Following his parents’ separation, then divorce, when he was just two, Barack Obama met his father only one time—in December 1971, when he was ten years old.
They would spend a month together, at his mother’s parents home in Hawaii: a rather unremarkable month, really, of which Obama says he has few memories. There were walks around the neighborhood, and a trip to a concert by the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (at which young Barack struggled to stay awake). There was the exchange of presents on Christmas morning (for it was December): Barack gave his father a silk tie (“Ah,” his father said, “people will know I am very important wearing such a tie.”). His father gave Barack a basketball. They were photographed in front of the Christmas tree, holding their gifts. There were quiet times in front of the television, and there were family arguments: about watching too much t.v.; about not doing homework; the grandfather complaining that his ex-son-in-law was sitting in his chair; the grandmother complaining that she wasn’t anyone’s servant. The elder Obama taught young Barack (or Barry, as he was known back then) how to dance to the African rhythms on some phonograph albums he brought along (“Listen to these, Barry. The sounds of your continent.”)
But when the month was over, there had been no sharing of soul with soul; no deep father-son reunion; no outpouring of everything that needed to be said to reestablish a severed bond.
“There was so much to tell in that single month,” Obama wrote years later in Dreams from My Father, “so much explaining to do; and yet when I reach back into my memory for the words of my father, the small interactions or conversations we might have had, they seem irretrievably lost. Perhaps they’re imprinted too deeply, his voice the seed of all sorts of tangled arguments that I carry on within myself, as impenetrable now as the pattern of my genes, so that all I can perceive is the worn-out shell.”
Michele Obama thinks that the lack of deep conversations came from the lack of trust between Barack and his father: “...boys and their fathers don’t always have much to say to each other unless and until they trust…” Trust is not something that can be built overnight, or in a one-month visit. Sometimes, it takes years, even decades to establish. For this reason, perhaps, Obama says he often felt mute in his father’s presence, and his father never pushed him to speak. Nor did his father seek to generate the genuine trust from which true and deep sharing can result. Creating trust requires intimacy and honesty and a stripping away of masks and defenses and the myths we create about ourselves—and that was not something the elder Obama seemed willing to do.
So, even when his father bid them all farewell and went back to Africa, Obama was left with the myth of who his father was, rather than the living, breathing reality. Myths aren’t bad (necessarily). Myths can empower; they can teach; they can connect us with stories larger than our own. But when myths die—when myths are shattered—the result can be devastating, unless there’s something there to take its place.
Obama’s myth about his father was knocked in pieces when he was visited in Chicago by Auma, his half-sister from his father’s first wife back in Kenya. After divorcing Obama’s mother and going to study at Harvard, the elder Obama had married a woman named Ruth in Cambridge, then had returned with her to Kenya, where he held an important, highly-connected position with an American oil company. Auma and her brother, Roy, came to Nairobi to live with their father and his new wife.
Things were all right for a while. Until Ruth gave birth to two children of her own, sons named Mark and David, and the bulk of her attention (and her husband’s) turned toward them rather than Auma and Roy. Then, when Obama joined the government in the Ministry of Tourism, things really began to unravel. He was trapped in the crossfire between different Kenyan tribes, then between different government factions, and his outspokenness managed to alienate the country’s president, Jomo Kenyatta, who banished Obama from Nairobi and put his name on the government blacklist. Obama then managed to eek out a living from a low level job at the country’s Water Department, but grew increasingly angry and frustrated at his lack of promotion. In Chicago, Auma told her brother Barack how bad things had become:
“The Old Man never spoke to Roy or myself except to scold us,” she said. “ He would come home very late, drunk, and I could hear him shouting at Ruth, telling her to cook him food. Ruth became very bitter at how the Old Man had changed. Sometimes, when he wasn’t home, she would tell Roy and myself that our father was crazy and that she pitied us for having such a father. I didn’t blame her for this,” Auma added. “I probably agreed.”
Things for the elder Obama got even worse. Driving drunk one day, he gets in a car accident in which the driver of the other car was killed, and Obama himself ended up in the hospital for almost a year. He lost his job at the Water Department and had to subsist by moving from relative to relative. (This is the time during which he visited his ex-wife and son in Hawaii.) But finally, when he returned to Kenya, his old nemesis Kenyatta died, and Obama managed to secure a decent position in the government again.
“But I think he never got over the bitterness of what had happened to him,” Auma said, “seeing his other age-mates who had been more politically astute rise ahead of him. And [by then] it was too late to pick up the pieces of his family… When he died, I felt so… so cheated…”
That night, after hearing his sister’s story, Barack Obama thought deeply about all that she had told him. “I remained awake,” he writes, “propped up in a chair, with the desk light on… trying to make some sense out of all that [Auma had] said. I felt as if my world had been turned on its head; as if I’d woken to find a blue sun in the yellow sky; or heard animals speaking like men. All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader—my father had been all these things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn’t seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father’s bodies shrinking, their father’s best hopes dashed, their father’s face lined with grief and regret.”
Now, at last, the all-encompassing myth of his father had been exploded. But “Replaced by… what?” Obama asked himself. “A bitter drunk. An abusive husband? A defeated, lonely bureaucrat?... The king is overthrown, I thought. The emerald curtain is pulled aside… Whatever I do, it seems, I won’t do much worse than he did… Now he was dead, truly. He could no longer tell me how to live.”
But the voice inside his own soul could.
So often out of despair, there comes hope. A resilient, audacious hope. Freed of the weight of the myth of his father, Obama was free to fashion his own journey in life. The truth about his father—as gritty and stark and unhappy as that truth was in many of its particulars—could set Obama free to become the man he needed to become: the scholar in his own right, community organizer, orator, public servant, husband, father—to become all that he was called to be.
“When half gods go, the gods arrive,” Emerson reminds us. We all have dreams of our fathers—memories of them, reminiscences, lessons learned, pitfalls to be avoided—that dwell deep within our minds and souls. Unlike in Obama's case, there is usually no long-term absence which gives unrealistic myth the space to germinate. There was just the father we had before us, in the full array of his triumph and tragedy, his foibles and folly, and strength and courage and love.
These are the strands from which the fabric of our lives is woven, and from which the history of our own lives are written. On this Fathers Day, may we honor our fathers for the dreams they have given us; and may their dreams mix with our own, and may we pass those on to our own children, as together we weave a garment of life strong enough to withstand all that life can-- and will-- offer.