I T WAS AN OLD BUILDING, in one of the South Side’s older neighborhoods, still sound but badly in need of tuck-pointing and perhaps a new roof. The sanctuary was dark, with several pews that had cracked and splintered; the reddish carpet gave off a musty, damp odor; and at various points the floorboards beneath bucked and dipped like welts in a meadow. Reverend Philips’s office had this same chipped, worn quality, lit only by an antique desk lamp that cast the room in a dull, amber glow. And Reverend Philips himself-he was old. With the window shades drawn, surrounded by stacks of dusty old books, he seemed now to be receding into the wall, as still as a portrait, only his snow-white hair clearly visible, his voice sonorous and disembodied, like the voice of a dream.
We had been talking for close to an hour, mostly about the church. Not his church so much as the church, the historically black church, the church as an institution, the church as an idea. He was an erudite man and began our conversation with a history of slave religion, telling me about the Africans who, newly landed on hostile shores, had sat circled around a fire mixing newfound myths with ancient rhythms, their songs becoming a vessel for those most radical of ideas-survival, and freedom, and hope. The reverend went on to recall the Southern church of his own youth, a small, whitewashed wooden place, he said, built with sweat and pennies saved from share-cropping, where on bright, hot Sunday mornings all the quiet terror and open wounds of the week drained away in tears and shouts of gratitude; the clapping, waving, fanning hands reddening the embers of those same stubborn ideas-survival, and freedom, and hope. He discussed Martin Luther King’s visit to Chicago and the jealousy he had witnessed among some of King’s fellow ministers, their fear of being usurped; and the emergence of the Muslims, whose anger Reverend Philips understood: It was his own anger, he said, an anger that he didn’t expect he would ever entirely escape but that through prayer he had learned to control-and that he had tried not to pass down to his children.
Now he was explaining the history of churches in Chicago. There were thousands of them, and it seemed as if he knew them all: the tiny storefronts and the large stone edifices; the high-yella congregations that sat stiff as cadets as they sang from their stern hymnals, and the charismatics who shook as their bodies expelled God’s unintelligible tongue. Most of the larger churches in Chicago had been a blend of these two forms, Reverend Philips explained, an example of segregation’s hidden blessings, the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the laborer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved.
He wasn’t sure, he said, how much longer his church would continue to serve that function. Most of his better-off members had moved away to tidier neighborhoods, suburban life. They still drove back every Sunday, out of loyalty or habit. But the nature of their involvement had changed. They hesitated to volunteer for anything-a tutoring program, a home visitation-that might keep them in the city after dark. They wanted more security around the church, a fenced-in parking lot to protect their cars. Reverend Philips expected that once he passed on, many of those members would stop coming back. They would start new churches, tidy like their new streets. He feared that the link to the past would be finally broken, that the children would no longer retain the memory of that first circle, around a fire….
His voice began to trail off; I felt he was getting tired. I asked him for introductions to other pastors who might be interested in organizing, and he mentioned a few names-there was a dynamic young pastor, he said, a Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, who might be worth talking to; his message seemed to appeal to young people like me. Reverend Philips gave me his number, and as I got up to leave, I said, “If we could bring just fifty churches together, we might be able to reverse some of the trends you’ve been talking about.”
Reverend Philips nodded and said, “You may be right, Mr. Obama. You have some interesting ideas. But you see, the churches around here are used to doing things their own way. Sometimes, the congregations even more than the pastors.” He opened the door for me, then paused. “By the way, what church do you belong to?”
“I…I attend different services.”
“But you’re not a member anywhere?”
“Still searching, I guess.”
“Well, I can understand that. It might help your mission if you had a church home, though. It doesn’t matter where, really. What you’re asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophecy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you’re getting yours from. Faith, that is.”
Outside, I put on my sunglasses and walked past a group of older men who had set out their lawn chairs on the sidewalk for a game of bid whist. It was a gorgeous day, seventy-five in late September. Instead of driving straight to my next appointment, I decided to linger, letting my legs hang out the open car door, watching the old men play their game. They didn’t talk much, these men. They reminded me of the men Gramps used to play bridge with-the same thick, stiff hands; the same thin, natty socks and improbably slender shoes; the same beads of sweat along the folds of their necks, just beneath their flat caps. I tried to remember the names of those men back in Hawaii, what they had done for a living, wondering what residue of themselves they’d left in me. They had been mysteries to me then, those old black men; that mystery was part of what had brought me to Chicago. And now, now that I was leaving Chicago, I wondered if I understood them any better than before.
I hadn’t told anyone except Johnnie about my decision. I figured there would be time for an announcement later; I wouldn’t even hear back from the law schools until January. Our new youth program would be up and running by then; I would have raised next year’s budget, hopefully brought in a few more churches. I had told Johnnie only because I needed to know whether he’d be willing to stay on and take my place as lead organizer-and maybe, too, because he was my friend and I needed to explain myself. Except Johnnie hadn’t seen the need for explanations. The minute I told him the schools to which I’d appliedHarvard, Yale, Stanford-he had grinned and slapped me on the back. “I knew it!” he shouted.
“That it was just a matter of time, Barack. Before you were outta here.”
“Why’d you think that?”
Johnnie shook his head and laughed. “Damn, Barack…’cause you got options, that’s why. ’Cause you can leave. I mean, I know you’re a conscientious brother and all that, but when somebody’s got a choice between Harvard and Roseland, it’s only so long somebody’s gonna keep choosing Roseland.” Again he shook his head. “Harvard! Goddamn. I just hope you remember your friends when you up in that fancy office downtown.”
For some reason, Johnnie’s laughter had made me defensive. I insisted that I would be coming back to the neighborhood. I told him that I didn’t plan on being dazzled by the wealth and power that Harvard represented, and that he shouldn’t be either. Johnnie put his hands up in mock surrender.
“Hey, you don’t need to be telling me all this. I ain’t the one going nowhere.”
I grew quiet, embarrassed by my outburst. “Yeah, well…I’m just saying that I’ll be back, that’s all. I don’t want you or the leaders to get the wrong idea.”
Johnnie smiled gently. “Ain’t nobody gonna get the wrong idea, Barack. Man, we’re just proud to see you succeed.”
The sun was now slipping behind a cloud; a couple of the old cardplayers pulled on the windbreakers they had hung on the backs of their chairs. I lit a cigarette and tried to decipher that conversation with Johnnie. Had he doubted my intentions? Or was it just me that mistrusted myself? It seemed like I had gone over my decision at least a hundred times. I needed a break, that was for sure. I wanted to go to Kenya: Auma was already back in Nairobi, teaching at the university for a year; it would be an ideal time for an extended visit.
And I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change. I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed. I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail, knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire.
That’s the story I had been telling myself, the same story I imagined my father telling himself twentyeight years before, as he had boarded the plane to America, the land of dreams. He, too, had probably believed he was acting out some grand design, that he wasn’t simply fleeing from possible inconsequence. And, in fact, he had returned to Kenya, hadn’t he? But only as a divided man, his plans, his dreams, soon turned to dust….
Would the same thing happen to me? Maybe Johnnie was right; maybe once you stripped away the rationalizations, it always came down to a simple matter of escape. An escape from poverty or boredom or crime or the shackles of your skin. Maybe, by going to law school, I’d be repeating a pattern that had been set in motion centuries before, the moment white men, themselves spurred on by their own fears of inconsequence, had landed on Africa’s shores, bringing with them their guns and blind hunger, to drag away the conquered in chains. That first encounter had redrawn the map of black life, recentered its universe, created the very idea of escape-an idea that lived on in Frank and those other old black men who had found refuge in Hawaii; in green-eyed Joyce back at Occidental, just wanting to be an individual; in Auma, torn between Germany and Kenya; in Roy, finding out that he couldn’t start over. And here, in the
South Side, among members of Reverend Philips’s church, some of whom had probably marched alongside Dr. King, believing then that they marched for a higher purpose, for rights and for principles and for all God’s children, but who at some point had realized that power was unyielding and principles unstable, and that even after laws were passed and lynchings ceased, the closest thing to freedom would still involve escape, emotional if not physical, away from ourselves, away from what we knew, flight into the outer reaches of the white man’s empire-or closer into its bosom.
The analogies weren’t exactly right. The relationship between black and white, the meaning of escape, would never be quite the same for me as it had been for Frank, or for the Old Man, or even for Roy. And as segregated as Chicago was, as strained as race relations were, the success of the civil rights movement had at least created some overlap between communities, more room to maneuver for people like me. I could work in the black community as an organizer or a lawyer and still live in a high rise downtown. Or the other way around: I could work in a blue-chip law firm but live in the South Side and buy a big house, drive a nice car, make my donations to the NAACP and Harold’s campaign, speak at local high schools. A role model, they’d call me, an example of black male success.
