In my latest reading of Dreams from My Fathers: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama talks about his experiences in Kenya, where he had family.
Obama liked Kenya because he felt part of a warm community, but over time he became skeptical of his family’s affection because he was wondering if his family was warming up to him because he was an American and it thought he had money. While Obama acknowledges that Kenya has close-knit tribalism—-something that his father did not understand when he came to Kenya with his advanced education and expected the inhabitants to listen to his wisdom, while bypassing the tribal and kinship structures—-Obama does not always present his family as warm and rosy. When his father was down-in-the-dumps, for example, many in his family laughed at his problems, even though he was sure to help his relatives when he was on-his-feet. There is a touching story, however, about when Obama is playing basketball with his seventeen-year-old half-brother Bernard (who may not have been his half-brother, since it was not entirely known that Barack, Sr. was Bernard’s father) and is encouraging him to pursue vocational training. Bernard says at the end of the conversation that he’s happy to have a big brother. You can read about Bernard as an adult here.
Obama also tells a story about how he and his half-sister Auma were at a restaurant, and they had to wait to be served, but the black African waiters were quick to serve some white tourists. Obama’s half-sister—-whom Obama earlier in the book said was rather forgiving—-was bitter about the preferential treatment that the white tourists received and how Kenya tended to gravitate towards the highest bidder, but Obama tried to understand where the waiters were coming from—-for they lived in a nation that had attained its independence, and yet whites still owned major parts of Kenya’s economy, and so there was a sense in which black Kenyans were still on the margins.
My latest reading made me think about the times that I—-a white person—-have been in predominantly black settings, whether they be African-American, Latin American, or Caribbean. Am I shown hostility because I am white? Or am I basically treated like a king because I’m white? Perhaps both, depending on where I am. I one time talked with a white Seventh-Day Adventist who was a truck-driver and visited a black Seventh-Day Adventist church on one of his travels, and he remarked that he was treated like a king at that church! How should I respond to that sort of set-up when I experience it? Should I politely accept their courtesy, even though I’m sure that there are people who will tell me that I’m exploiting them so that I can feel special and accepted—-in a world where I ordinarily am not considered all that special? And yet, there have been black people who have told me that I’m fortunate to have their acceptance, since there are African-Americans who do not warm up to white people so easily. So, in a sense, in my mind at least, I’m doing them a favor by embracing their acceptance, by acknowledging that they’re being generous. And yet, by giving me an opportunity to hear their stories, they are doing me a favor—-they are teaching me about what society is like, and the value of all of humanity.