If you hadn’t been paying attention during those early days of Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the U.S. presidency, you could have been excused for thinking: this is one tough, black American, forged in the racial cauldron of Chicago. Indeed, the Windy City is where he did cut his teeth as a social organizer in low-income, black neighbourhoods and the metropolis where he established his political base. So no doubt it came as a surprise to many when they first learned that, except for a few years in Indonesia, Obama was actually born and raised in, of all places, Honolulu, as far from Chicago’s hardscrabble grit as can be imagined.
His Honolulu upbringing is a fascinating tale, well told in Obama’s own absorbing memoir, Dreams From My Father. I got a brief taste of it in February, 2008, when the Globe and Mail sent me on a quickie assignment to flesh out Obama’s “roots” in Hawaii. I didn’t get that much on such short notice, but I did talk to a few of his former classmates, stroll the lush campus of the private Punahou School that Obama attended on scholarship from Grade 5 through high school, and best of all, I exchanged a few words with his grandmother, the strait-laced Kansas native and ex-bank executive, Madelyn Dunham.
During high school, Obama lived with his white Dunham grandparents in their modest apartment not far from Punahou, while his mother went off to Indonesia. Madelyn Dunham had made it plain to reporters from the start that she would not talk about her increasingly prominent grandson. But I thought, what the heck. She was listed in the phone book (Daddy, what’s a phone book?), so I called her up. She answered right away, and explained, very politely, that she didn’t grant interviews. I said I understood. Just before hanging up, I observed: “You must be very proud of your grandson.” She replied, softly: “He’s done very well, hasn’t he?” It was a lovely moment. And I got a quote!
Later, I sought out the apartment building, a classic, mundane high-rise from the mid-60’s at 1617 S. Beretania Street, in the heart of the unadorned enclave of Makiki. I looked at the ordinary elevator and thought: “Just think, that’s the same one “Barry” Obama used every day.” (I’m nothing, if not deep…). I had a nice long chat with the building manager, who told me of reporters trying all sorts of stunts to gain access to Madelyn’s 10th floor apartment (a code or security card was necessary to get above the first floor.) One was caught shinnying up a drain pipe. Another claimed to be “a very good friend” of the family. The manager said Obama dutifully visited his grandmother every Christmas, usually bringing a Christmas tree with him. “A very nice guy. Very easy to talk to.” Sadly, Madelyn Dunham died two days before her grandson was elected president.
Back in Honolulu recently, I decided to revisit Obama’s old ‘hood. I was reminded once more how totally unremarkable it was, including the now-well known apartment building. To think a president of the United States emerged from this environment….
A few things had changed. There was now a security fence around the front of the building, and signs reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing”, intended, no doubt, to deter souvenir seekers and lobby “selfies”. There was also an “Apartment for Rent” notice.
I was struck, too, by the many diverse churches and other religious gathering places close by. Across the street is the massive Central Union Church. Next door sits the funky Japanese Shinshu Kyokai Buddhist Temple. Around the corner is a Korean gospel church and within a block or two are churches for the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Baptists and Episcopalians. My personal favourite is tucked away directly behind the Dunhams’ apartment building: The True Jesus Mission Church of the Latter Rain. Who knew? It’s hard not to conclude that such diversity, plus the “rainbow” ethnic mix of Honolulu, itself, must have played a part in Obama’s own tolerance and approach to life.
I then did an “Obama stroll” along the five blocks he would have walked every day to and from Punahou School. Beautiful old trees lining the street. Shriners Hospital and Maryknoll High School on the left. Rundown apartments on the right, but also the Kapiolani Medical Centre for Women and Children, where the future president was born on the day my boyhood hero Harmon Killebrew smashed a 3-run homer against the evil Yankees. I embraced history in my own way, posing briefly as a patient in the hospital’s emergency waiting room so I could use the washroom.
It was raining by the time I reached the campus of Punahou School. A scheduled ball game was on hold, and the outdoor basketball courts, much loved by the future president, were deserted. It’s a beautiful acreage, with immaculate vegetation, tall, stately trees and many nice old stone buildings. It radiates ‘privilege’. The parking lots and narrow roads were full of parents in cars, waiting to drive their kids back to their posh homes. “Barry” Obama must have been one of the few students to actually walk to school.
Okay, I think this has gone on long enough. However, if you ever have a spare afternoon in Honolulu, I recommend poking around Makiki, particularly 1617 S. Beretania Street. Against all odds, this epitome of ordinary produced a president. It’s a funny old world.