandmother,” he would say with a wink, and we’d walk past hard-faced, soft-bodied streetwalkers into a small, dark bar with a jukebox and a couple of pool tables. Nobody seemed to mind that Gramps was the only white man in the place, or that I was the only eleven- or twelve-year-old. Some of the men leaning across the bar would wave at us, and the bartender, a big, light-skinned woman with bare, fleshy arms, would bring a Scotch for Gramps and a Coke for me. If nobody else was playing at the tables, Gramps would spot me a few balls and teach me the game, but usually I would sit at the bar, my legs dangling from the high stool, blowing bubbles into my drink and looking at the pornographic art on the wallsthe phosphorescent women on animal skins, the Disney characters in compromising positions. If he was around, a man named Rodney with a wide-brimmed hat would stop by to say hello. “How’s school coming, captain?”
“You getting them A’s, ain’t you?”
“Some.”“That’s good. Sally, buy my man here another Coke,” Rodney would say, peeling a twenty off a thick stack he had pulled from his pocket before he fell back into the shadows.