A Search for Self in Obama’s Hawaii Childhood
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
HONOLULU, March 12 — To his high school classmates, Barack Obama
was a pleasant if undistinguished student, the guy who seemed happiest
on the basketball court, the first to dive into the pumpkin carving at
Halloween, the one whose oratorical prowess was largely limited to
out-debating classmates over the relative qualities of point guards.
But Mr. Obama’s family here in Hawaii
saw a more complex young man, a person whose racial confusion and
feelings of alienation were matched with equal parts ambition,
disquietude and lofty notions about where his internal struggles might
“There was always a joke between my mom and Barack that he would be
the first black president,” his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said in an
interview over tea. “So there were intimations of all this early on. He
has always been restless. There was always somewhere else he needed to
It was his early search for a cultural identity on this
plumeria-scented island populated with people of diverse origins, but
relatively few blacks, that presaged his current political persona, his
“He couldn’t sit back and wait for the answers to come to him,”
said Ms. Soetoro-Ng, the child of Mr. Obama’s mother from another
marriage, who remains close to him. “He had to pursue those answers
actively. People from very far-away places collide here, and cultures
collide, and there is a blending and negotiation that is constant.”
She continued, “I think Hawaii gave him a sense that a lot of
different voices and textures can sort of live together, however
imperfectly, and he would walk in many worlds and feel a level of
The political narrative of Mr. Obama was written about 4,500 miles
and a cultural universe away from here, largely in Illinois. But the
seeds of his racial consciousness, its attendant alienation and
political curiosity appear to have been planted in Hawaii.
There was, by the description of his classmates, coaches and
teachers, their Barry, the one who still looks remarkably like the
picture in his yearbook, smiling under his Afro, or posing somewhat
stiffly with other children under a sign “Mixed Races of America.”
That Barry had a confident gait, a cheerful smile and a B average.
“He had the same exact mannerisms then as he does now,” said Eric
Kusunoki, Mr. Obama’s homeroom teacher at the Punahou School. “When he
walked up to give that speech at the Democratic convention, we
recognized him right away by the way he walked. He was well liked by
everybody, a very charismatic guy.”
And there was the other Barry, the child of a white American mother,
Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, and a Kenyan father, also named Barack,
who left when Mr. Obama was young and who is also dead. That Barry,
described in Mr. Obama’s book, “Dreams From My Father,” was the one
whose young classmate once asked him if his “father ate people,” who
endured whispered racial epithets, whose sense of being a misfit
haunted him into high school, where at times, he says, he hid behind a
haze of marijuana smoke and unhappiness.
“He struggled here with the idea that people were pushing an
identity on him, what it meant to be a black man,” said Ms. Soetoro-Ng,
whose own father was Indonesian.
“He was trying to balance that with a desire he already had then to
name himself,” she said. “There were not a lot of people here who were
engaged in that process. Their identities were more solidly assumed.
Having a community that embraced you without question was something
that most people had. But he had lived in Indonesia, had a father who
was absent but whose presence loomed large and a mother who had lived
in 13 places.”
As a result, she said, Mr. Obama, while “not a brooding young man —
he played sports and formed close friendships and wasn’t overly
serious” — often “wrapped himself in his own solitude.”
While Mr. Obama has several half siblings from his father’s other
marriages, Ms. Soetoro-Ng, 39, is the only one he spent significant
time with as a child. He spoke at her wedding, and he sees her each
Christmas when he comes to Hawaii.
As a child, living at times with his mother and at other times with
his maternal grandparents, Mr. Obama straddled the worlds of a
cloistered private school and a comforting if knotty existence among
family members, accompanied by a cast of marginalized older men and
poets attached to his grandfather and largely unknown to his largely
Mr. Obama, whose parents met at the University of Hawaii, was born here on Aug. 4, 1961.
In 1967, he moved with his mother to live with her second husband in
Indonesia. When he was 10, the family returned to Oahu, where he lived
until graduating from high school.
“My first memories are on Poki Street,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. “There
was a big chair, and we would rock and rock together until it fell
backwards.” She said she tortured her brother in all the normal ways —
blocking his view of sports on television, building impediments with
toys for him to trip on.
Mr. Obama’s grandparents enrolled him in the Punahou School, founded
in 1841 by Congregational missionaries. It is among the largest private
schools in the country.
