Obama on O’ahu
The week of summer that we were in Hawai’i visiting our son, Barack Obama brought his family to visit his tutu, his grandmother Toot. Crowds welcomed them with munificent aloha. Commentators back on the mainland worried, the presidential candidate had gone off to a foreign, barely American place. Seeing him and his wife and daughters at the beaches and parks and basketball court – he showed them the ‘aina –people said to one another, “He’s a local boy.” The newspapers declared, “Obama’s a local boy.”
I’m sure that Obama was hoping that African Americans would understand, that among the people of Hawai’i, it’s an honor and not a putdown to be dubbed local boy. Like kama’aina, child of the land. Obama conducts himself modestly, and the locals love that in him.
He was so careful not to be seen as exotic; he wore dark shirts; he never wore a lei. I remember my brother, whom I saw off at the Honolulu airport on his way to Vietnam. He took off the lei I gave him. I guessed, you aren’t supposed to wear flowers in uniform. Macho men don’t wear leis. Leis aren’t presidential.
Obama carried a lei curled up in his hand. He placed it on his grandfather’s grave at Punchbowl National Cemetery. Gramps had enlisted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and was part of Patton’s army.
Hawai’i has names for its many kinds of people. Our son is hapa haole hapa Paké, half white half Chinese. You could say that Obama is hapa haole hapa popolo, half white half black. But his schoolmates wouldn’t’ve seen the haole part, and simply called him popolo. And there is continuous linguistic argument whether haole is a good word or a bad word.
To see how the writer, Barack Obama, made sense of growing up in the Pacific, Oceania, and how his life shaped his thinking, I read Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. What a true writer he is! He writes like Charles Dickens, and his young self was like Oliver Twist and Pip and David Copperfield making their way in the world. He recalls his mother taking him to Indonesia, where he played among the streets and alleys and shadow puppets and markets.
I’d always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though…I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, and they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.
Starting at the most basic street market, he follows workers to factories, what happens to them at the closing of factories, the takeover of forests by timber interests, the vanishing of forests. He examines the consequences of globalization, keeping in mind the ordinary family, always his main concern as he seeks solutions for the worsening national and world economy.
Altgeld Gardens is a public housing project in southernmost Chicago. As a community organizer there, Barack Obama practiced his modest ways. To build a community, the effective leader empowers everyone else.
I pointed to Sadie. “She’s the spokesperson.”
The TV crews began to set up, and the reporters took out their notebooks. Sadie excused herself and dragged me aside.
“I don’t wanna talk in front of no cameras.”
“I don’t know. I never been on TV before.”
“You’ll be fine.”
In a few minutes the cameras were rolling, and Sadie, her voice quavering slightly, held her first press conference.
I am certain that growing up in Hawai’i, Obama learned the values of ho’oponopono and ohana. In ho’oponopono, a gathering of people keep discussing things until they reach consensus, and all is put to rights. Ohana is family, clan, extended family, kin group, sacred community. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community. It’s been Barack Obama’s lifelong mission to integrate all of us. “We are not a collection of Red States and Blue States — We are the United States of America. There is not a black America, a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” He has worked hard organizing Altgeld, and America, into the Beautiful Community. At last – a candidate for President who has done real work!
By the time he visited Kenya, Obama was a grown, educated man. There he discovered a most interesting concept of home. His relatives took him to Home Square.
“It’s something the kids in Nairobi used to say,” Auma explained. “There’s your ordinary house in Nairobi. And then there’s your housE in the country, where your people come from. Your ancestral home. Even the biggest minister or businessman thinks this way. He may have a mansion in Nairobi and build only a small hut on his land in the country. He may go there only once or twice a year. But if you ask him where he is from, he will tell you that that hut is his true home. So, when we were at school and wanted to tell somebody we were going to Alego, it was home twice over, you see. Home Squared.”
How wonderful to dare hope for the President of the United States of America to be at home in all the wide world. And he would know to say, “Aloha kakou.” Lovingkindness to all people, including me. Including me. Aloha kakou.
Maxine Hong Kingston
Living Treasure of Hawai'i
Accent marks my computer can’t make:
There should be a macron over the first a in ‘aina.
And the third a in kama’aina.
And the a in kakou.