In the Shadow of Obama’s Apartment

Barrack Obama in Hawaii
From left, Stanley Dunham, Stanley Ann, Maya and Barack Obama in Hawaii in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy Barack's half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng.

This is what President Obama does during his time on Oahu.

During Christmas of 2010, the President of the United States and his family head off to the windward side of the island of Oahu, the place of his birth and his raising for a brief and deserved vacation. I wonder about how this place shaped his worldview, and by extension, American domestic and foreign relations. What I see after a rough few years into this first term is optimism.

Nowadays you can actually take a tour of the places where the President grew up, went to school, and played pick-up basketball. Tour guides will point out his private high school, the University of Hawaii where his mother studied and taught, the ice cream shop he had his first job. But like the residents living near Graceland or anyone in New York City, these ordinary neighborhood spots hold no more significance than places passed on the way to work.

The president was primarily raised in an apartment his grandparents owned, and where his grandmother Madelyn Dunham lived until she passed away in November of 2008, two days before the election. Not much has changed in the dense neighborhood called Makiki since the 1970s when Obama was here. The massive building spree at the end of the 20th century in Honolulu redefined the residential area, turning urban Honolulu from a bedroom community to an un-planned haphazard clustering of apartments and rich enclaves.

By the time young Barack Obama was walking around the city, the place had taken its present shape. Unlike some recreated Lincoln log cabin meant to show off the hard work that is a part of Americana and the office of the presidency, we can still walk right up to Obama’s childhood home, in full use by current residents.

The place is easy to miss. Recent discussion at the State legislature about whether or not to put the building on a federal and state historic places list is surely influenced by the fact that it is, well, drab.

There is a car port facing six-lane Beretania Street, two sets of stairs on the Diamond Head and Ewa sides, and elevators that carried the President’s grandparents and himself up and down with their groceries daily. The bulletin board by the elevators reminds patrons to “please kokua” the trash and be mindful of the bulky rubbish pick-up days.

The grey and tan apartment is about two miles from downtown Honolulu, one mile from Waikiki, and one mile from Manoa valley. The density of the residents, the choke of cars, and the church across the street means this apartment has much more in common with those in Brooklyn, New York or south side Chicago than with the beach homes and Waikiki hotels so many tourists associate with the Aloha State.

But this is not Brooklyn or the south side of Chicago. In those places you are defined by your neighborhood, which is in turn defined by race and class.

Here in Makiki, most residents have family and friends in other parts of the island and would gladly move further into suburban communities of Manoa valley or Kaimuki if the price were right. It’s a dense community of workers, the elderly, immigrants, commuters, and middle-class families dealing with all the problems associated with urbanity in America. Old Japanese ladies gingerly cross the street to get to the store. Homeless men sleep in the open church lawn facing the building, their shopping carts cluttering the

The president’s experience of living in numerous places but attending the same school is not uncommon here. (He attended Noelani elementary in Manoa valley before being a Punahou student.) For familial and economic reasons, many school children must move with their parents from apartment to home, to town-home, then back to apartment throughout adolescence in Honolulu.

As Honolulu is still a small town, it is possible for a kid to do that without any major jarring of personal life if the school stays the same. In meeting someone from Hawaii, one asks what high school he attended, not the block he grew up on. For so many kids in Honolulu, the President’s experience is theirs. So we, Makiki residents, rightfully claim him as our own.

To see the President being interviewed on 60 Minutes, or his short sound bites after the Democrats lost numerous seats in the U.S. House of Representatives during the interim election of 2010, is to see someone I can still identify with.

For the first time for many of us, I see a leader grappling with problems, thinking his way through to a solution. For once I am not alienated from the experience of governing because of the inherited national tragedies of racism and xenophobia.

As a lawyer, I can watch him make the case for a compromising tax bill. I may not agree with it and find it hypocritical of the opposition to push so vehemently, but at the very least I can see the formulation of the argument, the logical working through the points and arrival at a solution for better or worse. I respect the stamina and work ethic.