Was there anything wrong with that? Johnnie obviously didn’t think so. He had smiled, I realized now, not because he judged me but precisely because he didn’t; because he, like my leaders, didn’t see anything wrong with such success. That was one of the lessons I’d learned these past two and a half years, wasn’t it?-that most black folks weren’t like the father of my dreams, the man in my mother’s stories, full of highblown ideals and quick to pass judgment. They were more like my stepfather, Lolo, practical people who knew life was too hard to judge each other’s choices, too messy to live according to abstract ideals. No one expected self-sacrifice from me-not Rafiq, who of late had been pestering me about helping him raise money from white foundations for his latest scheme; not Reverend Smalls, who had decided to run for the state senator’s seat and was anxious for our support. As far as they were concerned, my color had always been a sufficient criterion for community membership, enough of a cross to bear.
Was that all that had brought me to Chicago, I wondered-the desire for such simple acceptance? That had been part of it, certainly, one meaning to community. But there had been another meaning, too, a more demanding impulse. Sure, you could be black and still not give a damn about what happened in Altgeld or Roseland. You didn’t have to care about boys like Kyle, young mothers like Bernadette or Sadie. But to be right with yourself, to do right by others, to lend meaning to a community’s suffering and take part in its healing-that required something more. It required the kind of commitment that Dr. Collier made every day out in Altgeld. It required the kind of sacrifices a man like Asante had been willing to make with his students.
It required faith. I glanced up now at the small, second-story window of the church, imagining the old pastor inside, drafting his sermon for the week. Where did your faith come from? he had asked. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have an answer. Perhaps, still, I had faith in myself. But faith in one’s self was never enough.
I stamped out my cigarette and started the car. I looked into my rearview mirror and, driving off, watched the old, silent cardplayers recede from my sight.
With Johnnie handling the organization’s day-to-day activities, I met with more black ministers in the area, hoping to convince them to join the organization. It was a slow process, for unlike their Catholic counterparts, most black pastors were fiercely independent, secure in their congregations and with little obvious need for outside assistance. Whenever I first reached them on the phone, they would often be suspicious or evasive, uncertain as to why this Muslim-or worse yet, this Irishman, O’Bama-wanted a few minutes of their time. And a handful I met with conformed to the prototypes found in Richard Wright novels or Malcolm X speeches: sanctimonious graybeards preaching pie-in-the-sky, or slick Holy Rollers with flashy cars and a constant eye on the collection plate.
For the most part, though, once I’d had a chance to meet these men face-to-face, I would come away impressed. As a group, they turned out to be thoughtful, hardworking men, with a confidence, a certainty of purpose, that made them by far the best organizers in the neighborhood. They were generous with their time, interested in the issues, surprisingly willing to open themselves to my scrutiny. One minister talked about a former gambling addiction. Another told me about his years as a successful executive and a secret drunk. They all mentioned periods of religious doubt; the corruption of the world and their own hearts; the striking bottom and shattering of pride; and then finally the resurrection of self, a self alloyed to something larger. That was the source of their confidence, they insisted: their personal fall, their subsequent redemption. It was what gave them the authority to preach the Good News.
Had I heard the Good News? some of them would ask me.
Do you know where it is that your faith is coming from?
When I asked for other pastors to talk to, several gave me the name of Reverend Wright, the same minister Reverend Philips had mentioned that day at his church. Younger ministers seemed to regard Reverend Wright as a mentor of sorts, his church a model for what they themselves hoped to accomplish. Older pastors were more cautious with their praise, impressed with the rapid growth of Trinity’s congregation but somewhat scornful of its popularity among young black professionals. (“A buppie church,” one pastor would tell me.)
Toward the end of October I finally got a chance to pay Reverend Wright a visit and see the church for myself. It sat flush on Ninety-fifth Street in a mostly residential neighborhood a few blocks down from the Louden Home projects. I had expected something imposing, but it turned out to be a low, modest structure of red brick and angular windows, landscaped with evergreens and sculpted shrubs and a small sign spiked into the grass-FREE SOUTH AFRICA in simple block letters. Inside, the church was cool and murmured with activity. A group of small children waited to be picked up from day care. A crew of teenage girls passed by, dressed for what looked like an African dance class. Four elderly women emerged from the sanctuary, and one of them shouted “God is good!” causing the others to respond giddily “All the time!”
Eventually a pretty woman with a brisk, cheerful manner came up and introduced herself as Tracy, one of Reverend Wright’s assistants. She said that the reverend was running a few minutes late and asked if I wanted some coffee. As I followed her back into a kitchen toward the rear of the church, we began to chat, about the church mostly, but also a little about her. It had been a difficult year, she said: Her husband had recently died, and in just a few weeks she’d be moving out to the suburbs. She had wrestled long and hard with the decision, for she had lived most of her life in the city. But she had decided the move would be best for her teenage son. She began to explain how there were a lot more black families in the suburbs these days; how her son would be free to walk down the street without getting harassed; how the school he’d be attending had music courses, a full band, free instruments and uniforms. “He’s always wanted to be in a band,” she said softly.
As we were talking, I noticed a man in his late forties walking toward us. He had silver hair, a silver mustache and goatee; he was dressed in a gray three-piece suit. He moved slowly, methodically, as if conserving energy, sorting through his mail as he walked, humming a simple tune to himself.
“Barack,” he said as if we were old friends, “let’s see if Tracy here will let me have a minute of your time.”
“Don’t pay him no mind, Barack,” Tracy said, standing up and straightening out her skirt. “I should have warned you that Rev likes to act silly sometimes.”
Reverend Wright smiled and led me into a small, cluttered office. “Sorry for being late,” he said, closing the door behind him. “We’re trying to build a new sanctuary, and I had to meet with the bankers. I’m telling you, doc, they always want something else from you. Latest thing is another life insurance policy on me. In case I drop dead tomorrow. They figure the whole church’ll collapse without me.”
“Is it true?”
Reverend Wright shook his head. “I’m not the church, Barack. If I die tomorrow, I hope the congregation will give me a decent burial. I like to think a few tears will be shed. But as soon as I’m six feet under, they’ll be right back on the case, figuring out how to make this church live up to its mission.”
He had grown up in Philadelphia, the son of a Baptist minister. He had resisted his father’s vocation at first, joining the Marines out of college, dabbling with liquor, Islam, and black nationalism in the sixties. But the call of his faith had apparently remained, a steady tug on his heart, and eventually he’d entered Howard, then the University of Chicago, where he spent six years studying for a Ph.D. in the history of religion. He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians. The anger and humor of the streets, the book learning and occasional twenty-five-cent word, all this he had brought with him to Trinity almost two decades ago. And although it was only later that I would learn much of this biography, it became clear in that very first meeting that, despite the reverend’s frequent disclaimers, it was this capacious talent of his-this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience-upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.
“We got a lot of different personalities here,” he told me. “Got the Africanist over here. The traditionalist over here. Once in a while, I have to stick my hand in the pot-smooth things over before stuff gets ugly. But that’s rare. Usually, if somebody’s got an idea for a new ministry, I just tell ’em to run with it and get outta their way.”
His approach had obviously worked: the church had grown from two hundred to four thousand members during his tenure; there were organizations for every taste, from yoga classes to Caribbean clubs. He was especially pleased with the church’s progress in getting more men involved, although he admitted that they still had a way to go.
“Nothing’s harder than reaching young brothers like yourself,” he said. “They worry about looking soft. They worry about what their buddies are gonna say about ’em. They tell themselves church is a woman’s thing-that it’s a sign of weakness for a man to admit that he’s got spiritual needs.”
The reverend looked up at me then, a look that made me nervous. I decided to shift the conversation to more familiar ground, telling him about DCP and the issues we were working on, explaining the need for involvement from larger churches like his. He sat patiently and listened to my pitch, and when I was finished he gave a small nod.
“I’ll try to help you if I can,” he said. “But you should know that having us involved in your effort isn’t necessarily a feather in your cap.” “Why’s that?”
Reverend Wright shrugged. “Some of my fellow clergy don’t appreciate what we’re about. They feel like we’re too radical. Others, we ain’t radical enough. Too emotional. Not emotional enough. Our emphasis on African history, on scholarship-”
“Some people say,” I interrupted, “that the church is too upwardly mobile.”
The reverend’s smile faded. “That’s a lot of bull,” he said sharply. “People who talk that mess reflect their own confusion. They’ve bought into the whole business of class that keeps us from working together.
Half of ’em think that the former gang-banger or the former Muslim got no business in a Christian church. Other half think any black man with an education or a job, or any church that respects scholarship, is somehow suspect.
“We don’t buy into these false divisions here. It’s not about income, Barack. Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car. These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’ Now, what country is he living in?”
But wasn’t there a reality to the class divisions, I wondered? I mentioned the conversation I’d had with his assistant, the tendency of those with means to move out of the line of fire. He took off his glasses and rubbed what I now saw to be a pair of tired eyes.
