On August 4, 1961, a baby boy was born at Kapi’olani Medical Center in Honolulu. He weighed eight pounds, two ounces. The name he was given was the same as his father’s. His first name means “blessed” in Swahili, an African language.
His father was from Kenya, a country in Africa. His mother was born in Wichita, Kansas.
Shortly after his birth, his parents split up. During his first years, he didn’t wonder why his father was missing.
His mother was white, but he could not ignore the fact that he was black, even when he didn’t feel like a member of that community. He looked black. His mother told him that he got his eyebrows from her, but his wit and character from his father, as well as so many of his other features: his nose; his cheeks and smile; his hair texture; his long, lean body; the ginger color of his skin, which was like a swirl of milk in coffee.
In 1967, he and his mother moved to Indonesia to live with his new stepfather. He played in rice patties and rode water buffalo. He also made friends with other children. In the backyard he found a pond with a real baby crocodile. He spent his days catching crickets and flying kites.
These were years he would later remember as “a joyous time, full of adventure and mystery.”
During his time in Indonesia, he lived in the country’s capitol, Kakarta. The first house he lived in did not have a flush toilet, and the streets in the neighborhood were not yet paved. While there, his stepfather have him a pet ape named Tata. He also tried cool new foods such as snake meat and roasted grasshopper!
He began his education at an Indonesian grammar school. One classmate remembered him for his ambition, “At the time here in Indonesia, all the parents pushed their kids: ‘You have to become a doctor’ or ‘You have to become and engineer.’ But he wrote that he’d like to be president.”
Learning self-defense was only one of his activities. He studied Indonesia’s languages and customs.
His mother told him that he had a wonderful father—fiercely intelligent, with a deep baritone voice and a way of commanding people’s attention. His mother showed him pictures of his father. She told him that his father loved him very much.
He was beginning to doubt the stories he had been told by his mother about his father’s greatness. He barely knew his father and only saw him once (for a period of one month) in 1971.
He was impressed by the way his father could catch the attention of everyone in a room simply by walking in, speaking in his confident manner, moving gracefully.
His father brought him some wooden carvings. He danced with his father to African music. His father believed the boy had been watching too much TV and not studying enough.
His mother was concerned that he was not receiving a proper education (in Indonesia). She thought he would be better off if he went to school back in America, so she sent him to her parents in the summer of 1971.
Family pictures show him happily riding his tricycle or perched on a fence with his mother’s arm around him. In another picture from those days, he frolics in the surf with his grandfather.
His grandfather was a furniture salesman, while his grandmother worked for a bank.
Now that he was in Hawaii again, his grandparents enrolled him in the Punahou School. He stayed at that school for eight years.
On his first day he was asked if his father in Kenya was a cannibal. “Certainly not,” he said. He coolly explained that his father was actually a prince.
He spent his days playing outside, often accompanying his grand-father to the beach or park. He went spearfishing with his Gramps. And wherever he went, he saw many people of all different colors. He ate rice candy and roast pork and a Hawaiian food called poi.
He knew that sometimes people treated him differently because of his skin color. He stood out as one of the few African-Americans enrolled in the school. A girl at school wanted to touch his wiry hair.
As a young kid, he didn’t notice that he was half black and half white. But as he grew older, he started to see that he was half black living mostly among white people.
When he looked into the mirror, he saw a young black man. But he didn’t know how to be black. And no one was there to teach him.
He lived for nearly ten years with his grandparents, but he started to feel like he didn’t belong. As he got older, he started to act out. Though he was an honors student and an athlete, he also liked to go to parties.
He called his grandmother Toot, after the Hawaiian word “Tutu” meaning grandmother. His mother and grandparents talked to him about his father, but they never criticized his father.
He did very well in both school and sports. He was also editor of the school magazine and a member of the school’s choir. His other interests included jazz, fishing, and surfing. His school’s basketball team even won the state championship in 1979!
He once came across an article about a black man who had tried to whiten his skin with chemicals. It made no sense to him. In many ways, his race was still a puzzle he was struggling to understand.
He was still trying to figure out exactly who he was. He looked like a black student, complete with an afro hairdo. But living with his white grandparents and knowing two sides of his heritage made it difficult to settle on an identity.
He cherished his full afro and could spend a long time picking at it in order to make it appear just right.
As he became a teenage, home was an unremarkable apartment building in Honolulu, which could easily be mistaken for some nondescript medical office building that houses a handful of doctors.
On long walks, he kept looking at people. He hoped to find where he fit in.
He listened to his mother’s stories and imagined the father he did not know. All he had of his father were imprints his had had left behind with others: images on photographic paper and memories burned inside the minds of those who had known him. Could he believe in a man he remembered seeing only once?
By the time of his high school graduation, he was aware of how alone he was, being black and not black at the same time. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was on the outside looking in, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
He graduated without mishap, was accepted into several respectable schools, and settled on Occidental College in Los Angeles mainly because he’d met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii with her family.
He knew just one of his parents and, as much as his mother tried, she couldn’t give him all the knowledge he needed to become a man. There were other male figures in his life—his grandfather, his stepfather, an older black poet—but which of them was he supposed to emulate?
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