One day when I was on the Radford High School track team in Hawaii, I was watching a race from the sidelines, which is where I spent my entire brief track career. A teammate was pulling away from the other schools’ runners. Two other teammates standing near me, both Hawaiians, got very excited.
“Look at that haole run!” one cried.
The other boy corrected him: “He’s not a haole.” A haole, you see, was someone who looked like me. The runner who was winning the race was of African descent.
The first speaker paused a second before happily shouting, “Look at that black Hawaiian run!” With that, his pedantic friend enthusiastically agreed.
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I’ve recalled that scene many times in recent months, as Barack Obama won a hard-fought campaign for the Democratic nomination, and proceeded to the point that he is poised to become president of the United States, barring a turnaround in both the economy and the political competence of his opposition.
Whenever I hear people speak breathlessly of his becoming the first black president, I think no, that’s not quite right. I don’t think of him that way. The details I know about him and his life just don’t add up to the description of “black man,” in terms of what that means here on the mainland.
I’ve said that several times, and each time, someone will demand to know what I mean. I have two answers to that. The first is short and simple: He has no ancestors who were brought to America in chains as slaves. Not one. That separates him from the entire American narrative of race.
This very long, rather complicated column is my other answer. This is who I think Barack Obama is, to the extent that you force me to categorize him ethnically.
First, I don’t want to do that. I don’t like doing that with anybody, and I like doing it even less in this case. I can look at John McCain and agree with you that he’s a white guy — a fact to which I attach no importance, but an easy one to agree upon and then set aside. But the Barack Obama who drew my support and that of my colleagues in the South Carolina primary is a person who — at least in my mind — defies such simple categorization. I don’t think of him as a white man or a black man. I think of him as the man who inspired a transported, ecstatic crowd in Columbia, S.C., to chant “Race doesn’t matter!” on the magical night of his victory.
Hard-headed pragmatists will point out to me that this man I see as the post-racial ideal won with more than three-quarters of the black vote that day in January, and that many of those voters were very excited about voting for him as a black man. This is true. But it is also true that a month or two earlier, most of those same voters had been expected to support Hillary Clinton. And while part of it was that they thought that as a black man he had no chance, part of it was also rooted in the oft-repeated charge that Sen. Obama was not “black enough.” The first excuse vanished when he won in lily-white Iowa. The second was no longer mentioned, although it remains as accurate as ever, if you consider a certain amount of “blackness” as being necessary. Which I don’t.
The thing that has struck me over and over is that in some ways Sen. Obama has as much in common with me as with the average black American voter. Hence the headline of this column, obviously drawn from the iconic book about a white man who tried to experience life as a black man, Black Like Me. You might think me presumptuous. But presumptuousness is but one trait I believe I have in common with the candidate. Some might call it “audacity.”
Granted, the fact that both of us graduated from high school on the island of Oahu is a thin commonality, but it’s a telling one. It’s certainly more significant than the coincidence that I once lived in his grandparents’ hometown of Wichita. There are important differences in our Hawaiian narratives, of course. He went to Punahou, a posh private school; Radford was public. I only attended the 12th grade there; he grew up there.
That is, he grew up there when he wasn’t living for several years in Djakarta, Indonesia. I also lived in the Third World as a child. In fact, I lived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, longer than anywhere else growing up. Young “Barry” and I both spent part of the 1960s thinking in a language other than English. Both of us lived a joyous outdoor, Huck Finn sort of existence in tropical, pre-television worlds (“one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy’s life,” he would later write), and just as happily returned to what he termed “the soft, forgiving bosom of America’s consumer culture.” We both had a period of adjustment in which our soccer-trained bodies struggled to “throw a football in a spiral.”
He lived with his (white) maternal grandparents while his mother was still in Indonesia and his father was far off in Kenya. I lived with my maternal grandparents (although with my mother and brother) while my Dad was in Vietnam.
We both ended our childhoods on an island where there were “too many races, with power among them too diffuse, to impose the mainland’s rigid caste system,” which produced what he called “the legend” of Hawaii “as the one true melting pot, an experiment in racial harmony.”
To me, it was more than a legend; it was reality. It was the first place where I saw significant numbers of interracial couples, and the only place where such unions excited little comment — within my hearing, at least.