“I’ve given Tracy my opinion about moving out of the city,” he said quietly. “That boy of hers is gonna get out there and won’t have a clue about where, or who, he is.”
“It’s tough to take chances with your child’s safety.”
“Life’s not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be.”
A secretary buzzed, reminding Reverend Wright of his next appointment. We shook hands, and he agreed to have Tracy prepare a list of members for me to meet. Afterward, in the parking lot, I sat in my car and thumbed through a silver brochure that I’d picked up in the reception area. It contained a set of guiding principles-a “Black Value System”-that the congregation had adopted in 1979. At the top of the list was a commitment to God, “who will give us the strength to give up prayerful passivism and become Black Christian activists, soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind.” Then a commitment to the black community and black family, education, the work ethic, discipline, and self-respect.
A sensible, heartfelt list-not so different, I suspected, from the values old Reverend Philips might have learned in his whitewashed country church two generations before. There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though, a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration. “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,” the heading read. “While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,” the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the “psychological entrapment of Black
‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!”
My thoughts would often return to that declaration in the weeks that followed as I met with various members of Trinity. I decided that Reverend Wright was at least partly justified in dismissing the church’s critics, for the bulk of its membership was solidly working class, the same teachers and secretaries and government workers one found in other big black churches throughout the city. Residents from the nearby housing project had been actively recruited, and programs designed to meet the needs of the poor-legal aid, tutorials, drug programs-took up a substantial amount of the church’s resources.
Still, there was no denying that the church had a disproportionate number of black professionals in its ranks: engineers, doctors, accountants, and corporate managers. Some of them had been raised in Trinity; others had transferred in from other denominations. Many confessed to a long absence from any religious practice-a conscious choice for some, part of a political or intellectual awakening, but more often because church had seemed irrelevant to them as they’d pursued their careers in largely white institutions.
At some point, though, they all told me of having reached a spiritual dead end; a feeling, at once inchoate and oppressive, that they’d been cut off from themselves. Intermittently, then more regularly, they had returned to the church, finding in Trinity some of the same things every religion hopes to offer its converts: a spiritual harbor and the chance to see one’s gifts appreciated and acknowledged in a way that a paycheck never can; an assurance, as bones stiffened and hair began to gray, that they belonged to something that would outlast their own lives-and that, when their time finally came, a community would be there to remember.
But not all of what these people sought was strictly religious, I thought; it wasn’t just Jesus they were coming home to. It occurred to me that Trinity, with its African themes, its emphasis on black history, continued the role that Reverend Philips had described earlier as a redistributor of values and circulator of ideas. Only now the redistribution didn’t run in just a single direction from the schoolteacher or the physician who saw it as a Christian duty to help the sharecropper or the young man fresh from the South adapt to bigcity life. The flow of culture now ran in reverse as well; the former gang-banger, the teenage mother, had their own forms of validation-claims of greater deprivation, and hence authenticity, their presence in the church providing the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets. By widening its doors to allow all who would enter, a church like Trinity assured its members that their fates remained inseparably bound, that an intelligible “us” still remained.
It was a powerful program, this cultural community, one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would be enough to keep more people from leaving the city or young men out of jail. Would the Christian fellowship between a black school administrator, say, and a black school parent change the way the schools were run? Would the interest in maintaining such unity allow Reverend Wright to take a forceful stand on the latest proposals to reform public housing? And if men like Reverend Wright failed to take a stand, if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be of holding the larger community intact?
Sometimes I would put such questions to the people I met with. They would respond with the same bemused look Reverend Philips and Reverend Wright had given me. For them, the principles in Trinity’s brochure were articles of faith no less than belief in the Resurrection. You have some good ideas, they would tell me. Maybe if you joined the church you could help us start a community program. Why don’t you come by on Sunday?
And I would shrug and play the question off, unable to confess that I could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance; that while I believed in the sincerity I heard in their voices, I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won.
The day before Thanksgiving, Harold Washington died.
It occurred without warning. Only a few months earlier, Harold had won reelection, handily beating Vrdolyak and Byrne, breaking the deadlock that had prevailed in the city for the previous four years. He had run a cautious campaign this time out, professionally managed, without any of the fervor of 1983; a campaign of consolidation, of balanced budgets and public works. He reached out to some of the old-time Machine politicians, the Irish and the Poles, ready to make peace. The business community sent him their checks, resigned to his presence. So secure was his power that rumblings of discontent had finally surfaced within his own base, among black nationalists upset with his willingness to cut whites and Hispanics into the action, among activists disappointed with his failure to tackle poverty head-on, and among people who preferred the dream to the reality, impotence to compromise.
Harold didn’t pay such critics much attention. He saw no reason to take any big risks, no reason to hurry. He said he’d be mayor for the next twenty years.
And then death: sudden, simple, final, almost ridiculous in its ordinariness, the heart of an overweight man giving way.
It rained that weekend, cold and steady. In the neighborhood, the streets were silent. Indoors and outside, people cried. The black radio stations replayed Harold’s speeches, hour after hour, trying to summon the dead. At City Hall, the lines wound around several blocks as mourners visited the body, lying in state. Everywhere black people appeared dazed, stricken, uncertain of direction, frightened of the future.
By the time of the funeral, Washington loyalists had worked through the initial shock. They began to meet, regroup, trying to decide on a strategy for maintaining control, trying to select Harold’s rightful heir. But it was too late for that. There was no political organization in place, no clearly defined principles to follow. The entire of black politics had centered on one man who radiated like a sun. Now that he was gone, no one could agree on what that presence had meant.
The loyalists squabbled. Factions emerged. Rumors flew. By Monday, the day the city council was to select a new mayor to serve until the special election, the coalition that had first put Harold in office was all but extinguished. I went down to City Hall that evening to watch this second death. People, mostly black, had been gathering outside the city council’s chambers since late afternoon-old people, curiosity seekers, men and women with banners and signs. They shouted at the black aldermen who had cut deals with the white bloc. They waved dollar bills at the soft-spoken black alderman-a holdover from Machine days-behind whom the white aldermen had thrown their support. They called this man a sellout and an Uncle Tom. They chanted and stomped and swore never to leave.
But power was patient and knew what it wanted; power could out-wait slogans and prayers and candlelight vigils. Around midnight, just before the council got around to taking a vote, the door to the chambers opened briefly and I saw two of the aldermen off in a huddle. One, black, had been Harold’s man; the other, white, Vrdolyak’s. They were whispering now, smiling briefly, then looking out at the still-chanting crowd and quickly suppressing their smiles, large, fleshy men in double-breasted suits with the same look of hunger in their eyes-men who knew the score.
I left after that. I pushed through the crowds that overflowed into the street and began walking across
Daley Plaza toward my car. The wind whipped up cold and sharp as a blade, and I watched a handmade sign tumble past me. HIS SPIRIT LIVES ON, the sign read in heavy block letters. And beneath the words that picture I had seen so many times while waiting for a chair in Smitty’s Barbershop: the handsome, grizzled face; the indulgent smile; the twinkling eyes; now blowing across the empty space, as easily as an autumn leaf.
The months passed at a breathless pace, with constant reminders of all the things left undone. We worked with a citywide coalition in support of school reform. We held a series of joint meetings with Mexicans in the Southeast Side to craft a common environmental strategy for the region. I drove Johnnie nuts trying to cram him with the things it had taken me three years to learn.
“So who did you meet with this week?” I would ask.
“Well, there’s this woman, Mrs. Banks, over at True Vine Holiness Church. Seems like she’s got potential…hold on, yeah, here it is. Teacher, interested in education. I think she’ll definitely work with us.” “What does her husband do?”
“You know, I forgot to ask her-”
“What does she think of the teachers’ union?”
“Damn, Barack, I only had half an hour….”
In February, I received my acceptance from Harvard. The letter came with a thick packet of information. It reminded me of the packet I’d received from Punahou that summer fourteen years earlier. I remembered how Gramps had stayed up the whole night reading from the catalog about music lessons and advanced placement courses, glee clubs and baccalaureates; how he had waved that catalog and told me it would be my meal ticket, that the contacts I made at a school like Punahou would last me a lifetime, that I would move in charmed circles and have all the opportunities that he’d never had. I remembered how, at the end of the evening, he had smiled and tousled my hair, his breath smelling of whiskey, his eyes shining as if he were about to cry. And I had smiled back at him, pretending to understand but actually wishing I was still in Indonesia running barefoot along a paddy field, with my feet sinking into the cool, wet mud, part of a chain of other brown boys chasing after a tattered kite.
I felt something like that now.
I had scheduled a luncheon that week at our office for the twenty or so ministers whose churches had agreed to join the organization. Most of the ministers we’d invited showed up, as did most of our key leadership. Together we discussed strategies for the coming year, the lessons learned from Harold’s death. We set dates for a training retreat, agreed on a schedule of dues, talked about the continued need to recruit more churches. When we were finished, I announced that I would be leaving in May and that Johnnie would be taking over as director.
