Obama is almost a singularity in America, in that he understood his blackness—and its costs—intellectually before he felt it. It was a choice, which he made open-eyed. Obama’s life growing up in Hawaii amongst haoles, Filipinos, and Japanese just wasn’t like a black man’s on the mainland. The African-American population of the state in the seventies was less than 2 percent, and the disenfranchised population in the islands were native Hawaiians. It was before the advent of MTV, so ghetto-speak wasn’t ubiquitous, and kids who liked to slum it with language played with pidgin. “Barack loves coming back to Hawaii because it is a gentle place, a place he can be himself,” says his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. “He had friends from all different backgrounds when he was growing up, and a lot of them were local. They’d cruise around in their beat-up beach buggies, going bodysurfing. Barack didn’t surf—his sense of balance wasn’t all that great.”
Not a single ancestor of Obama’s had blood from Hawaii, a place farther away from anywhere else than any other place on Earth (California is the nearest shore to Hawaii, at 2,600 miles away). His mom, Stanley Ann Dunham—given a boy’s name by her father because he’d hoped so much for one—was a free-spirited anthropology student at the University of Hawaii when she met Obama Senior, the first African student at the university. (As a black comedian put it, jarringly, at an Obama fund-raiser and comedy workshop I attended recently, “His mom screwed the darkest nigger she could find in 1969.”) The couple separated when he was 2, with his mother marrying an Indonesian, and his father eventually returning to Kenya to take more wives before dying broke and bitter.
From his mother, Obama received the message that blacks were the chosen people: “Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne,” he has written. “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.” He knew there was something wrong with this picture and started to resent her for her naïve romanticism, embarrassed by the way she cried when they went to see Black Orpheus. A pattern started to emerge: There was the white tennis pro who had told him not to touch the schedule of matches on a bulletin board because his “color might rub off,” or the assistant basketball coach who told him, after they lost a pickup game with some black men, that they shouldn’t have lost to a bunch of “niggers.” There was even his white grandmother, who refused to take the bus to work after a guy harassed her at the bus stop—not just any guy, but a black guy.
In Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he puts a pivotal part of his racial awakening in high school, a largely white private school in Honolulu. There, he met a half-black and half-Japanese student who taught him that the slights he brushed off when he was younger were the product of institutional racism. But this student, Keith Kakugawa, has denied to the Chicago Tribune that he played such a role, claiming that “Barry’s biggest struggles then were missing his parents. His biggest struggles were his feelings of abandonment. The idea that his biggest struggle was race is bull.” Obama’s memories of attending parties on military bases with black soldiers, in an attempt to feel connected to his race, have also been called into question by other black students. (Kakugawa has had a hard time fitting into the world himself: He’s been convicted three times for drug offenses and as of a year ago was homeless on L.A.’s skid row, which could call his memory into question.)
By college, Obama was still not sure where he belonged. At Columbia, he dated a white girl for a long time. One night, after seeing a provocative play by a black writer in New York, she asked him why black people were so angry all the time. “We had a big fight,” he writes. “When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself.” The gulf between them was too deep. They split up quickly.
While Obama struggled to incorporate blackness into his life, Michelle had to learn to integrate into the white world. She grew up in a strong black community on the South Side of Chicago, with a father who was a pump operator for the City of Chicago’s water department and who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30. It’s a story that embodies the American Dream, or a black version thereof. “Even though my father depended on the assistance of a cane and eventually a motorized cart, even though he was in pain, he was never late and never complained,” says Michelle. “He did it every single day so he could send me and my brother to some of the best schools in the country. His priority was to provide for his family and give his children the tools to succeed in life, and he did.” (The loss of Michelle’s father, in 1990, led her to pursue a life of public service: “It was a real awakening for me,” she says.)