Sunday, February 25, 2018
Politics

Decades-old letters belonging to President Obama's father are discovered in Harlem

An archivist has discovered a rare collection of more than two dozen letters and documents from President Obama's father that were written more than a half-century ago as he was trying to make his way in the United States.

The discovery of the yellowing letters, in which Barack Hussein Obama Sr. is trying to secure financial assistance from American universities and foundations, was made in 2013 and was first reported by the New York Times on Saturday. The documents were found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and describe the elder Obama's journey from Kenya to the University of Hawaii and then on to Harvard University for graduate studies.

"It has been my long cherished ambition to further my studies in America," he wrote in 1958, according to one of the letters reproduced by the New York Times. It was in Hawaii as a student that the elder Obama met and married Ann Dunham, a classmate and President Obama's mother. At the time, the elder Obama had already married and had two children in Kenya, a fact that he kept from his American wife and son.

The letters, transcripts and documents portray President Obama's father as a bright and driven young man who was widely admired by his professors for his work ethic and intellect. In some of the letters, he complains about the high cost of food in the United States, including a 50-cent hamburger, and his isolation from his home in Africa.

The documents also hint at the elder Obama's darker side. He fails to mention his American wife and son on the financial aid forms he filled out when applying for grants to help pay for his graduate studies at Harvard. He left the section on marital status and dependents blank.

The Schomburg Center, which is part of the New York Public Library System, acquired the elder Obama's papers from an aid and scholarship granting organization, said Adenike Olanrewaju, a spokeswoman for the library system. They were uncovered by Christine McKay, an archivist who was doing research in 2013.

The library invited the president to see the newly discovered documents shortly after they were discovered in 2013, but it never received a response, Olanrewaju said.

The letters end in 1964, when the elder Obama returned to Kenya, leaving behind his 3-year-old son. The president saw his father just once more, when he was 10, and the two spent a month together in Hawaii. Obama's memoir, "Dreams From My Father," chronicles the president's struggle to understand the father who abandoned him and his own identity.

In an interview last year with comedian Marc Maron, Obama described his father as a "brilliant man ... who took a leap from a tiny village in the backwaters of Kenya" to the the United States.

"He never managed that leap as well as he could have," Obama said. "And part of the process of me writing the book was to figure out what happened to him and how did he become who he was."

Obama said that for most of his childhood, his father was an "abstraction." His mother and grandparents accentuated the good in his absent father, the president said. Later in life, the elder Obama "ended up becoming an alcoholic and abusive towards his several wives, and to some degree, a neglectful father," the president told Maron.

Throughout his time in the White House, the president has made a point of having dinner with his family whenever possible - a commitment that he has suggested has hindered his ability to build close relationships in Washington. His elder daughter, Malia, recently graduated from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, and Obama has said that he will stay in the city for two years so that his younger daughter, Sasha, can finish high school.

"One of the things that I always say is - I've said this to Michelle - one of our biggest jobs as parents - because we're all a little bit crazy - is let's see if we can not pass on some of our craziness to our kids," he told Maron.

"That's a challenge, right?" Maron said with a laugh.

"Let's see if we can break the cycle," Obama replied.

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