Obama’s Hawaii Childhood

The Dream Begins: How Hawaii Shaped Barack Obama, the new book by local journalists Stu Glauberman and Jerry Burris, starts and ends with the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech in Boston, a pivotal moment in Obama’s career. In between lie 144 pages of a compressed version of the childhood that—possibly—led Obama to where he is now.

The brief book states the usual things that are said about Obama: that he is a "bridge-builder," a "promise of change," has "a politics of purpose that united people," etc. However, these qualities are placed within the framework of a childhood spent in Hawaii, with a brief sojourn in Indonesia.

The authors admit, "Just how much Barack Obama owes to the physical and social environment of his first 18 years is something only he knows with certainty." This sentiment resonates throughout the book, which sounds like a psychology textbook, stating that one cannot determine "cause and effect" from correlation, while noting that Obama himself "has repeatedly said his childhood and private-school education in Hawaii, and the people and cultural influences of his home state, have molded the values and worldview he holds today."

Perhaps because of their inability to determine the cause and effect of exactly how Hawaii shaped Obama, as well as not having interviewed Obama or any of his family members, the authors tend to avoid pinpointing particulars and instead focus more on general statements about Hawaii’s influence on Obama.

Again and again the book points out that "Hawaii offered a rich multicultural environment under a uniquely evolving racial rainbow," and demonstrates how Obama dealt with and faced the question of his own racial identity growing up in the Islands. In places the book acknowledges that Hawaii’s racial landscape is more complicated than a "melting pot," but tends to gloss over this issue.

Like many locals, the authors seem to wish Obama characterized himself as hapa, rather than African American, a sentiment that would align more agreeably with how we like to view race in Hawaii. But, as the book explains, Obama felt like an outsider even in Hawaii’s racially diverse community, because the African American population in the Islands was, and remains, miniscule, creating in Obama a feeling of isolation. As his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said in an interview with The New York Times about her brother’s choice to identify himself as an African American, "That is how he names himself.  Each of us has a right to name ourselves as we will."

The Dream Begins also offers other reasons why Obama may have felt isolated, such as being on financial aid while attending Punahou and living with his grandparents, rather than his parents.

The book’s emphasis on Obama as hapa points to a conception of Hawaii as an emblem of what America should be like, endorsing a cultural awareness that goes beyond specific ethnic groups to a broader pride in being part of one wonderful place, Hawaii. Glauberman and Burris also acknowledge that Hawaii’s history includes some shameful incidents and conflicts between races, but that this is the exception rather than the rule.

For the avid Obama fan, the biography may be a bit repetitive, much of it already covered in Obama’s two memoirs, The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father.

For the Hawaii enthused Mainlander, I imagine the book will be a delight, highlighting significant cultural and political transformations in the Islands, showcasing the diversity of Hawaii and describing the Islands in detail: "You see the ocean every day; it is constant, as old as life on Earth, yet it changes every day. You’re never far from a waterfall, a V-shaped valley or a rain forest.  You can wear sunglasses every day and at the same time carry an umbrella against the sun or the showers that hover over the mountain slopes …"

For older kamaaina, they may have lived through much of the history the book depicts. Younger locals interested in learning how Hawaii has changed, and how his time in Hawaii shaped Obama, will enjoy hearing about the details. For example, until November 1966, "viewers in Hawaii would see network television shows a week later than other Americans because the tapes of weekly shows were flown to Hawaii for rebroadcast in the same time slot, seven days later."

There is also interesting history that digs deeper into the past, which all will find compelling, such as Punahou’s formation and how and why it stayed predominately Caucasian until the 1980s, or that, when Obama’s parents met in 1961, interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 states, although not in Hawaii.

The primary pleasure of the book cames from "Aha!" moments of recognition, such as that Obama used to cruise at Sandy’s. Or more shocking revelations, which may be you didn’t know about: "One of the places they went to score pot or cocaine was the church just across the street from their high school math buildings."

The book’s final chapter highlights Hawaii’s Democratic Party caucus in February 2008 in a moving demonstration of the overflowing, positive support the people of Hawaii have given Obama.  And as Obama said himself in his August 2008 speech at Keehi Lagoon: "So, listen. I love you back!"