Hawai'i's imperfect melting pot a big influence on young Obama
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Johnny Brannon
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's Hawai'i roots spread out in many directions, growing among people and cultures that helped shape his identity and values.
But in a state that's famous for ethnic diversity and inclusion, he sometimes experienced bigotry and felt deeply alienated.
Like his Kenyan father, who became the first African graduate of the University of Hawai'i, Obama saw flaws in the state's melting pot mythology.
But both men recognized that race relations were far better in Hawai'i than in many other places — and that the Isles offered important lessons.
"Hawai'i's spirit of tolerance might not have been perfect or complete, but it was — and is — real," Obama said shortly before his now-famous keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Obama is expected to announce his bid for president today in Springfield, Ill., where he served in the Illinois senate for eight years, representing Chicago.
Obama's father, also named Barack, had found decades earlier that people from similar ethnic backgrounds often tended to stick together in Hawai'i, co-existing with other groups rather than mixing freely.
The senior Obama arrived in Honolulu in 1959, the year Hawai'i became the 50th state — after years of statehood opposition rooted partly in racism among Mainland whites.
The elder Obama lived first at the Atherton YMCA on University Avenue and later moved to St. Louis Heights. People from different backgrounds seemed to generally get along well here, but various groups did discriminate against each other, he told The Advertiser upon graduating in 1962.
The 26-year-old found it "rather strange ... even rather amusing, to see Caucasians discriminated against here."
Kenya was just emerging from British colonialism after years of racial polarization and bloody rebellion. Whites there "do not want to work as equals," he lamented a year before his homeland achieved independence.
"There is ... one thing other nations can learn from Hawai'i," he said. "Here in the government and elsewhere, all races work together toward the development of Hawai'i."
He had married Shirley Ann Dunham, a Caucasian whose family had moved here from Kansas, while both were studying at UH. Their son was born in 1961, but the couple divorced when he was 2, and Dunham later married Lolo Soetoro, a student from Indonesia.
GROWING UP IN MANOA
During Barack Obama's childhood, he spent time with his maternal grandparents in quiet Manoa Valley in a modest wooden house on University Avenue near Kamanele Park.
After moving to Jakarta with his mother and stepfather for four years, Obama was sent back to Honolulu to enroll in Punahou School.
His mother soon separated from Soetoro and returned to Honolulu with their daughter Maya to pursue a master's degree in anthropology, Obama recalled in his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams from My Father."
"For three years I lived with her and Maya in a small apartment a block away from Punahou, my mother's student grants supporting the three of us," he wrote.
When his mother returned to Indonesia for fieldwork, Obama moved into his grandparents' Beretania Street apartment, where his grandmother still lives. She declined to be interviewed. His grandfather, an Army veteran, is buried in Punchbowl cemetery.
"I'd arrived at an unspoken pact with my grandparents: I could live with them and they'd leave me alone so long as I kept my trouble out of sight," Obama wrote.
The "trouble" stemmed from his struggle "to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant," he wrote.
A MINORITY IN THE ISLES
African-Americans were — and remain — a tiny minority in the Islands, less than 3 percent of O'ahu's population in the 2000 census. Obama's grandfather had a few black friends, mostly poker players and drinking buddies who said little.
Tourists at the beach would sometimes assume Obama was Hawaiian, and his grandfather "would come up beside them and whisper, with appropriate reverence, that I was the great-grandson of King Kamehameha," Obama recalled.
He became acutely aware that he was different from his peers, including his few black friends, he wrote.
He found identity on the basketball court, but later concluded that he had been "living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood."
The 1,200 students at Punahou were a diverse group when he graduated in 1979, mostly white, Asian, Hawaiian, or a mix thereof. Common names that follow Obama's in the school yearbook's index include O'Connor, Okamoto, Oshiro and O'Sullivan.
But yearbook photos of black or part-black students can be counted on one hand, and there were no black teachers.
