Obama’s birth meant a new life for his grandparents

Stanley and Madelyn Dunham didn’t know many black people until their daughter fell in love with a college classmate from Africa.

The Dunhams, white Midwesterners who had settled in Hawaii, may not have been thrilled when the couple decided to marry, but when their grandson, Barack Obama, was born in 1961, they embraced him, Obama writes in his memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

And as the Dunhams’ world expanded, they grew hopeful that racism would soon lose its hold nationwide, writes Obama, who was raised in their home:

Sharing a few beers with my father, Gramps might listen to his new son-in-law sound off about politics or the economy, about far-off places like Whitehall or the Kremlin, and imagine himself seeing into the future. He would begin to read the newspapers more carefully, finding early reports of America’s newfound integrationist creed, and decide in his mind that the world was shrinking, sympathies changing; that the family from Wichita had in fact moved to the forefront of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Dr. King’s magnificent dream. How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in bondage?

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders as the astronauts from one of the Apollo missions arrived at Hickam Air Force Base after a successful splashdown. I remember the astronauts, in aviator glasses, as being far away, barely visible through the portal of an isolation chamber. But Gramps would always swear that one of the astronauts waved just at me and that I waved back. It was part of the story he told himself. With his black son-in-law and his brown grandson, Gramps had entered the space age.

While African Americans were scarce in Hawaii, many of the state’s residents were either Native or Asian, and the races mixed with little to-do, Obama writes.

In such surroundings, my racial stock caused my grandparents few problems, and they quickly adopted the scornful attitude local residents took toward visitors who expressed such hangups.

Sometimes when Gramps saw tourists watching me play in the sand, he would come up beside them and whisper, with appropriate reverence, that I was the great-grandson of King Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first monarch. “I’m sure that your picture’s in a thousand scrapbooks, Bar,” he liked to tell me with a grin, “from Idaho to Maine.”

That particular story is ambiguous, I think; I see in it a strategy to avoid hard issues. And yet Gramps would just as readily tell another story, the one about the tourist who saw me swimming one day and, not knowing who she was talking to, commented that “swimming must just come naturally to these Hawaiians.” To which he responded that that would be hard to figure, since “that boy happens to be my grandson, his mother is from Kansas, his father is from the interior of Kenya, and there isn’t an ocean for miles in either damn place.”