by Manfred Henningsen
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two part series on the Obama – Hawaii connection by Manfred Henningsen, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Maybe the explanation for this mysterious social and political distance between Obama and Hawaii can be found in his autobiographical book, Dreams from My Father (1995). In this book with the revealing subtitle ‘A Story of Race and Inheritance’, he describes the traumatizing impact of American racism on both his parents. His white mother, S. Ann Dunham, grew up in the late 1940s and the 1950s in the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere of the mainland. His father, Barack Obama Senior, joined the University of Hawaii in 1959 on a scholarship for economics. Ann and Barack Senior met in 1960 in a Russian language class, dated and got married. When he graduated in 1962, a year after his son was born, he was interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
After all, he was the first student from Africa at the university. His son’s comments on the interview are intriguing and point in the direction of his own unsettled identity: “…he appears guarded and responsible, the model student ambassador for his continent. He mildly scolds the university for herding visiting students into dormitories and forcing them to attend programs designed to promote cultural understanding – a distraction, he says, from the practical training he seeks.
Although he hasn’t experienced any problems himself, he detects self-segregation and overt discrimination taking place between the various ethnic groups and expresses wry amusement at the fact that ‘Caucasians’ in Hawaii are occasionally at the receiving end of prejudice.” Obama Junior ends the narrative about his father on a positive note, when he quotes a concluding statement, his father made in the interview with the newspaper: “One thing other nations can learn from Hawaii, he says, is the willingness of races to work together toward common development, something he has found whites elsewhere too often unwilling to do.”
This account of Obama’s father’s views by the son is preceded by reflections that may hint also at his own misgivings about playing a symbolic role he refuses to inherit. He mentions how it took some time for the initially stereotypical racial attitudes of his grandparents to change. He places the love story of his parents in the “…fleeting period between Kennedy’s election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrowmindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction, one that haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere childhood.”
Obama acknowledges Hawaii’s exceptional story without denying: “The ugly conquest of the native Hawaiians through aborted treaties and crippling disease brought by the missionaries; the carving up of rich volcanic soil by American companies for sugarcane and pineapple plantations; the indenturing system that kept Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants stooped sunup to sunset in these same fields; the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war – all this was recent history.” When his family arrived, he writes, “it had somehow vanished from collective memory, like morning mist that the sun burned away.
There were too many races, with power among them too diffuse, to impose the mainland’s rigid caste system; and so few blacks that the most ardent segregationists could enjoy a vacation secure in the knowledge that race mixing in Hawaii had little to do with the established order at home.” And then comes a sentence that begins to explain Obama’s existential distance: “Thus the legend was made of Hawaii as the one true melting pot, an experiment in racial harmony.”
For Obama the story of Hawaii as recovered Eden had a missing link, the absence of his father. He wasn’t told why he had left and surmises whether the Eden story could have been a trigger event. He didn’t want to become “a prop in someone else’s narrative. An attractive prop – the alien figure with the heart of gold, the mysterious stranger who saves the town and wins the girl – but a prop nonetheless.” Obama doesn’t blame his mother or grandparents for having designed an almost mythical narrative like this and concedes that his “father may have preferred the image they created for him – indeed, he may have been complicit in its creation.”
Obama’s Hawaii was a legend for him that did not represent America’s historical and political reality. Yet it socialized him in an un-American way, turned him into an “alien” yet extremely appealing “stranger” for a large section of the US population. The African dimension of his person that connected him with his absent father made it impossible for him to accept Hawaii as his political lifeworld. That may also be in the final analysis the reason for having chosen Chicago as the location for his Presidential Center.
Manfred Henningsen is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, where he taught from 1970 until 2020.