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Unearthed words from Barack Obama’s father go unread by President

He was ambitious and impetuous, a 22-year-old clerk who could type 75 words a minute and translate English into Swahili. But he had no money for college. So he pounded away on a typewriter in Nairobi, pleading for financial aid from universities and foundations across the Atlantic.


His letters would help change the course of American history.
"It has been my long cherished ambition to further my studies in America," he wrote in 1958.

His name was Barack Hussein Obama, and his dispatches helped unleash a stream of scholarship money that carried him from Kenya to the United States. There, he fathered the child who would become the nation’s first black president, only to vanish from his son’s life a few years after his birth.

In 2013, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem invited US President Barack Obama to see the newly discovered documents, which included nearly two dozen of his father’s letters, his transcripts from the University of Hawaii and Harvard University, and references from professors, advisers and supporters. Nearly three years later, as Obama celebrates his last Father’s Day in the White House, the centre is still waiting for a response.

The trove of documents, described publicly here for the first time, renders a portrait of Barack Obama snr. in his own words, sometimes in his own handwriting, as he describes his studies in the United States. But it also lays bare the beginnings of the fractured relationship between father and son.

A senior White House official said Obama would be interested in seeing the documents after he leaves office next year but declined to comment on why administration officials had not responded to the letter or to follow-up correspondence.
"The papers are rich; they tell a fascinating, traditional, self-made man’s story," said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center, who said he hoped Obama would read them someday. "There’s a reason to bear witness to the personal legacy that is here."

As president, Obama has spoken openly and repeatedly about the void his father left in his life. Barack Obama snr went home to Kenya in 1964, when Obama was three years old, and returned to visit his son only once, for a month, when Obama was 10. In an interview with The New York Times last month, the President said his father’s absence had left him struggling as a teenager to figure out "what it meant to be a man".

Barack Obama’s snr’s letters, which span the period from 1958 to 1964, offer new insights, particularly about his years in the United States. But the records, which were preserved among the papers of a foundation that provided scholarships to African students at the time, may also resurrect old pain.

It was while pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Hawaii in 1960 that Barack Obama snr met Ann Dunham, a classmate. Although he already had a wife and two children in Kenya, he married her the following year, after she became pregnant. Their son was born on August 4, 1961. But Barack Obama snr never mentioned his new wife and son, not even in his scholarship applications.

In 1963, as he applied for a grant to help cover his graduate studies at Harvard, Barack Obama snr was asked on a financial aid form about his marital status and number of dependents. He left the section blank.

Relatives have described Barack Obama snr as a complicated man, brilliant and imperious, charming and brash, who began to drink heavily as his dreams of becoming one of Kenya’s leading government economists foundered. He died in a car crash at age 46 without ever fulfilling his early promise.

The elder Obama’s youngest brother, Said Obama, noted in a telephone interview from Kenya this month that he hoped the records would help the family understand his sibling more fully. He said Barack Obama snr had never stopped caring about the son he left behind, recalling how he proudly showed off the photograph and school progress reports of the young man who would become president.

"He loved his son," Said Obama recalled. "I don’t think you do such things if you don’t love your son."

President Obama often describes his life as an only-in-America saga, the improbable rise of the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya to the American presidency. But his father’s ascent was astounding, too, as he journeyed from the dusty roads of his rural village to the halls of Harvard.

As a boy, Barack Obama snr tended goats and walked to school barefoot, according to a biography about him, The Other Barack, by Sally H. Jacobs. He was a stellar student and dreamed big, even though opportunities were severely limited for blacks in Kenya, which was still a British colony then.

He had not finished high school, he explained in one of his scholarship applications, "due to financial difficulties at home".
"Due to poor health on the part of my father," he explained on another scholarship form, "I had to leave school to work and help." (His chronic misbehaviour and defiance also played a decisive role, Jacobs said.)

He found work as an auditor, an oil company surveyor, an office manager for an insurance company and a clerk for a literacy program. He married and had a child.
His financial struggles did not dampen his aspirations. "Might open own firm on civil engineering and architecture or work for the government," he wrote.

He was determined to join the wave of young Kenyans seeking higher education overseas as calls for independence swept the African continent. His letters helped him gain admission to the University of Hawaii and to come up with the money he needed to cover his costs. (An unexpected personal connection helped, too. It turned out that an official of a US foundation had employed his father as a cook.)

On August 4, 1959, he boarded Flight 162 of British Overseas Airways Corp and flew from Nairobi to Rome, records show. From there, he flew to Paris and then on to New York. A bus carried him to Los Angeles, where he caught a plane to Hawaii. A year later, he would meet Dunham, President Obama’s mother.

Most people on campus had no idea that the star student had married a second wife during his sophomore year or that he was the father of a baby boy. By 1962, when he headed to Harvard to pursue a graduate degree, his American family had already fallen apart.

He ended up with a master’s degree in economics from Harvard - not the doctorate he had hoped for - and headed home to Kenya without his little boy. Christine McKay, the archivist who discovered the letters, said she could not help but think about that son as she pored over the pages.

"I thought it would be great if the President could see his father’s words," she said.
Said Obama, the President’s uncle, told the Times he would like to read the documents, too. He does not have to close his eyes to conjure up memories of his brother. He can see his genetic fingerprints every time he gets together with the President of the United States, in his voice and in his stride.

But when asked whether he thought his nephew would read the letters, Said Obama hesitated. On such a sensitive matter, between father and son, he thought it best to demur.

So for now, the records reside in Box 214 of the Phelps Stokes Fund collection in the Schomburg’s temperature-controlled, off-site storage facility. Whenever Obama is ready, the centre’s director said, his father’s file will be waiting.

Jimirasire

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