No one was surprised. They all came up to me afterward and offered their congratulations. Reverend Philips assured me I had made a wise choice. Angela and Mona said they always knew I’d amount to something someday. Shirley asked me if I’d be willing to advise a nephew of hers who had fallen down a manhole and wanted to sue.
Only Mary seemed upset. After most of the ministers had left, she helped Will, Johnnie, and me clean up. When I asked her if she needed a ride, she started shaking her head.
“What is it with you men?” she said, looking at Will and myself. Her voice trembled slightly as she pulled on her coat. “Why is it you’re always in a hurry? Why is it that what you have isn’t ever good enough?”
I started to say something, then thought about Mary’s two daughters at home, the father that they would never know. Instead, I walked her to the door and gave her a hug. When she was gone, I returned to the meeting room, where Will was working on a plate of leftover chicken wings.
“Want some?” he asked in between bites.
I shook my head, taking a seat across the table from him. He watched me for a while, chewing silently, sucking hot sauce off his fingers.
“Place kinda grows on you, don’t it?” he said finally.
I nodded. “Yeah, Will. It does.”
He took a sip from his soda and let out a small burp. “Three years ain’t that long to be gone,” he said.
“How do you know I’m gonna be back?”
“I don’t know how I know,” he said, pushing away his plate. “I just know, that’s all.” Without another word he went to wash his hands, before mounting his bike and riding off down the street.
I woke up at six A.M. that Sunday. It was still dark outside. I shaved, brushed the lint from my only suit, and arrived at the church by seven-thirty. Most of the pews were already filled. A white-gloved usher led me past elderly matrons in wide plumaged hats, tall unsmiling men in suits and ties and mud-cloth kufis, children in their Sunday best. A parent from Dr. Collier’s school waved at me; an official from the CHA with whom I’d had several run-ins nodded curtly. I shunted through to the center of a row and stuffed myself between a plump older woman who failed to scoot over and a young family of four, the father already sweating in his coarse woolen jacket, the mother telling the two young boys beside her to stop kicking each other.
“Where’s God?” I overheard the toddler ask his brother.
“Shut up,” the older boy replied.
“Both of you settle down right now,” the mother said.
Trinity’s associate pastor, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, read the bulletin and led sleepy voices through a few traditional hymns. Then the choir filed down the aisle dressed in white robes and kente-cloth shawls, clapping and singing as they fanned out behind the altar, an organ following the quickening drums:
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
Singing Glory, Ha-le-lu-yah!
Jesus lifted me!
As the congregation joined in, the deacons, then Reverend Wright, appeared beneath the large cross that hung from the rafters. The reverend remained silent while devotions were read, scanning the faces in front of him, watching the collection basket pass from hand to hand. When the collection was over, he stepped up to the pulpit and read the names of those who had passed away that week, those who were ailing, each name causing a flutter somewhere in the crowd, the murmur of recognition.
“Let us join hands,” the reverend said, “as we kneel and pray at the foot of an old rugged cross-” “Yes…”
“Lord, we come first to thank you for what you’ve already done for us…. We come to thank you most of all for Jesus. Lord, we come from different walks of life. Some considered high, and some low…but all on equal ground at the foot of this cross. Lord, thank you! For Jesus, Lord…our burden bearer and heavy load sharer, we thank you….”
The title of Reverend Wright’s sermon that morning was “The Audacity of Hope.” He began with a passage from the Book of Samuel-the story of Hannah, who, barren and taunted by her rivals, had wept and shaken in prayer before her God. The story reminded him, he said, of a sermon a fellow pastor had preached at a conference some years before, in which the pastor described going to a museum and being confronted by a painting titled Hope.
“The painting depicts a harpist,” Reverend Wright explained, “a woman who at first glance appears to be sitting atop a great mountain. Until you take a closer look and see that the woman is bruised and bloodied, dressed in tattered rags, the harp reduced to a single frayed string. Your eye is then drawn down to the scene below, down to the valley below, where everywhere are the ravages of famine, the drumbeat of war, a world groaning under strife and deprivation.
“It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Portau-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere…That’s the world! On which hope sits!”
And so it went, a meditation on a fallen world. While the boys next to me doodled on their church bulletin, Reverend Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House. As the sermon unfolded, though, the stories of strife became more prosaic, the pain more immediate. The reverend spoke of the hardship that the congregation would face tomorrow, the pain of those far from the mountain-top, worrying about paying the light bill. But also the pain of those closer to the metaphorical summit: the middle-class woman who seems to have all her worldly needs taken care of but whose husband is treating her like “the maid, the household service, the jitney service, and the escort service all rolled into one”; the child whose wealthy parents worry more about “the texture of hair on the outside of the head than the quality of education inside the head.”
“Isn’t that…the world that each of us stands on?”
“Like Hannah, we have known bitter times! Daily, we face rejection and despair!”
“And yet consider once again the painting before us. Hope! Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens. She dares to hope…. She has the audacity…to make music…and praise God…on the one string…she has left!”
People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me. The courage and fear of Ruby and Will. The race pride and anger of men like Rafiq. The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.
And in that single note-hope!-I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories-of survival, and freedom, and hope-became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish-and with which we could start to rebuild. And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.
“The audacity of hope! I still remember my grandmother, singing in the house, ‘There’s a bright side somewhere…don’t rest till you find it….’” “That’s right!”
“The audacity of hope! Times when we couldn’t pay the bills. Times when it looked like I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything…at the age of fifteen, busted for grand larceny auto theft…and yet and still my momma and daddy would break into a song…
Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Je-sus, Thank you, Lo-ord.
You brought me fro-om
A mighty long way, mighty long way.
“And it made no sense to me, this singing! Why were they thanking Him for all of their troubles? I’d ask myself. But see, I was only looking at the horizontal dimension of their lives!”
“Tell it now!”
“I didn’t understand that they were talking about the vertical dimension! About their relationship to God! I didn’t understand that they were thanking Him in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you! Oh yes, Jesus, I thank you….”
As the choir lifted back up into song, as the congregation began to applaud those who were walking to the altar to accept Reverend Wright’s call, I felt a light touch on the top of my hand. I looked down to see the older of the two boys sitting beside me, his face slightly apprehensive as he handed me a pocket tissue. Beside him, his mother glanced at me with a faint smile before turning back toward the altar. It was only as I thanked the boy that I felt the tears running down my cheeks.
“Oh, Jesus,” I heard the older woman beside me whisper softly. “Thank you for carrying us this far.” CHAPTER FIFTEEN
I FLEW OUT OF HEATHROW Airport under stormy skies. A group of young British men dressed in illfitting blazers filled the back of the plane, and one of them-a pale, gangly youth, still troubled with acne-took the seat beside me. He read over the emergency instructions twice with great concentration, and once we were airborne, he turned to ask where I was headed. I told him I was traveling to Nairobi to visit my family. “Nairobi’s a beautiful place, I hear. Wouldn’t mind stopping off there one of these days. Going to Johannesburg, I am.” He explained that as part of a degree program in geology, the British government had arranged for him and his classmates to work with South African mining companies for a year. “Seems like they have a shortage of trained people there, so if we’re lucky they’ll take us on for a permanent spot. Best chance we have for a decent wage, I reckon-unless you’re willing to freeze out on some bleeding North Sea oil rig. Not for me, thank you.”
I mentioned that if given the chance, a lot of black South Africans might be interested in getting such training.
“Well, I’d imagine you’re right about that,” he said. “Don’t much agree with the race policy there. A shame, that.” He thought for a moment. “But then the rest of Africa’s falling apart now, isn’t it? Least from what I can tell. The blacks in South Africa aren’t starving to death like they do in some of these Godforsaken countries. Don’t envy them, mind you, but compared to some poor bugger in Ethiopia-”
A stewardess came down the aisle with headphones for rent, and the young man pulled out his wallet. “’Course, I try and stay out of politics, you know. Figure it’s none of my business. Same thing back homeeverybody on the dole, the old men in Parliament talking the same old rubbish. Best thing to do is mind your own little corner of the world, that’s what I say.” He found the outlet for the headphones and slipped them over his ears.
“Wake me up when they bring the food, will you,” he said before reclining his seat for a nap.
I pulled out a book from my carry-on bag and tried to read. It was a portrait of several African countries written by a Western journalist who’d spent a decade in Africa; an old Africa hand, he would be called, someone who apparently prided himself on the balanced assessment. The book’s first few chapters discussed the history of colonialism at some length: the manipulation of tribal hatreds and the caprice of colonial boundaries, the displacements, the detentions, the indignities large and small. The early heroism of independence figures like Kenyatta and Nkrumah was duly noted, their later drift toward despotism attributed at least in part to various Cold War machinations.