Two years out and the grand vision of hope articulated in the 2008 campaign has hit some roadblocks. A stumbling economy, jobless rates in the teens, a 21st century that may be more China’s than America’s. But you see a Barack Obama moving forward, working his way through the problem with a confidence that is almost otherworldly.

Young Barack Obama lived in Honolulu during the administration of Frank Fasi, the brash on-again, off-again mayor who made public programs like publicly accessible pools, parks, festivals, and green streets a priority.

He was here for the Hawaiian renaissance and the the first sailing of the Hokulea, the double-hulled canoe that journeyed from Hawaii to Tahiti using traditional Polynesian methods. He was here during the scary, druggy days of downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown district. He saw the emergence of the North Shore of Oahu as the modern mecca of the international sport of surfing.

Obama did miss out on some things on the Mainland: Watergate, alterations in black consciousness, the women’s liberation movement, and the American Indian Movement. But then again those things were on T.V.

Most importantly, he was safe in Hawaii during a cultural shift not often mentioned but monumental for people of color: the period in the late 20th century where for the first time in American history (world history?) it was cooler to be non-white than white. It was hip hop and black comedians, it was spicy ethnic food and attractive non-white movie stars. It was a uniquely American movement decades in the making.

That being something other than completely caucasian gave a young person a bit more cultural credibility amongst his peers is an idea with as much cultural impact as anything in the Bill of Rights. You could dance better and crack better jokes, you look better in bright clothing. Here in Hawaii with the only somewhat derisive term haole, do you get a sense of that cultural shift.

He was here, one of the few places considered America where white privilege could not destroy a young and intelligent person’s of concept of self-worth. He was here, protected from an America where being a person of color attempting to break into a historically white profession plants a seed of resentment so deep that it can shatter your heart.

Given enough space in the sun as so many flowers to the field, he flourished. Prior to the hip hop era, nowhere on the continent during the 1970s could he have had the same experience and been shaped by the same conception of happiness.

I didn’t get it at first, this optimism thing. I moved to Honolulu in my early 20s as a graduate student, angry at the ambivalence and jingoism surrounding the nation’s two wars, ready to march against the machine.

I actually did march, several times against legal decisions that favored strict interpretation of colonial law over the respect of an indigenous people and their struggle through history. On a few more occasions I got to march against war.

Those first couple years, the colloquial, every-minute usage of aloha and ohana felt more for tourists than for an actual experience of living. I thought the fact that folks drove slow in the rain was a vestige of plantation mindset, or that the love of spam and vienna sausages was a WWII ploy by the American military to make a pork-dependent populace.

After enough years however, I’ve gotten some distance from the trauma that is everyday American life as a minority on the continent. The tune has changed and mellowed. I drive slower because I don’t want to hit an old person who cannot see as well I do. On Sunday mornings we eat fried rice with spam because it’s delicious.

In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Obama writes of missing out on an African American experience, but here he got something just as interesting – a uniquely Hawaiian one. He comes home to bodysurf at Sandy’s, a formidable shore break known for busting necks and boards. He takes his daughters out for plate lunches and shave ice.

What was inspiring during that 2008 campaign was that not that he did these things, it’s that he did these things well.

The image of the presidential candidate pulling into a three foot barrel in pounding shore break, eyes fixed on the shoulder, hand outstretched for a clean ride down the face, looked nothing like any picture of a presidential candidate I had ever experienced in grade school, in undergraduate political science courses, in law school.

Unlike the posed images of Vladimir Putin shirtless riding a horse through the Russian countryside, or our former president landing on an aircraft carrier and speaking in front of an ill-advised “Mission Accomplished” banner, our American candidate was taking a break and catching waves just down the road.

It was cool. In some visceral I had never felt before, I identified, and rallied to support his personal quest to the highest post in the land. Two years out in the first term and I don’t agree with all the calls.

But I’m still a supporter, and I’ll keep my pin and banner ready for the 2012 campaign when I’ll wave signs just down the street from the President’s little Makiki apartment.

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