A revealing portrait of a young Black man asking questions about self-discovery and belonging—long before he became one of the most important voices in America. This unique edition includes a new introduction from the author, full-color photo insert, and family tree.
The son of a white American mother and a Black Kenyan father, Obama was born in Hawaii, where he lived until he was six years old, when he moved with his mother and stepfather to Indonesia. At twelve, he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. Obama brings readers along as he faces the challenges of high school and college, living in New York, becoming a community organizer in Chicago, and traveling to Kenya. Through these experiences, he forms an enduring commitment to leadership and justice. Told through the lens of his relationships with his family—the mother and grandparents who raised him, the father he knows more as a myth than as a man, and the extended family in Kenya he meets for the first time—Obama confronts the complicated truth of his father’s life and legacy and comes to embrace his divided heritage.
On his journey to adulthood from a humble background, he forges his own path through trial and error while staying connected to his roots. Barack Obama is determined to lead a life of purpose, service, and authenticity. This powerful memoir will inspire readers to examine both where they come from and where they are capable of going.
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I barely knew my father. He left our home in Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two. I didn’t even know I was supposed to have a father who lived with his family. All I knew were the stories that my mother and grandparents told.
They had their favorites. I can still picture Gramps leaning back in his old stuffed chair, laughing about the time my father—whose name, like mine, was Barack Obama—almost threw a man off the Pali Lookout, a mountain cliff not far from our home in the city of Honolulu, because of a pipe.
“See, your mom and dad decided to drive this visiting friend around the island—and Barack was probably on the wrong side of the road the whole way—”
“Your father was a terrible driver,” my mother said to me. “He’d end up on the left side, the way the British drive, and if you said something he’d just huff about silly American rules—”
“And they got out and stood at the railing of this cliff to admire the view. And your father, he was puffing away on this pipe that I’d given him for his birthday, pointing out all the sights with the stem like a sea captain—”
“He was really proud of this pipe,” my mother interrupted again.
“Look, Ann, do you want to tell the story or are you going to let me finish?”
“Sorry, Dad. Go ahead.”
“Anyway, the fella asked Barack if he could give the pipe a try. But as soon as he took his first puff, he started coughing up a fit. Coughed so hard that the pipe slipped out of his hand and dropped over the railing, a hundred feet down the face of the cliff. So your dad told him to climb over the railing and bring the pipe back.”
Gramps was laughing so hard he had to pause. “The man took one look over the side and said he’d buy him a replacement. But Barack said it had been a gift and it couldn’t be replaced. That’s when your dad picked him clear off the ground and started dangling him over the railing!”
As he laughed, I imagined myself looking up at my father, dark against the brilliant sun, the man’s arms flailing. It was like something out of the Bible—a terrifying yet impressive vision, like a king delivering justice.
I asked if he’d thrown the man off.
“No, he put him down,” said Gramps. “After a time. Then your dad patted him on the back and suggested, calm as you please, that they all go have a beer. After that he acted like nothing had happened.”
My mother said it wasn’t that bad, that my father didn’t hold the man very far out.
“You were pretty upset when you got home,” Gramps told my mother. “But Barack just shook his head and started to laugh. He had this deep voice, see, and this British accent. He said, ‘I only wanted to teach the chap a lesson about the proper care of other people’s property!’ ”
My grandmother, Toot, came in from the kitchen and said it was a good thing my father had realized that his friend dropping the pipe had been an accident—or who knows would have happened?
My mother rolled her eyes and said they were exaggerating. Yes, she said, my father could be domineering, but only because he was honest. “If he thought he was right, he never liked to compromise,” she said.
She preferred another story Gramps told, about the time my father agreed to sing some African songs at an international music festival, not realizing it was a “big to-do.” It turned out that the woman who performed just before him was a pro with a full band. “Anyone else would have backed out,” said Gramps. “But not Barack. He got up and started singing in front of this big crowd—which is no easy feat, let me tell you—and he wasn’t great, but he was so sure of himself that before you knew it he was getting as much applause as anybody.”
“Now there’s something you can learn from your dad,” he would tell me. “Confidence. The secret to a man’s success.”