But by the book’s third chapter, images from the present had begun to outstrip the past. Famine, disease, the coups and countercoups led by illiterate young men wielding AK-47s like shepherd sticks-if Africa had a history, the writer seemed to say, the scale of current suffering had rendered such history meaningless.
Poor buggers. Godforsaken countries.
I set the book down, feeling a familiar anger flush through me, an anger all the more maddening for its lack of a clear target. Beside me the young Brit was snoring softly now, his glasses askew on his fin-shaped nose. Was I angry at him? I wondered. Was it his fault that, for all my education, all the theories in my possession, I had had no ready answers to the questions he’d posed? How much could I blame him for wanting to better his lot? Maybe I was just angry because of his easy familiarity with me, his assumption that I, as an American, even a black American, might naturally share in his dim view of Africa; an assumption that in his world at least marked a progress of sorts, but that for me only underscored my own uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.
I’d been feeling this way all through my stay in Europe-edgy, defensive, hesitant with strangers. I hadn’t planned it that way. I had thought of the layover there as nothing more than a whimsical detour, an opportunity to visit places I had never been before. For three weeks I had traveled alone, down one side of the continent and up the other, by bus and by train mostly, a guidebook in hand. I took tea by the Thames and watched children chase each other through the chestnut groves of Luxembourg Garden. I crossed the Plaza Mejor at high noon, with its De Chirico shadows and sparrows swirling across cobalt skies; and watched night fall over the Palatine, waiting for the first stars to appear, listening to the wind and its whispers of mortality.
And by the end of the first week or so, I realized that I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine. I felt as if I were living out someone else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass. I began to suspect that my European stop was just one more means of delay, one more attempt to avoid coming to terms with the Old Man. Stripped of language, stripped of work and routinestripped even of the racial obsessions to which I’d become so accustomed and which I had taken (perversely) as a sign of my own maturation-I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there.
Would this trip to Kenya finally fill that emptiness? The folks back in Chicago thought so. It’ll be just like Roots, Will had said at my going-away party. A pilgrimage, Asante had called it. For them, as for me, Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land, full of ancient traditions and sweeping vistas, noble struggles and talking drums. With the benefit of distance, we engaged Africa in a selective embrace-the same sort of embrace I’d once offered the Old Man. What would happen once I relinquished that distance? It was nice to believe that the truth would somehow set me free. But what if that was wrong? What if the truth only disappointed, and my father’s death meant nothing, and his leaving me behind meant nothing, and the only tie that bound me to him, or to Africa, was a name, a blood type, or white people’s scorn?
I switched off the overhead light and closed my eyes, letting my mind drift back to an African I’d met while traveling through Spain, another man on the run. I had been waiting for a night bus in a roadside tavern about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona. A few old men sat at tables and drank wine from short, cloudy glasses. There was a pool table off to one side, and for some reason I had racked up the balls and started to play, remembering those late evenings with Gramps in the bars on Hotel Street, with their streetwalkers and pimps and Gramps the only white man in the joint.
As I was finishing up the table, a man in a thin wool sweater had appeared out of nowhere and asked if he could buy me some coffee. He spoke no English, and his Spanish wasn’t much better than mine, but he had a winning smile and the urgency of someone in need of company. Standing at the bar, he told me he was from Senegal, and was crisscrossing Spain for seasonal work. He showed me a battered photograph he kept in his wallet of a young girl with round, smooth cheeks. His wife, he said; he had had to leave her behind. They would be reunited as soon as he saved the money. He would write and send for her.
We ended up riding to Barcelona together, neither of us talking much, him turning to me every so often to try to explain the jokes on the Spanish program being shown on a TV-video contraption hooked up above the driver’s seat. Shortly before dawn, we were deposited in front of an old bus depot, and my friend gestured me over to a short, thick palm that grew beside the road. From his knapsack he pulled out a toothbrush, a comb, and a bottle of water that he handed to me with great ceremony. And together we washed ourselves under the morning mist, before hoisting our bags over our shoulders and heading toward town.
What was his name? I couldn’t remember now; just another hungry man far away from home, one of the many children of former colonies-Algerians, West Indians, Pakistanis-now breaching the barricades of their former masters, mounting their own ragged, haphazard invasion. And yet, as we walked toward the Ramblas, I had felt as if I knew him as well as any man; that, coming from opposite ends of the earth, we were somehow making the same journey. When we finally parted company, I had remained in the street for a long, long time, watching his slender, bandy-legged image shrink into the distance, one part of me wishing then that I could go with him into a life of open roads and other blue mornings; another part realizing that such a wish was also a romance, an idea, as partial as my image of the Old Man or my image of Africa. Until I settled on the fact that this man from Senegal had bought me coffee and offered me water, and that was real, and maybe that was all any of us had a right to expect: the chance encounter, a shared story, the act of small kindness….
The airplane shook with some turbulence; the flight crew came to serve us dinner. I woke up the young
Brit, who ate with impressive precision, describing, between bites, what it had been like to grow up in Manchester. Eventually I dozed off into a fitful sleep. When I awoke, the stewardess was passing out customs forms in preparation for landing. Outside it was still dark, but, pressing my face against the glass, I began to see scattered lights, soft and hazy like fireflies, gradually swarming into the shape of a city below. A few minutes later, a slope of rounded hills appeared, black against a long strand of light on the eastern horizon. As we touched down on an African dawn I saw high thin clouds streak the sky, their underbellies glowing with a reddish hue.
Kenyatta International Airport was almost empty. Officials sipped at their morning tea as they checked over passports; in the baggage area, a creaky conveyor belt slowly disgorged luggage. Auma was nowhere in sight, so I took a seat on my carry-on bag and lit a cigarette. After a few minutes, a security guard with a wooden club started to walk toward me. I looked around for an ashtray, thinking I must be in a no-smoking area, but instead of scolding me, the guard smiled and asked if I had another cigarette to spare. “This is your first trip to Kenya, yes?” he asked as I gave him a light.
“I see.” He squatted down beside me. “You are from America. You know my brother’s son, perhaps.
Samson Otieno. He is studying engineering in Texas.”
I told him that I’d never been to Texas and so hadn’t had the opportunity to meet his nephew. This seemed to disappoint him, and he took several puffs from his cigarette in quick succession. By this time, the last of the other passengers on my flight had left the terminal. I asked the guard if any more bags were coming. He shook his head doubtfully.
“I don’t think so,” he said, “but if you will just wait here, I will find someone who can help you.”
He disappeared around a narrow corridor, and I stood up to stretch my back. The rush of anticipation had drained away, and I smiled with the memory of the homecoming I had once imagined for myself, clouds lifting, old demons fleeing, the earth trembling as ancestors rose up in celebration. Instead I felt tired and abandoned. I was about to search for a telephone when the security guard reappeared with a strikingly beautiful woman, dark, slender, close to six feet tall, dressed in a British Airways uniform. She introduced herself as Miss Omoro and explained that my bag had probably been sent on to Johannesburg by mistake. “I’m awfully sorry about the inconvenience,” she said. “If you will just fill out this form, we can call
Johannesburg and have it delivered to you as soon as the next flight comes in.”
I completed the form and Miss Omoro gave it the once-over before looking back at me. “You wouldn’t be related to Dr. Obama, by any chance?” she asked.
“Well, yes-he was my father.”
Miss Omoro smiled sympathetically. “I’m very sorry about his passing. Your father was a close friend of my family’s. He would often come to our house when I was a child.”
We began to talk about my visit, and she told me of her studies in London, as well as her interest in traveling to the States. I found myself trying to prolong the conversation, encouraged less by Miss Omoro’s beauty-she had mentioned a fiancé-than by the fact that she’d recognized my name. That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A. or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, “Oh, you are so and so’s son.” No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand.
“Barack!” I turned to see Auma jumping up and down behind another guard, who wasn’t letting her pass into the baggage area. I excused myself and rushed over to her, and we laughed and hugged, as silly as the first time we’d met. A tall, brown-skinned woman was smiling beside us, and Auma turned and said,
“Barack, this is our Auntie Zeituni. Our father’s sister.”
“Welcome home,” Zeituni said, kissing me on both cheeks.
I told them about my bag and said that there was someone here who had known the Old Man. But when I looked back to where I’d been standing, Miss Omoro was nowhere in sight. I asked the security guard where she had gone. He shrugged and said that she must have left for the day.
Auma drove an old, baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle. The car was something of a business venture for her: Since Kenyan nationals living abroad could ship a car back to Kenya free of a hefty import tax, she had figured that she could use it during the year that she’d be teaching at the University of Nairobi and then sell it for the cost of shipping and perhaps a small profit. Unfortunately, the engine had come down with a tubercular knock, and the muffler had fallen off on the way to the airport. As we sputtered out onto the fourlane highway, Auma clutching the steering wheel with both hands, I couldn’t keep from laughing.
“Should I get out and push?”
