“Kind of corny, huh,” Maya said as my mother went to the bathroom. “What?”
“The movie. It was kind of corny. Just Mom’s style.”
For the next several days, I tried to avoid situations where my mother and I might be forced to talk. Then, a few days before they were about to leave, I stopped by while Maya was taking a nap. My mother noticed a letter addressed to my father in my hand. I asked her if she had an international postage stamp.
“You guys arranging a visit?”
I told her briefly of my plans as she dug out a stamp from the bottom of her purse. Actually she came up with two stamps; they had melted together in the summer heat. She gave me a sheepish grin and put water on to boil so we could steam them apart.
“Well, I think it’ll be wonderful for you two to finally get to know each other,” she said from the kitchen.
“He was probably a bit tough for a ten-year-old to take, but now that you’re older…”
I shrugged. “Who knows?”
She stuck her head out of the kitchen. “I hope you don’t feel resentful towards him.” “Why would I?”
“I don’t know.” She returned to the living room and we sat there for a while, listening to the sounds of traffic below. The teapot whistled, and I stamped my envelope. Then, without any prompting, my mother began to retell an old story, in a distant voice, as if she were telling it to herself.
“It wasn’t your father’s fault that he left, you know. I divorced him. When the two of us got married, your grandparents weren’t happy with the idea. But they said okay-they probably couldn’t have stopped us anyway, and they eventually came around to the idea that it was the right thing to do. Then Barack’s fatheryour grandfather Hussein-wrote Gramps this long, nasty letter saying that he didn’t approve of the marriage. He didn’t want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman, he said. Well, you can imagine how Gramps reacted to that. And then there was a problem with your father’s first wife…he had told me they were separated, but it was a village wedding, so there was no legal document that could show a divorce….”
Her chin had begun to tremble, and she bit down on her lip, steadying herself. She said, “Your father wrote back, saying he was going ahead with it. Then you were born, and we agreed that the three of us would return to Kenya after he finished his studies. But your grandfather Hussein was still writing to your father, threatening to have his student visa revoked. By this time Toot had become hysterical-she had read about the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya a few years earlier, which the Western press really played up-and she was sure that I would have my head chopped off and you would be taken away.
“Even then, it might have worked out. When your father graduated from UH, he received two scholarship offers. One was to the New School, here in New York. The other one was to Harvard. The New School agreed to pay for everything-room and board, a job on campus, enough to support all three of us. Harvard just agreed to pay tuition. But Barack was such a stubborn bastard, he had to go to Harvard. How can I refuse the best education? he told me. That’s all he could think about, proving that he was the best….”
She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that. Later, when he came to visit us in Hawaii that time, he wanted us to come live with him. But I was still married to Lolo then, and his third wife had just left him, and I just didn’t think…”
She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later-an hour!-he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’ ”
My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up-their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was something that I suspect most Americans will never hear from the lips of those of another race, and so cannot be expected to believe might exist between black and white: the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.
After I spoke to my mother, I phoned my father’s brother in Boston and we had a brief, awkward conversation. I didn’t go to the funeral, so I wrote my father’s family in Nairobi a letter expressing my condolences. I asked them to write back, and wondered how they were faring. But I felt no pain, only the vague sense of an opportunity lost, and I saw no reason to pretend otherwise. My plans to travel to Kenya were placed on indefinite hold.
Another year would pass before I would meet him one night, in a cold cell, in a chamber of my dreams. I dreamed I was traveling by bus with friends whose names I’ve forgotten, men and women with different journeys to make. We rolled across deep fields of grass and hills that bucked against an orange sky.
An old white man, heavyset, sat beside me, and I read in a book that he held in his hands that our treatment of the old tested our souls. He told me he was a union man, off to meet his daughter.
We stopped at an old hotel, a grand hotel with chandeliers. There was a piano in the lobby and a lounge filled with cushions of soft satin, and I took one of the cushions and placed it on the piano bench, and the old white man sat down, retarded now, or senile, and when I looked again he was a small black girl, her feet barely reaching the pedals. She smiled and started to play, and then a waitress came in, a young Hispanic woman, and the waitress frowned at us, but under the frown was a laugh, and she raised a finger to her lips as if we were sharing a secret.
I dozed for the rest of the trip, and woke up to find everyone gone. The bus came to a halt, and I got off and sat down on the curb. Inside a building made of rough stone, a lawyer spoke to a judge. The judge suggested that perhaps my father had spent enough time in his jail, that perhaps it was time to release him. But the lawyer objected vigorously, citing precedent and various statutes, the need to maintain order. The judge shrugged and got up from the bench.
I stood before the cell, opened the padlock, and set it carefully on a window ledge. My father was before me, with only a cloth wrapped around his waist; he was very thin, with his large head and slender frame, his hairless arms and chest. He looked pale, his black eyes luminous against an ashen face, but he smiled and gestured for the tall, mute guard to please stand aside.
“Look at you,” he said. “So tall-and so thin. Gray hairs, even!” And I saw that it was true, and I walked up to him and we embraced. I began to weep, and felt ashamed, but could not stop myself.
“Barack. I always wanted to tell you how much I love you,” he said. He seemed small in my arms now, the size of a boy.
He sat at the corner of his cot and set his head on his clasped hands and stared away from me, into the wall. An implacable sadness spread across his face. I tried to joke with him; I told him that if I was thin it was only because I took after him. But he couldn’t be budged, and when I whispered to him that we might leave together, he shook his head and told me it would be best if I left.
I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him-and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son. I turned on the light and dug out his old letters. I remembered his only visit-the basketball he had given me and how he had taught me to dance. And I realized, perhaps for the first time, how even in his absence his strong image had given me some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to, or disappoint.
I stepped to the window and looked outside, listening to the first sounds of morning-the growl of the garbage trucks, footsteps in the apartment next door. I needed to search for him, I thought to myself, and talk with him again.
I N 1983, I DECIDED to become a community organizer.
There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.
That’s what I’ll do, I’ll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change.
And my friends, black and white, would heartily commend me for my ideals before heading toward the post office to mail in their graduate school applications.
I couldn’t really blame them for being skeptical. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can construct a certain logic to my decision, show how becoming an organizer was a part of that larger narrative, starting with my father and his father before him, my mother and her parents, my memories of Indonesia with its beggars and farmers and the loss of Lolo to power, on through Ray and Frank, Marcus and Regina; my move to New York; my father’s death. I can see that my choices were never truly mine alone-and that that is how it should be, that to assert otherwise is to chase after a sorry sort of freedom.
But such recognition came only later. At the time, about to graduate from college, I was operating mainly on impulse, like a salmon swimming blindly upstream toward the site of his own conception. In classes and seminars, I would dress up these impulses in the slogans and theories that I’d discovered in books, thinking-falsely-that the slogans meant something, that they somehow made what I felt more amenable to proof. But at night, lying in bed, I would let the slogans drift away, to be replaced with a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known.