Obama & his Maternal Grandparents

A Tribute to a President

I felt that I wanted to write something. Firstly, to contextualise why I feel so connected to Obama. And secondly, because I believe that in order for us to understand each-other, we need to share how a person, a community, a culture, or an event — made us feel.

I came of political age under Bush and Blair. I was 18 years old and I had just moved to Tehran, Iran. After Bush, for me, and for many other liberal-minded 20 somethings that I knew, Obama entering the White House, for want of a better word: made America cool again. A year and a half after Obama’s inauguration, in the summer of 2010 I went to the US for the first time as an adult, and to New York for the first time ever, where I stayed with my eccentric Great Aunt for as long as my three-month tourist-visa would permit, before heading back to Brighton (UK) for the final year of my Visual Arts & Performance degree.

Though for me, as I imagine also for many others, it was more than Obama simply being down with the millennials that had us feel connected. For me, Obama’s presidency came at a time when I was also trying to navigate my own identity(s) primarily through the performance led art that I was creating, and the books that I was reading.

Like Obama, I’m mixed race. My father is Persian-Iranian where he moved to the UK just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 from Abadan, in late 1978. A once vibrant international hub; the Middle-Eastern equivalent of Ibiza so I’ve been told, which is now barely a half standing shell of itself that is no more than a pebble skid away from Basra — separated by the river Shatt Al-Arab.

My mother is British, a Londoner, and of Jamaican ancestry. My Great-Grandfather came over from Jamaica in the 1950’s, where he settled in Birmingham, and was part of the post-Windrush generation that would help repair a Britain that was still very much bruised and fractured by World War 2. My Grandad later followed and made Brockley, South-East London, his home where he still lives today.

My parents met in Catford, South-East London. And wait for it. They met in Kentucky Fried Chicken. My paternal Grand-father was a poultry farmer, so there’s something vaguely romantic about it — in my head at least.

When my parents got together, being a mixed couple, even in London, was not the done thing. I remember stories that my Dad would tell me about the blatant racism they would get from both the Black and Asian community for marrying outside their race. There was one story that my Dad told me about at Notting Hill Carnival in the 80’s, where a whole load of shit went down when a Caribbean guy tried to tear my Mum’s hand away from my Dad’s. My Mum literally has the most perfect face I’ve ever seen in real life (not that that should be a reason) and my Dad, if he was an animal, or more correctly put, a breed of dog, all 5'5" of him, would be a Pitbull, no doubt — so you can imagine how that went down.

Growing up, both of our parents (I have a younger brother) did an incredible job in raising us to love our skin/our being. I was caramel, and Dom was fudge (or maybe toffee, I can’t quite remember). My Dad would always say, and still does, that people bake themselves in the sun, on sun-beds to have your complexion, it’s beautiful. And Mummy never spoke about race, the adjectives Black and White, seldom passed her lips.

When you’re Brown, you can literally pass for anything other than white. I’ve had it all, Brazilian (my personal favourite), Sri Lankan, Cuban, Moroccan, Malaysian (this one’s rare) and recently Italian — which has me slightly confused. With race, in my experience, people see what they want to see, and sometimes, what they are most comfortable with seeing. We’re tribes people, we want to know what tribe people belong to? What are you? What do you do? Who do you pledge your allegiance to? And so forth. That way they can distinguish whether you’re with them, or against them. Obviously, I like to think that most of us have come on a bit, and that we now choose to distinguish people “by the content of their character” as Dr Martin Luther King, bless his soul, had hoped. Though if visuals are to be recognised as a shortcut for the brain for ‘kinship’ or ‘enemy’, think of football jerseys. Then on a very primal level — I get it.

Which brings me to statements that many of my fellow mixed race friends will probably recognise “you don’t look like your parents” or “you don’t look like your Mum/Dad” or “is that really your Dad?” or “is that really your Mum?” — I’ve been guilty of this too. Though, if someone’s feeling real brazen “is that your real Dad/Mum?”. So if you’re mixed race, who is your tribe? And do you have to choose? And do you even need to have a tribe? Growing up, firstly, my immediate family became my tribe, particularly my brother (is that because we look alike? Or because we were inseparable?). And then it became my extended family, and then close friends. And with everyone pooled together — this encapsulates every hue from-and-between: the palest-cream, to the richest & darkest purply-brown imaginable.

In my 20’s, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to balance all of my identities: the first person I ever fell madly in-love with was a woman, the second was a man. I have a Muslim family name; I love my name — if I ever get married then my future significant other would have to be bringing something pretty damn special in order for me to consider giving it up. Though, having a Muslim family name in the West, post 9/11 comes at a price. An example being, when I’m ‘randomly’ asked to be searched at Gatwick Airport 3x times before boarding a flight to the US. And just like Obama, what does it mean to not have a Western name? Another identity is being British, though also understanding that there is so much colloquial/regional British culture that I’m still yet discovering as I’m only second generation, and I keep falling in love with none-Brits which really doesn’t bring me any closer to understanding the intricacies of British Culture. And I definitely feel like an honorary Canadian, as I spent 3 months of every year between 9–17 years old there (with the exception of a couple of summers). And as we moved around so much as children, I can’t say that I’m a Londoner through-and-through. So who am I?

Obama for me, was the first high profile figure who transcended all of those binary notions, and I believe it is this which had him win so many hearts. Obama, couldn’t be a truer product of our ever tightening global interconnectivity.

For me, I see Obama as representing every place that he has called home, every person that he has loved. And maybe that’s me just projecting, as we see what we want to see — though this is exactly how I feel about my own existence.

So I feel that it’s only right to give thanks to Obama’s parents for being brave, for loving freely, as let’s not forget that Obama was born into an era, a nation, with a deeply embedded history of segregation. A segregated system that existed/exists for no other purpose than economics.

I know what the heart/face of my tribe is, it’s humility. What’s yours?