Finally, I have come across the anecdote of Barack Obama’s grandmother. I hope the publishers will forgive the long excerpt, because there’s a lot of context here that I don’t want to obscure.
In this passage, teenage Barack Obama Jr. has awoken to the sound of his grandparents arguing in the kitchen; his grandfather does not want to give his grandmother a ride to work that morning.
“A man asked me for money yesterday. While I was waiting for the bus.”
Her lips pursed with irritation. “He was very aggressive, Barry. Very aggressive. I gave him a dollar and he kept asking. If the bus hadn’t come, I think he might have hit me over the head.”
I returned to the kitchen. Gramps was rinsing his cup, his back turned to me. “Listen,” I said, “why don’t you just let me give her a ride. She seems pretty upset.”
“By a panhandler?”
“Yeah, I know – but it’s probably a little scary for her, seeing some big man block her way. It’s really no big deal.”
He turned around and I saw now that he was shaking. “It is a big deal. It’s a big deal to me. She’s been bothered by men before. You know why she’s so scared this time? I’ll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was black.” [Italics in original.] He whispered the word. “That’s the real reason she’s bothered. And I just don’t think that’s right.”
The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure. In my steadiest voice, I told him that such an attitude bothered me, too, but assured him that Toot’s (his grandmother) fears would pass and that we should give her a ride in the meantime. Gramps slumped into a chair in the living room and said he was sorry he had told me. Before my eyes, he grew small and old and very sad. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that it was all right, I understood.
We remained like that for several minutes, in painful silence. Finally he insisted that he drive Toot after all, and struggled up from his seat to get dressed. After they left, I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about my grandparents. They had sacrificed again and again for me. They had poured all their lingering hopes into my success. Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.
I note we’re hearing this story third-hand; this is Obama’s memory of his grandfather’s account of how his grandmother described the panhandler. Still, a couple things jump out from this passage.
1) We don’t know how the panhandler behaved, whether Obama’s grandmother interpreted ordinary behavior in a threatening way, or whether his behavior was unmistakably threatening. But his grandfather says she has “been bothered by men before.” He sees this as a sign that she’s overreacting to an ordinary interaction; but isn’t it also possible that because of her experience being “bothered”, she knows the difference between “regular” panhandling and “very aggressive” and threatening behavior?
2) Obama’s grandfather sure sees his wife uncharitably in this story, doesn’t he? She asks for a ride, he argues against it, and then more or less tells his grandson that his wife is a racist. And why is he so certain that the reason she’s “so bothered” is because the panhandler was black? He seems to categorically reject any possibility that the panhandler was genuinely threatening to a woman old enough to be a grandmother. Nice guy.
3) Obama certainly seems to be cutting his grandmother no slack. “Men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.” Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Columbine shooters, and Johnny Walker Lindh all more or less share my pallor. They could, one argue, be my brothers. And yet they too can inspire the rawest fears… because they kill people. Obama and his grandfather seem uncharitably certain that Toots concluded the panhandler was threatening because of his skin color, not because of his behavior. Neither of them saw the panhandler and how this man treated their spouse/grandmother
But the contradiction that Obama lovingly describes in that last paragraph undermines the argument that his grandmother harbors a secret distrust of African-Americans. If there’s any white person whose judgment could be trusted, who would seem the least likely to carry around an instinctive uncharitable suspicion, and prejudice against those whose skin is a darker hue, wouldn’t it be her? The woman who is raising a young dark-skinned boy when his African father (and mother, at that point) has effectively abandoned him?
But I guess Obama’s harsh assessment of his grandmother is a very illustrative point: If he can look at her and describe her failings before the whole nation, and appear to put her comments on the same level as the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, what does Obama think of the rest of white America?