Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Search for Self in Obama's Hawaii Childhood

A nice story on the front page of today's NY Times on Obama's high school years in Hawaii.

The political narrative of Mr. Obama was written about 4,500 miles and a cultural universe away from here, largely in Illinois. But the seeds of his racial consciousness, its attendant alienation and political curiosity appear to have been planted in Hawaii.

There was, by the description of his classmates, coaches and teachers, their Barry, the one who still looks remarkably like the picture in his yearbook, smiling under his Afro, or posing somewhat stiffly with other children under a sign “Mixed Races of America.”

That Barry had a confident gait, a cheerful smile and a B average.

“He had the same exact mannerisms then as he does now,” said Eric Kusunoki, Mr. Obama’s homeroom teacher at the Punahou School. “When he walked up to give that speech at the Democratic convention, we recognized him right away by the way he walked. He was well liked by everybody, a very charismatic guy.”

And there was the other Barry, the child of a white American mother, Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, and a Kenyan father, also named Barack, who left when Mr. Obama was young and who is also dead. That Barry, described in Mr. Obama’s book, “Dreams From My Father,” was the one whose young classmate once asked him if his “father ate people,” who endured whispered racial epithets, whose sense of being a misfit haunted him into high school, where at times, he says, he hid behind a haze of marijuana smoke and unhappiness.

“He struggled here with the idea that people were pushing an identity on him, what it meant to be a black man,” said Ms. Soetoro-Ng, whose own father was Indonesian.

“He was trying to balance that with a desire he already had then to name himself,” she said. “There were not a lot of people here who were engaged in that process. Their identities were more solidly assumed. Having a community that embraced you without question was something that most people had. But he had lived in Indonesia, had a father who was absent but whose presence loomed large and a mother who had lived in 13 places.”

As a result, she said, Mr. Obama, while “not a brooding young man — he played sports and formed close friendships and wasn’t overly serious” — often “wrapped himself in his own solitude.”

A Search for Self in Obama’s Hawaii Childhood
Published: March 17, 2007

HONOLULU, March 12 — To his high school classmates, Barack Obama was a pleasant if undistinguished student, the guy who seemed happiest on the basketball court, the first to dive into the pumpkin carving at Halloween, the one whose oratorical prowess was largely limited to out-debating classmates over the relative qualities of point guards.


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