Zeituni frowned. “Eh, Barry, don’t say anything about this car. This is a beautiful car. It just needs some new paint. In fact, Auma has already promised that I will have this car after she leaves.”
Auma shook her head. “Your aunt is trying to cheat me now, Barack. I promised we would talk about it,
“What’s there to talk about?” Zeituni said, winking at me. “I tell you, Auma, I will give you the best price.”
The two of them began to talk at the same time, asking how my trip had been, telling me all the plans they had made, listing all the people I had to see. Wide plains stretched out on either side of the road, savannah grass mostly, an occasional thorn tree against the horizon, a landscape that seemed at once ancient and raw. Gradually the traffic thickened, and crowds began to pour out of the countryside on their way to work, the men still buttoning their flimsy shirts; the women straight-backed, their heads wrapped in bright-colored scarves. Cars meandered across lanes and roundabouts, dodging potholes, bicycles, and pedestrians, while rickety jitneys-called matatus, I was told-stopped without any warning to cram on more passengers. It all seemed strangely familiar, as if I had been down the same road before. And then I remembered other mornings in Indonesia, with my mother and Lolo talking in the front seat, the same smell of burning wood and diesel, the same stillness that lingered at the center of the morning rush, the same look on people’s faces as they made their way into a new day, with few expectations other than making it through, and perhaps a mild hope that their luck would change, or at least hold out.
We went to drop off Zeituni at Kenya Breweries, a large, drab complex where she worked as a computer programmer. Stepping out of the car, she leaned over again to kiss me on the cheek, then wagged her finger at Auma. “You take good care of Barry now,” she said. “Make sure he doesn’t get lost again.”
Once we were back on the highway, I asked Auma what Zeituni had meant about my getting lost.
“It’s a common expression here,” she said. “Usually, it means the person hasn’t seen you in a while. ‘You’ve been lost,’ they’ll say. Or ‘Don’t get lost.’ Sometimes it has a more serious meaning. Let’s say a son or husband moves to the city, or to the West, like our Uncle Omar, in Boston. They promise to return after completing school. They say they’ll send for the family once they get settled. At first they write once a week. Then it’s just once a month. Then they stop writing completely. No one sees them again. They’ve been lost, you see. Even if people know where they are.”
The Volkswagen struggled up an ascending road shaded by thick groves of eucalyptus and liana vines.
Elegant old homes receded behind the hedges and flower beds, homes that had once been exclusively British, Auma said, but that now mostly served government officials and foreign embassy staffs. At the top of the rise we made a sharp right and parked at the end of a gravel driveway next to a yellow two-story apartment building that the university rented out to its faculty. A huge lawn sloped down from the apartments to meet patches of banana trees and high forest and, farther down, a narrow, murky stream that ran through a wide gully pitted with stones.
Auma’s apartment, a small but comfortable space with French doors that let sunlight wash through the rooms, was on the first floor. There were stacks of books everywhere, and a collage of photographs hanging on one wall, studio portraits and Polaroid shots, a patchwork of family that Auma had stitched together for herself. Above Auma’s bed, I noticed a large poster of a black woman, her face tilted upward toward an unfolding blossom, the words “I Have a Dream” printed below.
“So what’s your dream, Auma?” I said, setting down my bags.
Auma laughed. “That’s my biggest problem, Barack. Too many dreams. A woman with dreams always has problems.”
My exhaustion from the trip must have showed, because Auma suggested that I take a nap while she went to the university to teach her class. I dropped onto the cot she’d prepared and fell asleep to the buzz of insects outside the window. When I awoke it was dusk and Auma was still gone. From the kitchen, I noticed a troop of black-faced monkeys gathered beneath a banyan tree. The older ones sat warily at the tree’s base watching with knotted brows as pups scampered about through the long, winding roots. Rinsing my face in the sink, I put water on for tea, then opened the door that led into the yard. The monkeys all froze in their tracks; their eyes turned toward me in unison. A few feet away, the air filled with the beat of huge green wings, and I watched the dreamy ascent of a long-necked bird as it sent out a series of deep-throated cries and drifted toward distant canopies.
We decided to stay in that night, cooking stew and catching up on each other’s news. The next morning we walked into town and wandered without any particular destination in mind, just taking in the sights. The city center was smaller than I’d expected, with much of the colonial architecture still intact: row after row of worn, whitewashed stucco from the days when Nairobi was little more than an outpost to service British railway construction. Alongside these buildings, another city emerged, a city of high-rise offices and elegant shops, hotels with lobbies that seemed barely distinguishable from their counterparts in Singapore or Atlanta. It was an intoxicating, elusive mixture, a contrast that seemed to repeat itself wherever we went: in front of the Mercedes-Benz dealership, where a train of Masai women passed by on the way to market, their heads shaven clean, their slender bodies wrapped in red shukas, their earlobes elongated and ringed with bright beads; or at the entrance to an open-air mosque, where we watched a group of bank officers carefully remove their wing-tipped shoes and bathe their feet before joining farmers and ditchdiggers in afternoon prayer. It was as if Nairobi’s history refused to settle in orderly layers, as if what was then and what was now fell in constant, noisy collision.
We wandered into the old marketplace, a cavernous building that smelled of ripe fruit and a nearby butchery. A passage to the rear of the building led into a maze of open-air stalls where merchants hawked fabrics, baskets, brass jewelry, and other curios. I stopped in front of one of them, where a set of small wooden carvings was set out for display. I recognized the figures as my father’s long-ago gift to me:
elephants, lions, drummers in tribal headdress. They are only small things, the Old Man had said….
“Come, mister,” the young man who was minding the stall said to me. “A beautiful necklace for your wife.”
“This is my sister.”
“She is a very beautiful sister. Come, this is nice for her.”
“Only five hundred shillings. Beautiful.”
Auma frowned and said something to the man in Swahili. “He’s giving you the wazungu price,” she explained. “The white man’s price.”
The young man smiled. “I’m very sorry, sister,” he said. “For a Kenyan, the price is three hundred only.”
Inside the stall, an old woman who was stringing glass beads together pointed at me and said something that made Auma smile.
“What’d she say?”
“She says that you look like an American to her.” “Tell her I’m Luo,” I said, beating my chest.
The old woman laughed and asked Auma my name. The answer made the old woman laugh even harder, and she called for me to stand beside her, taking my hand. “She says you don’t look much like a Luo,” Auma said, “but you have a kind face. She says she has a daughter you should meet and that, if you buy her a soda, you can have two carvings and the necklace she’s making for five hundred shillings.”
The young man went to buy sodas for all of us, and we sat on wooden stools that the old woman pulled out from behind a large chest. She told us about her business, the rent she had to pay the government for the use of her stall, how her other son joined the army because there was no land left to work in their village. Across from us, another woman wove colored straw into baskets; beside her, a man cut a hide into long strips to be used for some purse straps.
I watched these nimble hands stitch and cut and weave, and listened to the old woman’s voice roll over the sounds of work and barter, and for a moment the world seemed entirely transparent. I began to imagine an unchanging rhythm of days, lived on firm soil where you could wake up each morning and know that all was how it had been yesterday, where you saw how the things that you used had been made and could recite the lives of those who had made them and could believe that it would all hang together without computer terminals or fax machines. And all of this while a steady procession of black faces passed before your eyes, the round faces of babies and the chipped, worn faces of the old; beautiful faces that made me understand the transformation that Asante and other black Americans claimed to have undergone after their first visit to Africa. For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it’s supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway. You could see a man talking to himself as just plain crazy, or read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate. Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.
How tempting, I thought, to fly away with this moment intact. To have this feeling of ease wrapped up as neatly as the young man was now wrapping Auma’s necklace, and take it back with me to America to slip on whenever my spirits flagged.
But of course that wasn’t possible. We finished our sodas. Money changed hands. We left the marketplace. The moment slipped away.
We turned onto Kimathi Street, named after one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion. I had read a book about Kimathi before leaving Chicago and remembered a photograph of him: one in a group of dreadlocked men who lived in the forest and spread secret oaths among the native population-the prototype guerrilla fighter. It was a clever costume he had chosen for himself (Kimathi and the other Mau-Mau leaders had served in British regiments in their previous lives), an image that played on all the fears of the colonial West, the same sort of fear that Nat Turner had once evoked in the antebellum South and coke-crazed muggers now evoked in the minds of whites in Chicago.
Of course, the Mau-Mau lay in Kenya’s past. Kimathi had been captured and executed. Kenyatta had been released from prison and inaugurated Kenya’s first president. He had immediately assured whites who were busy packing their bags that businesses would not be nationalized, that landholdings would be kept intact, so long as the black man controlled the apparatus of government. Kenya became the West’s most stalwart pupil in Africa, a model of stability, a useful contrast to the chaos of Uganda, the failed socialism of Tanzania. Former freedom fighters returned to their villages or joined the civil service or ran for a seat in Parliament. Kimathi became a name on a street sign, thoroughly tamed for the tourists.
