How Obama Became Black

Bloomberg/Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images

By David Maraniss

He was too dark in Indonesia. A hapa child half and half in Hawaii. Multicultural in Los Angeles. An "Invisible Man" in New York. And finally, Barack Obama was black on the South Side of Chicago. This journey of racial self-discovery and reinvention is chronicled in David Maraniss's biography, Barack Obama: The Story, to be published June 19. These excerpts trace the young Obama's arc toward black identity, through his words and experiences and through the eyes of those who knew him best.


"How come his mother's skin is bright while her son's is way darker?"

Everything about Barry seemed different to his classmates and first-grade teacher, Israela Pareira, at S.D. Katolik Santo Fransiskus in Jakarta, Indonesia. He came in wearing shoes and socks, with long pants, a black belt and a white shirt neatly tucked in. The other boys wore short pants above the knee, and they often left their flip-flops or sandals outside the classroom and studied in bare feet. Barry was the only one who could not speak Bahasa Indonesia that first year. Ms. Pareira was the only one who understood his English. He was a fast learner, but in the meantime some boys communicated with him in a sign language they jokingly called "Bahasa tarzan."


When [his mother] Ann accompanied him to school the first day, Ms. Pareira was confused. He looked like he was from Ambon, one of the thousands of islands comprising Indonesia. It was nearly 1,500 miles east of Jakarta, and the people there were known for having darker skin. In itself, this was no big deal; the classroom was heterogeneous: Javanese, Betawanese, Bataknese, Padangnese, Ambonese, Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. But he did not look like his mother.

"She introduced herself as a foreigner, coming from Hawaii, and she pointed at Barry — 'This is my son.' We — me and the students who saw them for the first time — only asked ourselves, 'How come his mother's skin is bright while her son's is way darker?' It was a big question for us. But watching her drop him off at school [day after day], we became used to the idea that Barry is her son."

To the other students, Barry's young mother was even more exotic than he was, with her pale skin and long hair and sharp dresses.

Read more at the Washington Post

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