Obama Reporters Go Back To The Beach
March 24, 2008, 03:49 PM
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Whenever the winter drags on, political reporters start getting interested in Barack Obama's warm-weather upbringing, so Newsweek now has a long article focusing on his youth: "When Barry Became Barack."
Keith Kakugaa was a close friend of Obama's at the Punahou School. (He appears in "Dreams" as a revised character named "Ray" who may be a composite of more than one Obama friend.)
In the book, "Ray" is one of Obama's only black friends at Puhahou School and he's very sensitive to anti-black discrimination. But the real Kakugawa, who appears to be the main (and perhaps only) model for Ray is, as you might guess from his name, half Japanese as well as half black.
He says that Obama, being a dark-skinned kid growing up in a white household, sensed that something was amiss. "He felt that he was not getting a part of who he was, the history," says Kakugawa, who is also of mixed race. He recalls Obama's reading black authors —James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes—looking for clues. Keith didn't know at first that Obama's given name was Barack. "We were in the library and there was a Malcolm X book," Kakugawa tells NEWSWEEK. "He grabbed it and looked at it and he's checking it out, and I said, 'Hold on, man. What you gonna do? Change your name to something Muslim?' He said, 'Well, my name is Barack Obama.' And I said, 'No it isn't.' And we got in an argument about that in the library and they had to tell us, 'Shhh'".

Back in Hawaii in the 1970s, it could seem that everyone was some kind of a minority. The fact that Obama was half-black and half-white didn't matter much to anyone but Obama, Kakugawa says: "He made everything out like it was all racial." On one occasion, Obama thought he'd gotten a bad break on the school basketball team because he was black. But Kakugawa recalls his father's telling the teenager, "No, Barry, it's not because you're black. It's because you missed two shots in a row." (Here, Kakugawa's memory is different from Obama's. The Ray character in the book is the one obsessed with being discriminated against.)

I wouldn't trust Kakugawa's word because he's an ex-con, but what he says is much more in line with what his non-jailbird classmates say than what Obama writes in his autobiography, so the evidence suggests that we should trust the low-life's word over the Presidential candidate's in this case.

There's a reason Obama leaves Ray's mixed heritage out of the book. In general, Hawaii's high degree of racial mixing is an unwelcome complicating factor in the story Obama is conjuring up about himself as a black kid in a white world. It's an easy story for most Americans to understand, but it doesn't make much sense to Obama's Hawaiian friends. Dreams from My Father tries to ignore just how common non-white and mixed race kids were in his privileged social circle at Punahou. I looked at one of Obama's class pictures, and of the 21 children at this expensive private school, at least 7 and perhaps 10 weren't wholly white.

Darin Maurer, another buddy of Obama's in Hawaii, never noticed any internal struggle. The two met in seventh grade, drawn together by a shared interest in basketball. Both Darin and his mother recall Obama as very integrated. Suzanne Maurer recalls that Barry and her white son, who had very curly hair, both sported Afro-style haircuts at one point. Mostly, both Maurers remember how smart Obama was. "He could whip out a paper that was due the next day the night before, while all the other kids were spending weeks writing," recalls Suzanne. Darin remembers some racial tensions in Hawaii at that time—expressed by Native Islanders against both whites and blacks. There were derogatory native words for both races. "I wouldn't be very surprised about any sort of derogatory stuff about a black person," says Darin, a pastor who now lives in Texas. "I knew that's what you had to accept … It wasn't like it was debilitating. It was just a challenge."
Interestingly, Barack Obama Sr. mentioned anti-white discrimination in Hawaii in a newspaper interview when he was a college student there, but the topic doesn't interest Obama Jr. Just as the anti-black beatings he suffered at the hands of Indonesian boys don't show up in his memoir. They just don't fit in his black and white mental universe.
The absence of his father taught Obama the importance of stories. These tales helped him make sense of who he was. (At least two acquaintances in his postgraduation years thought he was on a track to become a writer.) Stories made the murkier aspects of life coherent, or at least gave him confidence—that he could author his own life story, and thus become a master of the tale and not a victim.

As I've frequently noted, Obama is much more interesting than the typical politician, in sizable part because he's a creative artist, perhaps best described as an "identity artist" reminiscent of David Bowie in his ability to mold and change his own persona. For example, here's a wonderful video of Obama giving a 2007 speech to a conference of black clergy, where he has a much different accent and body language: languid, cocky, florid, and Southern. Here, Obama sounds and looks like the preacher who has the biggest church and the biggest Cadillac in Tupelo, Mississippi. (He does a shout-out to Rev. Wright between 1:00 and 2:00 of the 36:00 video).

I like this alternate persona of Obama's quite a bit. I hope he does his 220 pound Baptist minister who loves his BBQ ribs number for visitors to the White House just to freak them out.

(I wonder what other impressions Obama does? Maybe that's the secret part of Obama's diplomatic strategy of personally meeting with rogue foreign leaders. He'll invite Ahmadinejad to a summit conference, then do Borat the whole time they're negotiating. Or invite the Castro Brothers and do Ricky Ricardo: "Fidel, you got some 'splainin' to do!")

Still, it's a little disconcerting to see a potential President of the United States suddenly morphing into a different person. It's too reminiscent of the great 1996 "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos" Simpsons episode where at the Presidential debate, Clinton and Dole rip off their masks to reveal they are the space aliens Kodos and Kang:

 

Kodos: It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It's a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us.