Allegra Goodman: Forget Kenya and Kansas, black and white. To understand Obama, understand this ... The man is Hawaiian.





[Allegra Goodman's novels include Intuition and Paradise Park. Her new book, The Other Side of the Island, will be published in September.]

My fifth grade classroom at Punahou, a private school in Honolulu founded by nineteenth-century Congregational ministers, was on the third floor of Castle Hall, in an airy room with big windows that Mrs. Hefty covered with blackout curtains when she showed us films. We thought nothing of the room-darkening curtains, until, one day, Mrs. Hefty explained to us that they were left over from curfew after Pearl Harbor, when everyone feared the Japanese would come back to bomb Oahu again. A veteran teacher, old-fashioned, Christian, strict, Mabel Hefty wasn't shy about imparting history. Not one to tolerate pidgin English in her class, she insisted that each of us learn to recite Psalm 23 in the King James Version. Never one to ignore politics, she wore orange on St. Patrick's Day, because, as she explained to us, she sided with the English in Ireland. Her voice was matter of fact; her manner old-school. When she taught sex-ed, she stood before our class of ten-year-olds and knit her fingers together to show what it was like when a man and a woman came together, wanting a baby. Nobody laughed.

Six years before she taught my class, Mabel Hefty had taught a boy named Barack Obama who grew up to name her as his favorite teacher for her ability to make "every single child feel special." To Mrs. Hefty, special did not simply mean loved--special meant singular. This was a particularly strong message to her diverse students. Mrs. Hefty's students were Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Korean, Tongan, white, and, more often than that, hapa, a combination of many races and traditions. On the surface, our classroom looked like a melting pot. A girl with honey blond hair, cafe-au-lait skin, and green eyes might say proudly, "I'm part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, part Chinese, and part Irish." And, yet, despite this melding of cultures--indeed, because of it--we were all struggling to define ourselves and find a place in the world. What did it mean to live in Hawaii--especially for those of us who had no native Hawaiian ancestry? Were we immigrants? Invaders? Americans? These questions now frame Obama's campaign.

Obama is a singular presidential candidate, a galvanizing force for the younger generation of Democrats and independents. He's had a short political life--necessarily scant in accomplishments and compromises, and rich in symbolism. He speaks as a man with an unusual personal history: "My father ... grew up herding goats ... my mother ... was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas." He speaks as a newcomer, an achiever, the embodiment of the American dream. His story excites his audiences, as does his savvy understanding of a historical moment in which Mainland America seems poised to catch up to the Hawaii of his youth.

To envision a world where racial identity is more fluid, where men and women are more mobile, and where segregation is a thing of the past is not to envision a post-racial world. Obama knows this, as anyone who has lived in Hawaii must. The lovely tropical home of so many diverse people is not beyond distinctions--it is all about them. Tensions simmer between native Hawaiians and newcomers....


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