Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States. His story is the American story — values from the heartland, a middle-class upbringing in a strong family, hard work and education as the means of getting ahead, and the conviction that a life so blessed should be lived in service to others.
With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, President Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. He was raised with help from his grandfather, who served in Patton’s army, and his grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management at a bank.
After working his way through college with the help of scholarships and student loans, President Obama moved to Chicago, where he worked with a group of churches to help rebuild communities devastated by the closure of local steel plants.
When I was a child, my mother liked telling people that I’d learned French in a month flat. It was true: My family had moved to a Francophone country, and a few weeks of playing outside was all it took. But her retellings weren’t simply boasts about her daughter’s abilities; they, like much of my childhood, were proof of just how easily a young brain, not yet calcified with experience and expectation, can adapt. From there, I would learn firsthand that it isn’t just language that can be absorbed.
Like both of my parents, I was born in Sudan. But by the time I came along, in the mid-1980s, a fragile political situation had become increasingly volatile. My parents had met in England a decade earlier as doctoral students, and returned to Khartoum as professors at the national university. When a chaotic regime shift descended on the country, however, my father’s political allegiances eventually led to our exile. He left first, and we followed. I was four, and my brother was seven.
After Sudan, we had a brief stint in Cairo, where my grandparents, like many Sudanese of our privileged class, kept an apartment. Those few months, a resetting of sorts, marked a period of intense insecurity and upheaval. One of my earliest memories is of my father trying—and failing miserably—to coax my curls into one of the cute hairstyles I wore then, and of a too-loose pink bauble flopping painfully against the side of my head. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t just dream this up, an approximate amalgam of stories I heard over the years and things I know to be true about my dad and domesticity. It was also an apt metaphor for that time of unease.