How Obama is From Paradise
September 08, 2008
Today's post is from Rita Nakashima Brock, co-author, with Rebecca Ann Parker, of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Rev. Brock is Founding Co-Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, an organization dedicated to educating the public about the values and concerns of religious leaders and organizations. You can read more about Saving Paradise and see color plates of the art discussed in the book at SavingParadise.net.
For many, Barack Obama's birthplace, Hawaii, is the closest thing to paradise on earth. In fact, however, a perverted search for paradise led Western Europeans to conquer and colonize both North America and Hawaii. Unlike the colonizers of the last five hundred years, early Christians believed that the whole earth, including where they already lived, was the earthly paradise. They understood that empires and other powers sought to destroy it and that paradise was a place of struggle against those powers. They saw their responsibility as working to create just and loving communities wherever they lived.
Hawaii has a long history of injustices and poverty, especially among native Hawaiians, but because it was remote from the mainland, it developed a different society that is more racially mixed. This history of Hawaiian interracial politics, though not perfect, has been far ahead of the U.S. mainline in equality of diverse races. It is a harbinger of how the rest of the United States will become in the second half of this new century, when there will be no racial majority and a lot of mixity.
In Hawaii's mixed brown majority, Barack Obama's white mother was the minority person. He did not have the black minority experience of the mainland until he had already been immersed in a Hawaiian identity. He struggled to find an identity throughout his young adult life, of course. He does not, however, carry the burdens of suspicion of whites that affects so many of us raised on the mainland. His African father was from Kenya, and his ancestors were not subjected to slavery and segregation.
I grew up on the mainland as a Japanese American. While my father was a Puerto Rican in the U. S. army, I looked like my Japanese mother and grew up at a time when the heat of hostility to Japanese Americans was fierce. Most of those I knew had been illegally imprisoned in the internment camps during the war. It surprised me to learn in high school that the governor of Hawaii refused to obey the internment order. Hawaiian Japanese Americans did not lose their freedom and the homes and lives that they had worked for over the years, and they did not return to a hostile society.
What would it be like, I wondered, to grow up where people didn't stare when you walked down the street? I tried to imagine how it would feel to look in a mirror and appear ordinary to myself because, as I went about my ordinary day, I saw other similar faces and bodies like mine. What if people didn't ignore me when I walked into a store or restaurant? What if they didn't ask rudely, "what are you?" or "where are you from?" I wondered what it must be like for children to see people of different colors and cultures in leadership who showed them what was possible for them, not as a dream, but as a reality.
People who grow up with the racial politics of the U.S. mainland often do not understand Hawaiians. Talented people who grow up in the majority rarely question their right to take up space, to be who they are, and to aspire to anything they want to do. They tend to be comfortable in their own skins, so they don't immediately react to slights or put downs with anger or defensiveness. They expect people to like them, not hate them. They haven't stored a world of injustices and hurts as part of their racial identity. They challenge others, not as victims, but as equals. This kind of self-possession is unconscious and subtle, but it is significant in shaping a person's orientation to the world.
Barack Obama has been accused of not being black enough, as if there were only one way and one history of being black in the U.S. He is black in a Hawaiian way, which means he grew up in a mixed race, multi-cultural place, which helped shape his identity. He is open to and aware of others who are different. He is confident, diffident, and self-reflective, as well as unapologetically ambitious, as many blacks in the U.S. have been. He's a good reminder to us all not to limit racial identities, but to celebrate diversity, even among groups that may share some aspects of race in common, and to notice the constantly changing landscape of race in America.
While I think the phrase, "we must be the change we seek," is overused, in the case of Obama, it may be appropriate. His experience is closer to what will be in this century. Soon, there will be no majority race in the U.S. Hawaii has prepared him to understand this new, multi-racial society, not as a hope but as a reality of his life experience. While the conquest and colonization of Hawaii was based on a false premise of what paradise is, we might now be benefiting from its history of racial diversity as we struggle to create a just and loving society—where we live today.