THAT’S HOW ALL the stories went—short, with some tidy moral. Then my family would pack them away like old photos and take them out again, months or years later. My mother kept a few actual photos of my father, too. But when she started dating Lolo, the man she’d eventually marry, she put them in a closet. Every once in a while I’d be rummaging around in search of Christmas ornaments or an old snorkel set, and I’d come across them. Sometimes my mother and I looked at them together. I’d stare at my father’s likeness—the dark laughing face, the big forehead and thick glasses—and she’d say, “You have me to thank for your big eyebrows—your father has these little wispy ones. But your brains, your character, you got from him.”
I would listen as she told me his story.
My father was an African, a Kenyan who’d grown up in a tribe called the Luos. He was born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a place called Alego. The village of Alego was poor, but his father—my other grandfather—was an elder of the Luo tribe and a powerful medicine man. My father grew up herding his father’s goats and attending the local school, which had been set up by the British colonialists, who at that time ruled Kenya.
My grandfather believed that knowledge was the source of power, so he was pleased that Barack showed great promise as a student and won a scholarship to study in the capitol, Nairobi. Then he was selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to go to college in the United States. Kenya was about to become an independent country, and the new leaders sent their best students abroad to learn about economics and technology. They hoped these students would come back home and help make Africa more modern and successful.
In 1959, at the age of twenty-three, my father arrived at the University of Hawaii to study economics. He was the first African student there and he graduated in only three years, and at the top of his class. He helped organize the International Students Association and became its first president. Then, in a Russian language course, he met an awkward, shy American girl, only eighteen, and they fell in love. Her name was Stanley Ann Dunham, but everyone called her Ann. She was my mother.
Her parents were not sure about him at first. He was Black and she was white, and it was not common back then for people of different races to date. But he won them over with his charm and intelligence. The young couple married, and a short time later, I was born.
Then my father was awarded yet another scholarship, this time to get a Ph.D. at Harvard University, more than five thousand miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he had no money to take his new family with him. We stayed behind. After getting his degree, he returned to Africa—“to make his country a better place,” my mother would say. But she insisted that the bond of love remained strong.
There were many parts to this story that I didn’t understand. I didn’t know where Alego was on a map or why the British were in charge in Kenya or what a Ph.D. was. My father’s life seemed as mysterious as the stories in a book called Origins my mother once bought for me. It was a collection of tales from different religions and from all over the world—Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Indian—about the Earth’s creation, and it led me to ask some difficult questions. Why did God let the snake make such trouble in the Garden of Eden? How did the tortoise from the Hindu stories support the weight of the world on its tiny back? Why didn’t my father return?
I spent my boyhood living with my mother and grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, Gramps and Toot. Toot is short for Tutu, which means “grandmother” in Hawaiian. Toot decided on the day I was born that she was still too young to be called Granny.
I loved Hawaii. I breathed it all in: The sultry scented air. The shimmering blue Pacific. The moss-covered cliffs and the cool rush of Manoa Falls, with its ginger blossoms and high canopies filled with the sound of invisible birds. The North Shore’s thunderous waves, so huge that when they broke it seemed I was watching the ocean in slow motion.
There was only one problem: my father was missing. And nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could make me forget that fact. Their stories didn’t tell me why he had left. And they couldn’t describe what it might have been like had he stayed.
In photographs, I could see that my father looked nothing like the people around me—he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk. But it wasn’t something we talked about, and it didn’t really register in my mind.
In fact, I remember only one story about my father that had anything to do with race. After long hours of study, my father had joined my grandfather and several other friends at a local bar in the beachfront area of Waikiki. Everyone was in a festive mood, eating and drinking to the sounds of a Hawaiian slack-key guitar, when a white man abruptly announced to the bartender, loudly enough for everyone to hear, that he shouldn’t have to drink good liquor “next to a nigger.” 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 foolishness 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 food for the rest of the night—and your dad’s rent for the rest of the month.”
But it was one thing to be Black in Hawaii, a place where most people’s skin was darker than in the rest of the United States. It was another for someone Black to marry someone white. In 1960, the year my parents married, more than half the states considered it a felony, a serious crime, for people of different races to have children together. Even in the most sophisticated northern cities, there would be hostile stares and whispers. A white woman pregnant with a Black man’s child would probably seriously consider going away until she had the baby and then giving it up for adoption. She might even arrange to end the pregnancy.
It wasn’t until 1967—the year I celebrated my sixth birthday, three years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize—that the Supreme Court of the United States would tell the state of Virginia that its ban on interracial marriages violated the U.S. Constitution.
So it is pretty surprising that my grandparents accepted my parents’ marriage. I still wonder what about their upbringing made them different from so many other people in those days.