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Island life in multiracial Hawaii shaped Obama

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[August 07, 2008]  HONOLULU (AP) -- The diverse culture of the nation's 50th state -- and the island nature of Hawaii itself -- shaped Barack Obama's view of the world and the politics he would practice.

Those who knew him as a child say that view and those politics click with the themes of his Democratic presidential campaign. For Obama, though, Hawaii is even more personal, the place where he picked up basketball and formed his racial identity.

Hardware"If you grow up here, where we have no majority and there's a complete ethnic mix, people have learned how to get along with others who look different and are from different places," said longtime family friend Georgia McCauley.

"In Hawaii, because we have a confined space in terms of being an island state, we perhaps have to learn how to cooperate and compromise more," McCauley said. "We learn how to listen to each other and work on things in a positive manner."

This weekend, Obama planned to return to the island where he spent his childhood as a pudgy kid called Barry who lived in a modest apartment with his grandparents. He planned to visit his maternal grandmother and sister for a few days of vacation before the Democratic National Convention in Denver at month's end.


Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a white mother and a black father who had met in Russian class at the University of Hawaii. He was an island boy most of his first 18 years. His mother's charitable work, his multiethnic friends and the economic gap between his family and his classmates at the island's most prestigious private school -- he attended on scholarship -- helped forge Obama before he left for college on the mainland.

His father, also named Barack Obama, was a scholarship student from Kenya. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an 18-year-old from Kansas who went on to become an anthropologist and helped set up loans for poor people to start businesses in Indonesia.

Their marriage didn't last long. When Barry was 6, he moved to Indonesia, the homeland of his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, another university student his mother met in Hawaii. Obama was 9 when his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was born. She now teaches history in a private girls high school in Honolulu.

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Obama's mother sent him back to the islands after four years in Indonesia to live with her parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham. His grandfather was a furniture salesman and his grandmother was Bank of Hawaii's first female bank vice president.

Obama entered the fifth grade at the elite Punahou School, where he was a minority among minorities, an out-of-place boy in a school of the privileged. He enjoyed the lifestyle of an island teen, playing basketball, body surfing and spear-fishing, and he worked at a burger outlet and served on the school literary magazine's editorial board.

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Obama has recounted numerous instances when he felt like an outsider, as when a seventh grader called him a "coon" and the parents of a white girl objected to her going to the prom with him. The islands' roughly 49,000 blacks account for less than 4 percent of the population.

"Hawaii's spirit of tolerance might not have been perfect or complete. But it was -- and is -- real," Obama wrote in a 1999 essay for the Punahou alumni magazine. "The opportunity that Hawaii offered -- to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect -- became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear."

He left the islands for Occidental College in Los Angeles, then graduated from Columbia University before taking a church-based community organizing job in Chicago and moving on to Harvard Law School. He returned to Illinois as a civil rights lawyer. When he won the U.S. Senate race in 2004, Hawaii Democrats adopted Obama as the state's "third senator." He continued to make regular visits to be with family and friends, the last in December 2006, as Democrats were urging him to seek the presidency.


"He himself is a child of diversity, and Hawaii gave him that opportunity," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who was friends with Obama's family and remembers him as a boy. "He believes diversity defines you, rather than divides you. That's the central message of change he's bringing. It's nothing to be afraid of."

[Associated Press; By MARK NIESSE]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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