By Wil Forbis
March 1, 2009
It's well known to the six or seven people who regularly read my writing that I supported Barack Obama in both the Democratic primary, where he bested the wicked witch of the East, and the presidential election, where he ably took on Grandpa Simpson. I did so, despite the misgivings one such as myself --- whose political views fluctuate between libertarianism and Satanism --- would have with any mainstream candidate. Why the support? Because Obama seemed to be the one politician in the race -- indeed, perhaps the one politician out of the past 30 years or so -- who had a clear head on his or her shoulders, who seemed capable of contemplating the complexity of the foreign and domestic issues that plague our modern times. I've no doubt Obama will make decisions I'll disagree with over the course of his term, but my suspicion is that he will make less bad decisions than any of the other candidates that were available. He was the pick of the litter, you might say.
As such, I was gladdened by his victory. Yet, I found myself unnerved by the gushing coverage he received from much of the mainstream press and political pontificators during the run-up to November 4. Such adoration wasn't unpredictable --- there's little doubt that most of the media swing left and were rightly eager to see Bush go --- but I found myself wishing the press could maintain at least the appearance of objectivity. Even my favorite magazine, The New Yorker, a publication noted for its liberal but not orthodoxly liberal views, seemed a little too effusive, publishing largely glowing pieces on Obama side-by-side with critical attacks on his opponents*.
* The degree of the New Yorker's adulation of Obama only served to illustrate how the Obama campaign's ham-fisted response to the infamous July 21 cover was a noticeable stumble in a presidential campaign largely bereft of stumbles, perhaps a close second to the "guns and religion" gaffe.
I found myself particularly fascinated by a piece written by New Yorker editor David Remnick that appeared in the magazine soon after Obama won the election. (If I were a real writer, I would dig up the date of the issue; it was sometime in December I think.) Remnick touched on a number of points I hadn't really appreciated, primarily the magnitude of the shift in politics the election of Barack Obama represents. It's not just that he's a black man, it's that he's a black man with a Muslim sounding name and even spent part of his childhood in a Muslim country, it's that he's a black man with a Kenyan father who sounds like he was a couple generations away from being a witch doctor, it's that Obama's a black man who's confessed to using cocaine, it's that he's a black man with a cultural awareness that largely matches that of my age group. The election was not just a racial shift, but a generational and cultural one as well.
Remnick's essay also offered some analysis of Obama's teenage years in Honolulu. I grew up in Honolulu myself and once even considered going to Punaho, the high school Obama attended. During the course of the article Remnick made a few comments on the racial aspects of life in Hawaii that I found off base. (The specifics escape me and I've lost my copy of the magazine.) It then occurred to me that I should write an acid logic article explaining how people in Hawaii dealt with the complex issues of race and race relations.
There was only one problem: I'd already written that article several years ago. It was called, "Haole Survival Guide" and focused on my experiences, as a white kid (or "haole" as we were called), growing up in a state that is a simmering stew of various ethnicities: native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese and Samoan. But as I pressed the opium pipe to my lips and mulled over the topic, it dawned on me that I'd seen nothing in print that really explored the experience of a black youth growing up in Hawaii. And I'd seen nothing that asked whether there was anything intrinsic to Obama's teenage years in Hawaii that might have shaped his political character. The process of researching such an article seemed obvious: I would schedule an interview with our current president and record his views on the subject. Oddly, my requests for such an interview were repeatedly rebuffed by the White House and I was forced to take a more distant tact, envisioning Obama's life in Hawaii based on my experience there.
Hawaii is a state where almost everyone has the sense of being an immigrant. You are acutely aware that "your people" did not come from these lands. Even native Hawaiians, the group that can most rightfully claim the role of being the island's heirs, boast of the fearless nautical explorations performed by their Polynesian ancestors that led to their discovery of Hawaii. But while Hawaiians, Samoans, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and even white people have some sort of comfort zone with their presence on the islands, I would suspect that no one would feel more out of place than blacks. Their existence on the islands has very little historical context --- most of the black kids I knew were the children of military parents who were recently stationed in Hawaii --- and their numbers were few, which no doubt augmented feelings of being a stranger in a strange land. I can count the black peers of my youth on one hand. In elementary school there was a boy named Clay, a girl named Vanessa and her sister whose name I've forgotten. In high school I can only recall Tamoi (sic?), a tall, lithe beauty who I surprised myself by making out with a couple times in my senior year. (Technically, she may not even count because I think she was half Asian; I mainly included her because I wanted to brag about our make out sessions. God she was hot!)
