Barack Obama lived in Hawaii (1961-1967, 1971-1979) till age five and again from age 10 to 18. In between he lived in Indonesia. His mother sent him back to Hawaii at ten for his education. He got into one of the top schools there. Although his mother did return to Hawaii, she often worked abroad. When she did Obama, then known as Barry, lived with her parents, meaning his white grandparents.
In Indonesia Obama was simply a curious-looking American, but now back in America he was black.
Being black meant that the white and Asian girls would not date you unless you were a big sports hero. It meant that people called you names – and wondered why you made such a big deal about it. In sports it meant that less able white players were favoured over you.
It meant that whites tended to keep their distance from you. It meant that when they were nice to you it was done kind of as a favour – not out of any true respect.
It meant always living in someone else’s world where they made the rules. Where escape would be just that – escape, and therefore defeat.
His father was black and understood Hawaii better than most. But he was in Africa. He sent letters but they made little sense to Obama.
Obama’s family in Hawaii was white. They did not understand.
His best friend in high school was Ray, one of the few blacks at his school. Ray seemed to understand Obama better than anyone. And he got him into all the black parties – where the girls would take him seriously. Ray also had strong opinions about being black.
But Ray was only two years older than Obama and did not have all the answers.
So Obama shut himself in his room and read book after book by black authors like Baldwin, Ellison, Wright and Langston Hughes. Looking for answers. But, except for Malcolm X, being black always ended the same way: in bitterness and defeat.
One day he found out that his white grandmother was afraid of black men! And yet she loved him dearly and gave up so much for him. How could that be?
There was an old black poet that Obama knew, wise in years. He said his grandmother was right to be afraid: she knew blacks deep down hated her as a white person. He also told Obama that no white person could ever fully understand what it was to be black. Nor could any white person ever be fully trusted.
And yet Obama’s mother was white. Unlike Malcolm X, the white side of him was something he would have to make sense of and face up to sooner or later.
Although Obama seemed happy on the outside, on the inside he was torn apart by questions of who he was. He turned to drink and drugs to push those questions out of his mind.