President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is not the only document about his personal life that has been under scrutiny this week. Investigative journalist Heather Smathers, writing in the weekly Arizona Independent, has brought to light other documents about Obama’s father, Barack Obama senior. These documents, written by US immigration and university officials (and available online here), offer a fascinating, and troubling, look at Obama senior’s treatment by Americans and may even offer insight into why he did not complete his doctoral studies at Harvard University.
Smathers made a Freedom of Information Act request for the US immigration service file to obtain the reports on Obama senior. As Andrew Rice writes in Capital New York, the file reveals that officials had a heightened interest in Obama senior’s relations with white women. Here are sections of the files and commentary from the Guardian, starting with 1961 memo with a statement from a Mrs McCabe, a foreign student adviser at the University of Hawaii:
Mrs McCabe further states that Subject [Obama senior] has been running around with several girls since he first arrived here and last summer she cautioned him about his playboy ways. Subject replied that he would ‘try’ to stay away from the girls.
Also discussed in the memo is Obama senior’s earlier Kenya marriage. The memo says that “polygamy is not an excludable or deportation charge,” but still states that that “the Subject be closely questioned before another extention is granted — and denial be considered.”
Obama senior is referred to within as “a slippery character” in the memos and, as the Guardian observes,
…his relationships with several women are discussed and investigated, while the question of Obama senior’s “marital problems” are repeatedly raised – in an era when interracial marriage was still illegal in many parts of the US.
In the memos, immigration officials press for more details on Obama senior’s marriages and relationships, while in a memo dated 19 May 1964 an immigration service official appears to be conspiring with Harvard University to get rid of the student:
“Obama has passed his general exams, which indicates that on academic grounds he is entitled to stay around here and write his thesis; however [Harvard] are going to try to cook something up to ease him out…. They are planning on telling him that they will not give him any money, and that he had better return to Kenya and prepare his thesis at home.”
A June 1964 by immigration officials states that Harvard officials were actually trying “to get rid” of Obama senior. His marital status was again singled out, with officials not able “to figure out how many wives he had” and not pleased about this.
Writing in Capital New York, Rice asks if Obama senior was “eased out” of the US and of Harvard precisely because of his relationships with white women:
But as someone who has spent a lot of time studying post-colonial Africa — and particularly the fascinating and emblematic story of our president’s tangled lineage — I was most interested in how the file did shed some light on a real mystery, the one that inspired Barack Obama Jr. to write a book about his absent father, one of his earliest steps into public life. Why did the president’s father leave his son, and eventually America, returning to Hawaii for just a single childhood visit?
I think the file proves, fairly conclusively, that racism drove the president’s father from the United States. I went back and forth a bit with Ben Smith (whose blog post brought this file to my attention) over whether “racism” is really the right word for the bureaucratic attitudes and actions these documents contain. There’s no use of slurs or harsh language, certainly. What I think the documents reveal, though, is a subtle, institutionalized conspiracy that in a way seems more insidious than overt cross-burning racism, because almost surely none of its participants thought of their actions as discriminatory at all. In that sense, the file is an instructive artifact, not just of our president’s biography, but of our nation’s history of conflicted attitudes about race, foreign cultures, intermarriage and sex.
There is, Rice says, a “subtext of miscegenation” in the memos, with their constant emphasis, if not a fixation, on Obama senior’s personal life — just as, in the midst of fighting three wars, addressing the jobless rate and the recession and quite a lot more, Republicans have just not been able to let go of inquiring about the President’s personal life, down to needing visual proof of his actual birth certificate.
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