Letters written long ago by Barack Obama Sr. shed new light on a young Kenyan whose ambitions helped change the course of U.S. history. But for the president, they may also revive old pain.
NEW YORK — The archivist stumbled across the file in a stack of boxes on the second floor of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The yellowing letters inside dated back more than 50 years, chronicling the dreams and struggles of a young man in Kenya.
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.
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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 invited President Obama to see the newly discovered documents, which included nearly two dozen of his late 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 center is still waiting for a response.
The documents, described publicly here for the first time, renders a portrait of Barack Obama Sr. 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 about the void his father left in his life. Barack Obama Sr. went home to Kenya in 1964, when Obama was 3 years old, and returned to visit his son only once 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.”
Obama explored his sense of loss and longing more deeply in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” describing his quest to learn more about the man who shared his name. He found some answers on a visit to Kenya, when he was in his 20s, but not all of them. “I still didn’t know the man my father had been,” he wrote. “What had shaped his ambitions?”
The letters of Barack Obama Sr., which span 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.
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It was while pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Hawaii in 1960 that Barack Obama Sr. met Stanley 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 Aug. 4, 1961. But Barack Obama Sr. never mentioned his new wife and son, not even in his scholarship applications.
Relatives have described Barack Obama Sr. 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 in 1982 without fulfilling his early promise. He was 46.
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 Sr. 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.”
Journeys of father, 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 Harvard.
As a boy, Barack Obama Sr. tended goats and walked to school barefoot, according to a biography about him, “The Other Barack,” by Sally Jacobs. He was a stellar student and dreamed big, even though opportunities were 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 wrote on another scholarship form, “I had to leave school to work and help.” (His chronic misbehavior and defiance also played a role, Jacobs said.)
He found work as an auditor, as a surveyor for an oil company, as an office manager for an insurance company and as 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 come up with the money he needed. (An unexpected personal connection helped. It turned out that an official of a U.S. foundation had employed his father as a cook.)
On Aug. 4, 1959, he boarded Flight 162 of British Overseas Airways and flew from Nairobi to Rome, records show. From there, he flew to Paris and then to New York. A bus carried him to Los Angeles, where he caught a plane to Hawaii. A year later, he met Dunham, the future president’s mother.
Excelled in classes
By then, Barack Obama Sr. had immersed himself in campus life. He had joined the debating club and the International Students Association and had been named editor of the International Students Newsletter, all while marveling at the Hawaiian climate where, he wrote, “one would not know that it is winter.”
“The people around here have made me feel at home,” he wrote, adding that they had “called upon me to give several speeches on Africa and on Kenya” and had invited him to dinner.
He seemed wistful at times for home — “I rarely get any news here about Africa,” he wrote — but he excelled in his classes, earning an undergraduate degree in economics with honors in three years.
“He has impressed everyone with being a genuinely enlightened twentieth-century man and the peoples of Africa should be proud to have him representing them here,” wrote Lee Winters Jr., an English professor who praised his “superior” work.
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.
Immigration officials looked into rumors of his multiple marriages, his biography says, but the upheaval in his family life went unmentioned in his letters. Barack Obama Sr. wrote of financial struggles, not personal ones.
“Rents are very high here,” he wrote from Cambridge, Mass., appealing for funds to help cover his living expenses. “Even a hamburger is 50 cents here, a thing I never experienced before.”
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 son. 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.
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 center’s director said, his father’s file will be waiting.