But that’s where our stories diverge. It’s where Barack Obama began a quest to define himself, both ethnically and personally, as the son of his absent and little-known African father. He decided something I never felt compelled to decide — “that I needed a race.” Because of his father, and because of his own very limited experience with people around him calling attention to his unique appearance and strange name, he began a complex quest: “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America.”
That quote, and the preceding ones, are from his book about that quest, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. That memoir forced me to remember things that run against the perfection of my Hawaiian memories. As I read of his few personal encounters with racism in those years, from the real (a coach using the “n” word) to the merely suspected (why, he wondered, did a woman in the supermarket ask whether he played basketball?), I’m reminded of a girl I knew at Radford.
Her father was black, and her mother was white, which had never meant anything to me. But one day one of my best buddies told me of a terrible dilemma: He wanted to date this girl, and her mother insisted that any boy who took out her daughter had to first introduce her to his parents. This horrified both my friend and me, but for different reasons. I was pathologically shy, and had few dates in high school. If I’d had to introduce those girls first to my parents, I’d have had no dates at all — it would have raised the emotional stakes out of my range. I kept my two worlds — the one in which there were parents, and the one in which girls existed — strictly apart. So I thought it horribly cruel of the mother to raise an almost engagement-high barrier to her daughter’s social life.
But I also understood she was trying her best to protect her: My friend’s problem with taking her home was that he thought his working-class Irish parents would not approve.
It was amid such tensions between Hawaiian racelessness and Mainland prejudices that Barry Obama struggled to define himself. He listened to Marvin Gaye and mimicked the dance steps on “Soul Train.” He learned to curse like Richard Pryor. He sought out basketball games with the few young black men he could find. He turned to a friend who had lived in L.A. — the two of them were practically the only “black” students in the school — for clues. He read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as did I; it was required at Radford).
But in Hawaii, it was a struggle. While he believed he had to be a black man, it was nevertheless an identity he had to learn.
His conviction that blackness was an unavoidable thing he had to come to terms with is something that he does seem to have in common with most black Americans. It’s the perfect complement to my own white complacency about race as something we can all forget about.
But both of us emerged from polyglot, rootless childhoods to deliberately put on identities as adults. He worked on the mean streets of Chicago, eventually defining himself more specifically as a black man from Chicago. After a childhood devoid of religious identity, he joined the church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
For my part, I went from attending nondenominational military chapels to converting to Catholicism, and while I believe it is my true spiritual path, I also know that on some superficial level I embraced it as a welcome, sharply defined identity, a clear sense of self that I could never achieve as a white, partly Anglo-Saxon, vague Protestant.
And I quite deliberately went from being a geographically universal Navy brat without a trace of accent to define myself as a South Carolinian. I moved to the state of my birth, my mother’s home state, in 1987, and have never moved again. As Barack Obama — not Barry any more — dug relentlessly in the soil of Kenya for his heritage, I wrote scores of columns and editorials about the problematic meaning of the flag that my Confederate forefathers served under.
Very different, perhaps, but the process of deliberate self-definition unites us. That, and a certain analytical detachment of perspective that mars the perfection of our new identities.
There’s a reason why a lot of military brats become journalists. We become, as children, accustomed to trying to fit in, but at the same time being observers of the communities we try to embrace. There is a sense of outsiderness, a sense of being watchers, that we never entirely shake. So it is that I see a kindred spirit in the candidate who spoke in such professorial tones of “bitter” working-class whites — without malice, but with a detachment that alienated those he described.
And I could be dead wrong, but I think I understand how a man of such inclusive instincts could have sat in a pew for 20 years listening to the Rev. Wright’s outrageous black nationalism. There are times when, confronted with some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of Catholicism — say, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus — I think on some level, I suppose these Catholics do these things. And since I have decided to be Catholic, I accept it. I suspect there were times, many times, when Barack Obama thought on some level, I suppose these black preachers say these things, and accepted against his own inclinations.
Do you think I’ve gotten myself into enough trouble with enough people in this long, rambling reflection? I’m sure I have. But I hope I’ve communicated that while I see why some simply call Sen. Obama a “black man,” I’m more likely to think, “Barack like me.”
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