Thursday, January 19, 2017

As the Elementary School Kids Reflect on Mr. Obama


The Elections, came, and the hateful dirt just kept spilling out in the open, for all to see, for so many to be buried under. Sentiments were badly hurt. Hurt because, groups of people started to receive names, allegations and distrust. Someone had to win the White House, and so we now have a new President-Elect. As we look to the new with anticipation, as a mother of two small kids, for me, it is only fair to start thinking what is it that the elementary school kids, (at max 11 years of age currently), are going to perceive as the legacy of their memory’s first President….the man they have till date seen on T.V. as  the leader of their country? What will they remember about Oh-bama?

I am very proud already that my oldest daughter- a 3rd grader will forever remember that her first recollections of her country’s President are that of a tall, lanky man, with a tightly grazed salt and pepper hair, and a skin color that was not remarkable at all! In being who he is, The President, the leader, the wise one, the smiling one, the funny one, I hope that for this cohort of elementary kids, he has made color a non-issue. Perhaps he has. And if we are lucky, maybe he has made being non-white a normal. Going by the entire spectrum of things that my daughters say they want to be, that they think they can be, from gymnasts, and pianists to astronauts, and Presidents(!), I am somewhat confident that they, at least as of today, do not know, nor believe in skin color. And that is a big thing.

It is a big thing, because unfortunately, this is also an era of a resurgence of Black Lives Matter. A bigger misfortune is that there is a need for the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. Personally for me, it is somewhat incredible that in the sixteen years that I have been in the U.S., racial tensions have so flared up, and become so center-stage, now, under the presidency of a black President. Obama had nothing to do with what happened to Trayvon Martin in 2012, and to the subsequent galvanizing of the Black Movement. Yet his seemingly impromptu (or at the least unexpected) rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ in the Charleston Church at the funeral service for Rev. Pinckney- one of 9 people gunned down by a racist terrorist, in 2015, was a soulful alignment with his identity…that of a Black man. And it has not been an easy, nor a straightforward, journey to this identity for him. And one can see why?

By the latest census available, that of 2010, we can see that even in the highly demographically diverse universe of our country today, only 9.5% of all married couples in the U.S. are inter-racial. And of this, only a little over 422,000 are a black and white combination. Understandably, Mrs. Obama (Senior)’s choice of a black husband back in the 60s would not have been taken easily, not by her family, nor by friends. And yet, from what Barack recalls in his biographical book Dreams From My Father, his Kansas native white grandparents who themselves were then recent transplants in Hawaii, rarely exhibited an emotion that reflected systemic opposition to the blackness of their son-in-law. In fact the absent Obama was always spoken of in high praises, mainly for his academic strides -raised in rural Kenya reaching all the way to Harvard, via Hawaii, and for his charming personality complete with a sharp sense of dressing and an erudite wit to accompany that.

Little Barry is growing up in an all white household, surrounded by a white mother and white grandparents. He probably looks at the mirror, but he is still too small to see that no one in his family looks like him. His progenitor, the giver of all that’s black about him, his father, is gone from Hawaii, first to pursue his degree in Harvard, and then back to Kenya, to be with his first wife, their children, his village full of family, in a country beckoning with promises in the newly found independence.
Barack Obama would only meet his living father once at age ten. But before that he would shuttle from one continent to another with that one person who always believed in him and who never abandoned him, his mother. After Barack Senior left Hawaii and was gone for more than four years, his mother dated and eventually re-married, another foreign student on the campus of the University of Hawaii, this time an Indonesian. Barry would reach Asia as a six year old, to stay there for three years. He would see first hand what it meant to live in a world where nothing was to be taken for granted. He would live in a stucco house with a mango tree full of monkeys in the front yard, and birds, dogs and baby alligators in the backyard. He would walk through dirt roads with village vagrants picking up fights, and returning home with bloodied face and bruises he tried desperately to hide from a mother who could see her only son falling through the cracks. She would supplement his Indonesian schooling with American education, teaching him herself from course packs that she diligently ordered by mail. But Indonesia was itself undergoing political upheavals and Barry’s mom resented how her husband was changing with the power he had negotiated in the new set up. She wanted her son to know better. Barry was sent back to Hawaii.

Barry, a ten year old black kid, is admitted to Punahou Academy in Hawaii, one of the country’s top pre-schools. He gets in there after multiple rounds of interviews and innumerable paper work. Gradually, Barry is beginning to see how he is different from the majority of people around him. He is not only a black kid in a largely white school, but he is also one of the few students who comes from a fairly modest household compared to the majority who come from stable and affluent ones. He has his white mother’s eye brows (as his mother would often joke with him), but there is no denying that he is not white. It could not have been easy for him to assimilate the looks, and the behavior of people around him when they reacted to him as they would to someone Black, in the 60s, or even the 70s. He is practically all white in terms of who is raising him, the house he is being nurtured in, and the school he is attending. But he can’t scream his mixed identity to everyone he meets, because not all introductions lend easily to such topics, and two, most importantly, something inside him wants him not to use his half invisible yet firmly true half whiteness as a license to sneak into a group of his choice.

As Harper Lee would write in To Kill A Mockingbird, referring to someone with a mixed heredity,
“…They’re real sad.”
“Sad, how come?”
“They don’t belong anywhere. Colored folks won’t have ‘em because they’re half white, white folks won’t have ‘em ‘cause they’re colored, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere.”

Barry loves his mother and grandparents, but there is probably a ‘sadness’ which he can’t fathom, and he is thus beginning to feel an affinity for that which is absent from his life---the Blackness of his Black Father. Because in accepting his own blackness, he finds acceptance, in that which is true about him. This acceptance empowers him, and despite the typical trials and travails of adolescence, he eventually nurtures an understanding, and an empathy for not just Blacks but for all who are marginalized, and misunderstood. And that is how a Harvard Law Graduate refuses to accept high figure lawyerly jobs, to become a grassroots community organizer, not in Boston nor in New York, but on the South Side of Chicago. And rest as we all know is recent history, fascinating history and of course one that educates us about how, when we are lucky, we get thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate people to become our leaders.

As a mother, I had initially felt spurned by the fact that Barack Obama decided to write a book in the name of his father, even when his father had abandoned him. I felt betrayed for the mother, who carried him with her wherever she went, and actively shaped his experiences for the better. That was until I read the revised foreword for the book, and I felt truly relieved and almost rewarded. Reflecting on his mother who had died a few months after the book was first published, he writes ‘I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book-less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.’

As a mother, it pleases me immensely to know that regardless of what aspect of Barack Obama my children will choose to examine tomorrow as adults, they will know that within him he encompassed the true spirit of being an American. He is black, and white, and caring.


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