I took the opportunity to study these tourists as Auma and I sat down for lunch in the outdoor café of the New Stanley Hotel. They were everywhere-Germans, Japanese, British, Americans-taking pictures, hailing taxis, fending off street peddlers, many of them dressed in safari suits like extras on a movie set. In Hawaii, when we were still kids, my friends and I had laughed at tourists like these, with their sunburns and their pale, skinny legs, basking in the glow of our obvious superiority. Here in Africa, though, the tourists didn’t seem so funny. I felt them as an encroachment, somehow; I found their innocence vaguely insulting. It occurred to me that in their utter lack of self-consciousness, they were expressing a freedom that neither Auma nor I could ever experience, a bedrock confidence in their own parochialism, a confidence reserved for those born into imperial cultures.
Just then I noticed an American family sit down a few tables away from us. Two of the African waiters immediately sprang into action, both of them smiling from one ear to the other. Since Auma and I hadn’t yet been served, I began to wave at the two waiters who remained standing by the kitchen, thinking they must have somehow failed to see us. For some time they managed to avoid my glance, but eventually an older man with sleepy eyes relented and brought us over two menus. His manner was resentful, though, and after several more minutes he showed no signs of ever coming back. Auma’s face began to pinch with anger, and again I waved to our waiter, who continued in his silence as he wrote down our orders. At this point, the Americans had already received their food and we still had no place settings. I overheard a young girl with a blond ponytail complain that there wasn’t any ketchup. Auma stood up.
She started heading for the exit, then suddenly turned and walked back to the waiter, who was watching us with an impassive stare.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Auma said to him, her voice shaking. “You should be ashamed.” The waiter replied brusquely in Swahili.
“I don’t care how many mouths you have to feed, you cannot treat your own people like dogs. Here…” Auma snapped open her purse and took out a crumpled hundred-shilling note. “You see!” she shouted. “I can pay for my own damn food.”
She threw the note to the ground, then marched out onto the street. For several minutes we wandered without apparent direction, until I finally suggested we sit down on a bench beside the central post office.
“You okay?” I asked her.
She nodded. “That was stupid, throwing away money like that.” She set down her purse beside her and we watched the traffic pass. “You know, I can’t go to a club in any of these hotels if I’m with another African woman,” she said eventually. “The askaris will turn us away, thinking we are prostitutes. The same in any of these big office buildings. If you don’t work there, and you are African, they will stop you until you tell them your business. But if you’re with a German friend, then they’re all smiles. ‘Good evening, miss,’ they’ll say. ‘How are you tonight?’” Auma shook her head. “That’s why Kenya, no matter what its GNP, no matter how many things you can buy here, the rest of Africa laughs. It’s the whore of Africa, Barack. It opens its legs to anyone who can pay.”
I told Auma she was being too hard on the Kenyan, that the same sort of thing happened in Djakarta or Mexico City-just an unfortunate matter of economics. But as we started back toward the apartment, I knew my words had done nothing to soothe her bitterness. I suspected that she was right: not all the tourists in Nairobi had come for the wildlife. Some came because Kenya, without shame, offered to re-create an age when the lives of whites in foreign lands rested comfortably on the backs of the darker races; an age of innocence before Kimathi and other angry young men in Soweto or Detroit or the Mekong Delta started to lash out in street crime and revolution. In Kenya, a white man could still walk through Isak Dinesen’s home and imagine romance with a mysterious young baroness, or sip gin under the ceiling fans of the Lord Delamare Hotel and admire portraits of Hemingway smiling after a successful hunt, surrounded by grimfaced coolies. He could be served by a black man without fear or guilt, marvel at the exchange rate, and leave a generous tip; and if he felt a touch of indigestion at the sight of leprous beggars outside the hotel, he could always administer a ready tonic. Black rule has come, after all. This is their country. We’re only visitors.
Did our waiter know that black rule had come? Did it mean anything to him? Maybe once, I thought to myself. He would be old enough to remember independence, the shouts of “Uhuru!” and the raising of new flags. But such memories may seem almost fantastic to him now, distant and naive. He’s learned that the same people who controlled the land before independence still control the same land, that he still cannot eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels that the white man has built. He sees the money of the city swirling above his head, and the technology that spits out goods from its robot mouth. If he’s ambitious he will do his best to learn the white man’s language and use the white man’s machines, trying to make ends meet the same way the computer repairman in Newark or the bus driver back in Chicago does, with alternating spurts of enthusiasm or frustration but mostly with resignation. And if you say to him that he’s serving the interests of neocolonialism or some other such thing, he will reply that yes, he will serve if that is what’s required. It is the lucky ones who serve; the unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs; many will drown.
Then again, maybe that’s not all that the waiter is feeling. Maybe a part of him still clings to the stories of Mau-Mau, the same part of him that remembers the hush of a village night or the sound of his mother grinding corn under a stone pallet. Something in him still says that the white man’s ways are not his ways, that the objects he may use every day are not of his making. He remembers a time, a way of imagining himself, that he leaves only at his peril. He can’t escape the grip of his memories. And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition.
A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you. A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground.
That evening, we drove east to Kariako, a sprawling apartment complex surrounded by dirt lots. The moon had dropped behind thick clouds, and light drizzle had begun to fall. As we climbed the dark stairwell, a young man bounded past us onto the broken pavement and into the night. At the top of three flights, Auma pushed against a door that was slightly ajar.
“Barry! You’ve finally come!”
A short, stocky woman with a cheerful brown face gave me a tight squeeze around the waist. Behind her were fifteen or so people, all of them smiling and waving like a crowd at a parade. The short woman looked up at me and frowned.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“I’m your Aunt Jane. It is me that called you when your father died.” She smiled and took me by the hand. “Come. You must meet everybody here. Zeituni you have already met. This…” she said, leading me to a handsome older woman in a green patterned dress, “this is my sister, Kezia. She is mother to Auma and to Roy Obama.”
Kezia took my hand and said my name together with a few words of Swahili.
“She says her other son has finally come home,” Jane said.
“My son,” Kezia repeated in English, nodding and pulling me into a hug. “My son has come home.”
We continued around the room, shaking hands with aunts, cousins, nephews, and nieces. Everyone greeted me with cheerful curiosity but very little awkwardness, as if meeting a relative for the first time was an everyday occurrence. I had brought a bag of chocolates for the children, and they gathered around me with polite stares as the adults tried to explain who I was. I noticed a young man, sixteen or seventeen, standing against the wall with a watchful expression.
“That’s one of your brothers,” Auma said to me. “Bernard.”
I went over to the young man and we shook hands, studying each other’s faces. I found myself at a loss for words but managed to ask him how he had been.
“Fine, I guess,” he answered softly, which brought a round of laughter from everyone.
After the introductions were over, Jane pushed me toward a small table set with bowls of goat curry, fried fish, collards, and rice. As we ate, people asked me about everyone back in Hawaii, and I tried to describe my life in Chicago and my work as an organizer. They nodded politely but seemed a bit puzzled, so I mentioned that I’d be studying law at Harvard in the fall.
“Ah, this is good, Barry,” Jane said as she sucked on a bone from the curry. “Your father studied at this school, Harvard. You will make us all proud, just like him. You see, Bernard, you must study hard like your brother.”
“Bernard thinks he’s going to be a football star,” Zeituni said.
I turned to Bernard. “Is that right, Bernard?”
“No,” he said, uncomfortable that he’d attracted attention. “I used to play, that’s all.”
“Well…maybe we can play sometime.”
He shook his head. “I like to play basketball now,” he said earnestly. “Like Magic Johnson.”
The meal smothered some of the initial excitement, and the children turned to a large black-and-white TV that was showing the munificence of the president: the president opens a school; the president denounces foreign journalists and various Communist elements; the president encourages the nation to follow the path of nyayo-“footsteps toward progress.” I went with Auma to see the rest of the apartment, which consisted of two bedrooms, both jammed from one end to the other with old mattresses.
“How many people live here?” I asked.
“I’m not sure right now,” Auma said. “It always changes. Jane doesn’t know how to say no to anybody, so any relative who moves to the city or loses a job ends up here. Sometimes they stay a long time. Or they leave their children here. The Old Man and my mum left Bernard here a lot. Jane practically raised him.”
“Can she afford it?”
“Not really. She has a job as a telephone operator, which doesn’t pay so much. She doesn’t complain, though. She can’t have her own children, so she looks after others’.”
We returned to the living room, and I sank down into an old sofa. In the kitchen, Zeituni directed the younger women in cleaning the dishes; a few of the children were now arguing about the chocolate I’d brought. I let my eyes wander over the scene-the well-worn furniture, the two-year-old calendar, the fading photographs, the blue ceramic cherubs that sat on linen doilies. It was just like the apartments in Altgeld, I realized. The same chain of mothers and daughters and children. The same noise of gossip and TV. The perpetual motion of cooking and cleaning and nursing hurts large and small. The same absence of men.
