What saves this narrative of Barack Obama’s early life from being a data dump (it is very long and marred by superfluous detail) is its account of how the future president recast himself, in his college and post-college years, as a biracial outsider, an exotic golden child tormented by the perplexities of racial allegiance. Washington Post writer David Maraniss shows that long before Obama entered politics, he fashioned a heroic myth of himself. It went something like this: Only by solving the riddle of his racial identity could he take up the struggle that was to be his life’s work.
Obama’s boyish exposure to different cultures had little to do with the conversion he experienced in his twenties, when he first felt himself called to be a biracial superhero. To be sure, his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, told him stories about Africa, but he never saw the continent with his own eyes until he was 26, and his Kenyan father had almost no personal influence on him. Stanley Ann left Obama père in August 1961, shortly after the birth of Barack: The child would not see his father again for ten years, when the older man came to Honolulu for a few weeks. The visit, Maraniss writes, “turned out to be the only time” in the future president’s “conscious life that he would see his father in the flesh.”
Nor did the four years Obama spent as a boy in Indonesia play much of a part in his reinvention of himself in the 1980s. Obama returned to America from Jakarta in 1971 and never afterwards resided outside the United States for any considerable length of time. When, in 1975, his mother returned to Indonesia to pursue her anthropological researches, Obama did not accompany her. “No way was he going to drop his buddies and his American existence to live in that strange country again,” Maraniss writes.
Because his mother was often absent, Obama was to a great extent raised by his maternal grandparents, Stanley Armour Dunham and Madelyn Payne Dunham. They are perhaps the most appealing characters in the book, and were devoted to their grandson, but they were not likely to inspire an odyssey of racial self-discovery. Stanley, the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham and Ruth Lucille Armour, was born in Wichita in 1918; he served in the Army in World War II and later sold — or more often failed to sell — furniture and insurance. Madelyn, born in Peru, Kansas, in 1922, also contributed to the war effort, working long hours in the Boeing B-29 plant in Wichita; later, in Honolulu, she rose to be a vice president of the Bank of Hawaii, and was the breadwinner of the family.
“If there is a representative teenager’s life,” Maraniss writes, “Barry Obama lived a version of it in Hawaii in the 1970s.” He loved basketball and dreamed of becoming a professional player. He had lots of friends, was always, a contemporary remembered, “in the mix, never on the sidelines.” True, he later said that when he was 15 he often felt sorry for himself, but self-pity is hardly unusual in an adolescent. Schoolmates remember him as “happy-go-lucky,” “always smiling,” “the kind of guy who kept people in a good mood.” He grew up playing the same games, watching the same TV shows, and hacking around in the same ways countless other Americans who came of age in that era did. If as president he sometimes gives the impression of being “a stranger in a strange land,” it is because he decided, at a later stage in his life, to see himself in that light.