But there was something discordant about the lack of black faces on the islands because African-American culture was very present. Locals, the class of islanders I found frustratingly difficult to define in my previous article --- roughly speaking, they consist of, but are not limited to, Hawaiians, Samoans and Asians who were not Asian nerds --- drew much of their cultural life from mainland black music and fads. Locals embraced rap when it became big, they took up breakdancing during its heyday, and their fashion was often of a hip-hop flavor. (I don't want to unfairly paint locals is simply cultural parasites --- they brought their own unique elements to the mix as well.) The result of this being, I suspect, that African Americans in Hawaii during the 80s simultaneously had a sense of being foreigners and arbiters of style. As we all know, the products of ghetto culture are inherently assumed to have a legitimacy, a gravitas, that cannot be equaled by mainstream/corporate culture. And in America, African-Americans are the dominant proprietors of ghetto culture. Locals, who are fundamentally the "cool kids" in Hawaiian social life, understood and respected this. The black kids I knew in elementary school may not have been totally accepted by locals, but they were certainly respected. I would presume Obama had a similar experience.
But there was an added layer of complexity for African-American teenagers growing up on the islands. The 70s and 80s were a period where the African-American presence was increasingly felt in both mainstream and underground culture. Television shows like "The Jeffersons," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Gimme a Break" featured often sarcastic and subversive black characters. Eddie Murphy carried this archetype over to a string of successful movies and came to epitomize cool. If you were black kid growing up on the mainland --- be it the streets of Chicago, Atlanta, New York or LA --- you had the sense that your daily life, however shitty and even dangerous it was, was of great interest to larger American culture. But to be black in Honolulu was to be denied this validation. The lives of people who looked like you as presented on the big screen did not match your life. And I suspect this created a certain identity crisis in African-American kids on the islands. Were you really black if your skin was dark but you weren't living this stereotypical life of an African-American as shown in television and movies?
Allow me to expand this rumination with a tangential confession of my own. Around the time I was 13 or 14, part of me wanted to be black. Now this is doubtless a common experience for white kids across America. It's a scientifically verifiable fact that black people are cooler than white people, and teenagers are acutely aware of the value of cool, less so the pain and aggravation of being poor and a racial minority. But there was more to it than that. Around me, locals were considered cool --- why wouldn't I want to be local? Well, I have some vague recollection that I considered that as well, but locals were also my tormentors, and to desire to become one of them was to hand them a symbolic victory I was unwilling to concede. My interaction with blacks however was on was almost entirely through television and movies. On screen, the charm and cachet of African Americans shone brightly. I was acutely aware that were I black, my social standing would significantly improve.
But that's neither here nor there --- the real question is whether aspects of Obama's political character could be attributed to a youth spent in Hawaii. And I would argue yes. For instance, we hear a lot about the election of Obama representing a post-racial era of politics. In a certain sense, this is poppycock --- race still matters and will likely matter for the duration of the human species. But in the sense that our notions of race and racism are becoming loaded with increasing layers of complexity and nuance, in the sense that our racial stereotypes of decades past arebeing discarded daily due to their simplicity and na´vetÚ, then perhaps we can say this is a post-racial era. And I would argue that Hawaii was America's first post-racial society. On the mainland, during much of the 20th century, whites were separate from blacks and could avoid any real challenge to their preconceptions of blacks as either tragic comics or thugs. Conversely, blacks were often segregated into their own neighborhoods, allowing notions of white people as conspiratorial devils to fester*. Hawaii, on the other hand, while certainly no racial utopia, was and is highly integrated. The gamut of groups that live on the islands may not always like each other, but they interact daily. People in Hawaii are comfortable being surrounded by different races and cultures.
* I realize the preceding two sentences are vast oversimplifications of the black/white relationship, but this article is already too long.
At various points in his career, Obama has faced allegations that he wasn't a "real" black man. And if a "real" black man has to carry all the cultural baggage we tend to associate with African-Americans --- Ebonics, a simmering sense of injustice etc. --- then Obama isn't a real black man. His experience of growing up is substantially different from the shared experience of most African-Americans in this country. (Just as, I would add, mine is different from most white people.) But while his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii might have denied him "realness", it did, I believe, give him a comfort level in speaking across racial boundaries that few African-American politicians have ever had. Members of the traditional black political class --- politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton --- could connect and resonate with black voters. But what always held them back was their inability to make a similar connection to white, Asian and perhaps even Latino voters. It was presumed that their loyalty lay towards African Americans first, Americans second. But that was never the sense with Obama. He possesses an obvious comfort level speaking to disparate groups of people. And I'm not sure he would have that comfort, had he grown up in Chicago, New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles. Obama may have felt like an outsider growing up as an African-American in Honolulu, but that outsider status became a very effective political tool.
Obama's election as president is, I'm told, being celebrated by citizens of the islands. They see him as something of a native son. But there is an irony to this. After all, it wasn't the laid-back existence of life on a tropical island that nourished Obama's political ability, rather it was his confrontation with the complex, sometimes ugly, interactions of race and culture as they exist in Hawaii. It was the challenges of life on the islands, rather than its joys that helped sharpen his political sword. And I suspect that this skill that Obama has mastered --- the ability to resonate with voters who belong to disparate races and cultures and will be interacting with each other more and more in the coming decades --- will soon be mandatory for any American politician seeking success.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.