We said our good-byes around ten, promising to visit each and every relative in turn. As we walked to the door, Jane pulled us aside and lowered her voice. “You need to take Barry to see your Aunt Sarah,” she whispered to Auma. And then to me: “Sarah is your father’s older sister. The firstborn. She wants to see you very badly.”
“Of course,” I said. “But why wasn’t she here tonight? Does she live far away?”
Jane looked at Auma, and some unspoken thought passed between them. “Come on, Barack,” Auma said finally. “I’ll explain it to you in the car.”
The roads were empty and slick with rain. “Jane is right, Barack,” Auma told me as we passed the university. “You should go see Sarah. But I won’t go with you.”
“It’s this business with the Old Man’s estate. Sarah is one of the people who has disputed the will. She’s been telling people that Roy, Bernard, myself-that none of us are the Old Man’s children.” Auma sighed. “I don’t know. A part of me sympathizes with her. She’s had a hard life. She never had the chances the Old Man had, you see, to study or go abroad. It made her very bitter. She thinks that somehow my mum, myself, that we are to blame for her situation.”
“But how much could the Old Man’s estate be worth?”
“Not much. Maybe a small government pension. A piece of worthless land. I try to stay out of it. Whatever is there has probably been spent on lawyers by now. But you see, everyone expected so much from the Old Man. He made them think that he had everything, even when he had nothing. So now, instead of getting on with their lives, they just wait and argue among themselves, thinking that the Old Man somehow is going to rescue them from his grave. Bernard’s learned this same waiting attitude. You know, he’s really smart, Barack, but he just sits around all day doing nothing. He dropped out of school and doesn’t have much prospect for finding work. I’ve told him that I would help him get into some sort of trade school, whatever he wants, just so he’s doing something, you know. He’ll say okay, but when I ask if he’s gotten any applications or talked to the schoolmasters, nothing’s been done. Sometimes I feel like, unless I take every step with him, nothing will happen.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“Yes. Maybe you can talk to him. But now that you’re here, coming from America, you’re part of the inheritance, you see. That’s why Sarah wants to see you so much. She thinks I’m hiding you from her because you’re the one with everything.”
The rain had started up again as we parked the car. A single light bulb jutting from the side of the building sent webbed, liquid shadows across Auma’s face. “The whole thing gets me so tired, Barack,” she said softly. “You wouldn’t believe how much I missed Kenya when I was in Germany. All I could do was think about getting back home. I thought how I never feel lonely here, and family is everywhere, nobody sends their parents to an old people’s home or leaves their children with strangers. Then I’m here and everyone is asking me for help, and I feel like they are all just grabbing at me and that I’m going to sink. I feel guilty because I was luckier than them. I went to a university. I can get a job. But what can I do, Barack? I’m only one person.”
I took Auma’s hand and we remained in the car for several minutes, listening to the rain as it slackened. “You asked me what my dream was,” she said finally. “Sometimes I have this dream that I will build a beautiful house on our grandfather’s land. A big house where we can all stay and bring our families, you see. We could plant fruit trees like our grandfather, and our children would really know the land and speak Luo and learn our ways from the old people. It would belong to them.”
“We can do all that, Auma.”
She shook her head. “Let me tell you what I start thinking then. I think of who will take care of the house if I’m not here? I think, who can I count on to make sure that a leak gets fixed or that the fence gets mended? It’s terrible, selfish, I know. All I can do when I think this way is to get mad at the Old Man because he didn’t build this house for us. We are the children, Barack. Why do we have to take care of everyone? Everything is upside down, crazy. I had to take care of myself, just like Bernard. Now I’m used to living my own life, just like a German. Everything is organized. If something is broken, I fix it. If something goes wrong, it’s my own fault. If I have it, I send money to the family, and they can do with it what they want, and I won’t depend on them, and they won’t depend on me.”
“It sounds lonely.”
“Oh, I know, Barack. That’s why I keep coming home. That’s why I’m still dreaming.”
After two days, I still hadn’t recovered my bag. The airline office downtown told us to call the airport, but whenever we tried the lines were always busy. Auma finally suggested that we drive out there ourselves. At the British Airways desk we found two young women discussing a nightclub that had just opened. I interrupted their conversation to ask about my bag, and one of them thumbed listlessly through a stack of papers.
“We have no record of you here,” she said.
“Please check again.”
The woman shrugged. “If you wish, you can come back tonight at midnight. A flight from Johannesburg comes in at that time.”
“I was told my bag would be delivered to me.”
“I’m sorry, but I have no record of your bag here. If you like, you can fill out another form.” “Is Miss Omoro here? She-”
“Omoro is on vacation.”
Auma bumped me aside. “Who else can we talk to here, since you don’t seem to know anything.”
“Go downtown if you want to talk to someone else,” the woman said curtly before returning to her conversation.
Auma was still muttering under her breath when we stepped into the British Airways downtown office. It was in a high-rise building whose elevators announced each floor electronically in crisp Victorian tones; a receptionist sat beneath photographs of lion cubs and dancing children. She repeated that we should check the airport.
“Let me talk to the manager,” I said, trying not to shout.
“I’m sorry, but Mr. Maduri is in a meeting.”
“Look, miss, we have just come from the airport. They told us to come here. Two days ago I was told my bag would be delivered. Now I’m told that no one even knows it’s missing. I-” I stopped in midsentence. The receptionist had withdrawn behind a stony mask, a place where neither pleading nor bluster could reach. Auma apparently saw the same thing, for the air seemed to go out of her as well. Together we slumped into a pair of lounge chairs, not knowing what to do next, when a hand suddenly appeared on Auma’s shoulder. Auma turned to find the hand attached to a dark, wiry man dressed in a blue blazer.
“Eh, Uncle! What are you doing here?”
Auma introduced me to the man, who was related to us in a sequence that I couldn’t quite follow. He asked us if we were planning a trip, and Auma told him what had happened.
“Listen, don’t worry,” our uncle said. “Maduri, he is a good friend of mine. In fact, just now I am about to have lunch with him.” Our uncle turned crossly to the receptionist, who had been watching our conversation with considerable interest.
“Mr. Maduri already knows you are here,” she said, smiling.
Mr. Maduri turned out to be a heavyset man with a bulbous nose and a raspy voice. After we had repeated our story, he immediately picked up the phone. “Hello? Yes, this is Maduri. Who is this? Listen, I have Mr. Obama here who is looking for his luggage. Yes, Obama. He has been expecting his bag for some time now. What? Yes, look now, please.” A few minutes later the phone rang. “Yes…okay, send it to…” He relayed Auma’s office address, then hung up the phone and told us that the bag would be delivered there that same afternoon.
“Call me if you have any more problems,” he said.
We thanked both men profusely and immediately excused ourselves, worried that our luck might change at any moment. Downstairs, I stopped in front of a large photograph of Kenyatta that was hanging in an office window. His eyes dazzled with confidence and cunning; his powerful, bejeweled hand clutched the carved staff of a Kikuyu chieftain. Auma came and stood beside me.
“That’s where it all starts,” she said. “The Big Man. Then his assistant, or his family, or his friend, or his tribe. It’s the same whether you want a phone, or a visa, or a job. Who are your relatives? Who do you know? If you don’t know somebody, you can forget it. That’s what the Old Man never understood, you see. He came back here thinking that because he was so educated and spoke his proper English and understood his charts and graphs everyone would somehow put him in charge. He forgot what holds everything together here.”
“He was lost,” I said quietly.
Walking back to the car, I remembered a story Auma had told me about the Old Man after his fall from grace. One evening, he had told Auma to go to the store and fetch him some cigarettes. She reminded him that they had no money, but the Old Man had shaken his head impatiently.
“Don’t be silly,” he told her. “Just tell the storekeeper that you are Dr. Obama’s daughter and that I will pay him later.”
Auma went to the store and repeated what the Old Man had said. The storekeeper laughed and sent her away. Afraid to go home, Auma called on a cousin the Old Man had once helped get a job, who lent her the few shillings she needed. When she got home, the Old Man took the cigarettes, scolding her for taking so long.
“You see,” he said to her as he opened the pack. “I told you that you would have no problems.
Everyone here knows Obama.”
I feel my father’s presence as Auma and I walk through the busy street. I see him in the schoolboys who run past us, their lean, black legs moving like piston rods between blue shorts and oversized shoes. I hear him in the laughter of the pair of university students who sip sweet, creamed tea and eat samosas in a dimly lit teahouse. I smell him in the cigarette smoke of the businessman who covers one ear and shouts into a pay phone; in the sweat of the day laborer who loads gravel into a wheelbarrow, his face and bare chest covered with dust. The Old Man’s here, I think, although he doesn’t say anything to me. He’s here, asking me to understand.