Punahou, with its rolling green lawns, imposing lava rock buildings
and chapel in the center of a lily pond, was not an insignificant
While power is asserted and social relativity established in Los
Angeles by the car you drive, and in New York by the college you
attended, in Honolulu, those things often hinge on where you went to
“Because we are isolated physically, when you go away to college
and then come back, it is our way of identifying ourselves,” said Matt
Martinson, a classmate of Mr. Obama who now teaches at the school.
Another classmate, Kelli Furushima, who manages a kitchen supply
store, said she liquidated her America Online stock so she could donate
$5,000 for a new middle school, with seed money provided by another
Punahou alumnus, Steve Case, the former chairman of AOL Time Warner.
(Ms. Furushima seems to have lighted a fire in Mr. Obama’s high
school heart, judging by his sugary entries in her yearbook in which he
expressed regret that the two had never dated. “He never asked,” she
All of this helps explain why Kiki Fordham, the director of alumni
relations, stood on the veranda of the alumni house saying she had
dreamed that Mr. Obama would announce his intentions to run for
president there, not in Springfield, Ill.
But Mr. Obama’s relationship to the school was more nuanced than
that of other alumni, according to his book. He started out
disoriented, unaccustomed to skateboards, wearing his sandals from
Jakarta, ill at ease at his classmates’ homes with swimming pools and
large rooms. “I made few friends,” he wrote.
When he discovered basketball, his lot improved. Punahou “has
always been a school of cliques,” said Dan Hale, who played basketball
with Mr. Obama.
By the accounts of Mr. Hale and other teammates — who won a
championship his senior year of high school — and his coach, Mr. Obama
was a tireless player.
“He was on a very, very strong team,” said his coach, Chris
McLachlin. “Had he been on any other team in the league, he would have
been a starter. But he practiced hard, and his work ethic might have
been above everyone else’s. He practiced at the 10 a.m. juice break; he
practiced at the lunch break at noon; and he was the last one to leave
The curriculum at Punahou — where library clocks give the time in some developing nations — centered on multiculturalism.
“He seems to have the skills that a lot of people in our class had,
which is to pull diverse people together,” said Bernice Glenn Bowers,
But Mr. Obama continued to feel assailed by insensitive comments and
by classmates and a coach, who used an epithet when they referred to
black opponents. Mr. Obama also felt trapped between the black
experiences of the characters in his library books and his life as one
of the few blacks in the school.
“I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt, a self-contempt
that neither irony not intellect seemed able to deflect,” he wrote.
He took refuge among older black men whom he challenged to games of
basketball, a figure identified in his book as Frank, a poet and
incessant crank, and college parties populated with blacks.
Those revelations surprised many former classmates. “I kind of feel bad,” said Alan Lam, a teammate. “I didn’t know.”
Few saw Mr. Obama as a standout academically, or intellectually.
“He was clearly bright,” said a classmate, Debbie Ching, “but there are people in our class that are nuclear physicists.”
He was not particularly political, nor was he the first one to speak up at assemblies or in class, several people said.
But he did have writing skills, composing poetry for the school’s
literary magazine. One poem, “An Old Man,” lamented, “He pulls out
forgotten dignity from under his flaking coat, and walks a straight
line along the crooked world.”
In the complicated racial dynamic of Hawaii, many students were,
perhaps, too preoccupied with their own identities to worry about how
Mr. Obama was puzzling out his own.
“I had my own issues to worry about,” said Mr. Hale, who is white —
or ha’ole (pronounced HOW-ley) — the Hawaiian term for white outsider.
“Being a ha’ole from Punahou, now that was the worst,” he recalled.
Mr. Obama still visits his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who
lives in the same high-rise apartment where Mr. Obama spent much of his
childhood. “I’m not well,” she said on the telephone, explaining her
refusal to meet for an interview.
Mr. Obama spoke during chapel service at Punahou in 2004, plays golf
with high school buddies, visits with his sister and occasionally stops
at the Chowder House restaurant, where the staff remembers him from
“Hawaii is his place of retreat,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. “There are a lot of constants here.”
Le Mensonge peut courir un an, la vérité le rattrape en un jour, dit le sage Haoussa
se SURPASSER ,ne JAMAIS ABDIQUER,TOUJOURS RESTER HUMBLE