What Obama Saw in the Fabulous Five
President Barack Obama warms up before playing a basketball game at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, May 9, 2009. Photograph by White House (Pete Souza)
From The Atlantic:
When Barack Obama was 10, his father gave him a basketball, a gift that connected the two directly. Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii and raised by his mother, Ann Dunham, who was white, and her parents, Stanley and Madelyn. They loved him ferociously, supported him emotionally, and encouraged him intellectually. They also told him he was black. Ann gave him books to read about famous black people. When Obama’s mother had begun dating his father, the news had not been greeted with the threat of lynching (as it might have been in various parts of the continental United States), and Obama’s grandparents always spoke positively of his father. This biography makes Obama nearly unique among black people of his era.
In the president’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, he says he was not an especially talented basketball player, but he played with a consuming passion. That passion was directed at something more than just the mastering of the pick-and-roll or the perfecting of his jump shot. Obama came of age during the time of the University of Hawaii basketball team’s “Fabulous Five”—a name given to its all-black starting five, two decades before it would be resurrected at the University of Michigan by the likes of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. In his memoir, Obama writes that he would watch the University of Hawaii players laughing at “some inside joke,” winking “at the girls on the sidelines,” or “casually flipping lay-ups.” What Obama saw in the Fabulous Five was not just game, but a culture he found attractive:
By the time I reached high school, I was playing on Punahou’s teams, and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn’t just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn’t back it up. That you didn’t let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions—like hurt or fear—you didn’t want them to see.These are lessons, particularly the last one, that for black people apply as much on the street as they do on the court. Basketball was a link for Obama, a medium for downloading black culture from the mainland that birthed the Fabulous Five. Assessing his own thought process at the time, Obama writes, “I decided to become part of that world.” This is one of the most incredible sentences ever written in the long, decorated history of black memoir, if only because very few black people have ever enjoyed enough power to write it.
Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes. After telling his teacher he wants to be a lawyer, Malcolm X is told that the job isn’t for “niggers.” Black culture often serves as the balm for such traumas, or even the means to resist them. Douglass finds the courage to face the “slave-breaker” Edward Covey after being given an allegedly enchanted root by “a genuine African” possessing powers from “the eastern nations.” Malcolm X’s dancing connects him to his “long-suppressed African instincts.” If black racial identity speaks to all the things done to people of recent African ancestry, black cultural identity was created in response to them. The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity.
Obama is somewhat different.