I picked up Barack Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father, and started reading it this evening. The story of how a smart Kenyan man met a shy American girl in the University of Hawaii is in itself remarkable, considering it was not the most tolerant of times. I came to a section where Obama, as a child, returned from Indonesia (where his stepfather lived) and had trouble fitting in at his new American school. Here is an excerpt to share with you.
While waiting outside school on his first day, Barack met a Chinese boy called Frederick. Up to this point, he calls himself ‘Barry’…
We sat at a table with four other children, and Miss Hefty, an energetic middle-aged woman with short gray hair, took attendance. When she read my full name, I heard titters break across the room. Frederick leaned over to me.
“I thought your name was Barry.”
“Would you prefer if we called you Barry?” Miss Hefty asked. “Barack is such a beautiful name. Your grandfather tells me your father is Kenyan. I used to live in Kenya, you know. Teaching children just your age. It’s such a magnificent country. Do you know what tribe your father is from?”
Her question brought on more giggles, and I remained speechless for a moment. When I finally said “Luo”, a sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey. The children could no longer contain themselves, and it took a stern reprimand from Miss Hefty before the class would settle down and we could mercifully move on to the next person in the list.
I spent the rest of the day in a daze. A redheaded girl asked to touch my hair and seemed hurt whe I refused. A ruddy-faced boy asked me if my father ate people. When I got home, Gramps was in the middle of preparing dinner.
“So how was it? Isn’t it terrific that Miss Hefty used to live in Kenya? Makes the first day a little easier, I’ll bet.”
I went into my room and closed the door.
Masterful storytelling that makes me want to read on.
This chapter has a happy ending. Later on, his Kenyan father visits him and turns the situation around by showing up in class and telling all the students about the history of Kenya and how its people longed to break free from colonial rule. After that, the kids who used to tease Barack treat him with more respect.