"As a black kid in that type of high school, it could be difficult," said Richard Haenisch, who was a year younger than Obama and often played basketball with him.
"It was mostly the 'haves,' the Kahala crowd who were well-off, and it was mostly haole when we were there — certainly blacks were not prevalent there at all," said Haenisch, whose father was black and mother was European.
The basketball crowd focused on the sport and didn't seem to notice ethnic differences, he said. But personal relationships could be complicated.
"It was very difficult to date," he recalled. "It was not socially acceptable yet, not in a black-and-white kind of thing. The haole girls liked the hapa boys or Asian boys, and vice versa. It was very difficult to like a girl and have that girl be seen with a black kid on campus, unless he was some kind of a star, athletically."
Black people he met in Hawai'i usually came from far different backgrounds than he or Obama, said Haenisch, who had been raised in Germany and did not speak English when he moved here as a teen.
"Most blacks we came into contact with were Mainland blacks, who were mostly bitter toward white people in general, and they would transpose that to Hawai'i, which I don't think was fair," he said. "It was difficult, but not as difficult as it could be on the Mainland."
Punahou was strict and did not tolerate overt discrimination, and it was a great school overall, he said.
"I never regret for a moment that I graduated from Punahou," said Haenisch, who played for the Chaminade basketball team that upset No. 1 Virginia in 1982 and is now a stockbroker.
THE MULTIETHNIC MIX
Dan Hale, Obama's classmate and basketball teammate, described him as "a friendly, charismatic guy who could get along with everybody."
Hale said he never sensed ethnic tensions around Obama, but is now more sensitive to the experiences he described.
"I was pretty naive to the whole thing, I guess," he said. "For me, it wasn't any kind of an issue."
No one seemed to notice that the grandparents who were raising Obama happened to be white, said Hale, who now coaches basketball at the school.
"That wasn't even something I had thought about," he said. "Growing up in Hawai'i, for me it wasn't such an unusual thing. I guess, in retrospect, that it was."
A yearbook photo of the team shows Obama, Hale and others in a multiethnic mix that seems to reflect Hawai'i well. Obama wrote in an accompanying paragraph that "this team was a winner in every sense of the word."
Other group photos show smiling students of various skin tones together in high school activities and hijinks. Shots from a Halloween party include several boys dressed as Playboy bunnies, and another as the Jolly Green Giant, dressed in ti leaves with his skin painted green.
The same page shows three boys with toothy smiles dressed in ragged overalls, their hair tied in unruly tufts that stick up at all angles. With their faces and arms smeared black, the boys were "costume party hits as plantation slaves," according to the caption.
Senior portraits show smiling graduates alongside added personal touches, such as snapshots of friends or pets, poetry, slogans and fond farewells.
"Barry" Obama, as he was then known, wears a 1970s-style wide-collared shirt and sports jacket, his hair in a neatly trimmed afro that covers the tops of his ears.
He added a photo of himself playing basketball, and a shot entitled "Still Life" that includes numerous items. Among them are a trophy, telephone, turntable and beer bottle.
A package of "Zig-Zag" rolling papers and a matchbook are prominently displayed in front, and in a brief caption he thanked the "Choom Gang" and others "for all the good times."
Obama wrote candidly in his autobiography about drug and alcohol use, and mentioned that a close friend had been arrested for drug possession during his high school years.
Getting high was "something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind."
Alan Lum, another basketball teammate at Punahou, said Obama always seemed happy, easy-going, and had an infectious smile. He was not known as a drug-user, and showed no obvious signs of personal problems.
"Back then, we were all clueless to the fact that something like this was going on," said Lum, who now teaches at Punahou. "As an adult now, I feel for him."
Lum said he stresses to his students the importance of tolerance and respect for others.
"A lot of kids, during adolescence, go through inner turmoil, and you try to find where you fit in, so I can see how he could go through that," he said of Obama. "He might have been having some internal struggles, but it never dawned on us because he was always upbeat and never did mention stuff like that."
Reach Johnny Brannon at email@example.com.