Early on in the book, Barack Obama tells the story of his father [also named Barack Hussein Obama; the candidate is actually named Barack Hussein Obama Jr.] and his maternal grandfather going to a Wakiki bar. A white man tells the bartender he shouldn’t have to drink good liquor “next to an [n-word].”
The room fell quiet, and people turned to my father, expecting a fight. Instead, my father stood up, walked over to the man, smiled, and proceeded to lecture him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man. “This fella felt so bad when Barack was finished,” Gramps would say. “that he reached into his pocket and gave Barack a hundred dollars on the spot. Paid for all our drinks and puu-puus for the rest of the night – and your dad’s rent for the rest of the month.
By the time I was a teenager, I’d grown skeptical of this story’s veracity and had set it aside with the rest. Until I received a phone call, many years later, from a Japanese-American man who said he had been my father’s classmate in Hawaii and now taught at a midwestern university… during the course of our conversation, he repeated the same story that my grandfather had told, about the white man who had tried to purchase my father’s forgiveness. “I’ll never forget that,” the man said to me over the phone; and in his voice I heard the same note I’d heard from Gramps so many years before, that note of disbelief – and hope.
Is the story true? Clearly Obama believes it is. And if you believed that your father could lecture racists into converting their ways – and then giving a hefty sum of money to people they had hated a short while earlier! – maybe you too would believe that you could end partisanship, inspire hope in all people, heal America’s soul, and all of these other grandiose world-changing promises that make some of us cynics roll our eyes.
I hope it’s a true story; it’s nice to think that Barack Obama Sr. could talk a man out of his racism. But most people who have hateful attitudes won’t give them up in the face of a lecture. It generally takes more than that to get them to rethink their preconceived notions, and some folks will never give them up.
But if you believed that your father had an almost-hypnotic capacity to calm the most troubled soul with the right words… might you also believe that you yourself could bring someone like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to see reason?