Sunday, March 30, 2008

Got Polygamy?

I just finished listening to Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama’s book about his search to discover and understand his roots. Obama wrote it just after finishing law school. It was especially personal because Obama reads it himself. I heard him tell the story. It felt like Obama shared a very private part of his life. One full of details most people don’t want to get out.

Much of the book revolves around Obama’s efforts to figure out how his absentee father informs who he is. His father was physically present in his life for only the first two years and then for a short time when he was ten. Obama reveals that on his father’s side it was common for men to have more than one wife. Obama’s father was a either a bigamist or polygamist depending on how you slice it. He had children by 4 women. The marriages over lapped each other with little regard for when one started and another stopped.

When Obama’s father left his birth place in Kenya to attend college in Hawaii, he left behind a pregnant wife and a child. In Hawaii, he met and married Obama’s mother. They had Barack and his sister. He parted with Barack’s mother two years later when he left for Boston to attend Harvard. While there, he entered into a relationship with a woman who would follow him to Kenya and bear him two children. His original Kenyan wife would later bear him two additional children. Going back a generation; Obama’s grandfather was a true polygamist. He had three wives at the same time.

What fascinated me was how Obama deals with all of this. His technique is simple -- he just lets it out. He plainly tells the story. His family’s polygamous practices are just part of how he came to be who he is. He doesn’t extol the practice, he doesn’t denigrate it, he just tells about it. He takes pride in and draws strength from his ancestors. He is not embarrassed or appalled by what they did, he doesn’t, as did Mitt Romney, sweep it away by saying it was “bizarre” or “awful.” He just tells you about it and how it has shaped him.

So my question to myself and others is this -- if you have polygamist ancestors, how does it inform your sense of self? Are you ashamed? Are you proud? Was it a mistake? Was it awful and bizarre? Are we just lucky that it’s a relic of the past? What is your take?

I for one am not the least bit ashamed. My mother’s mother and father grew up in large polygamous families. I am fascinated by their lives. Their religious practices are big part of who I am why I am where I am today. I am the product of a grand religious experiment. My great grandparents were so committed to their vision of the truth that engaged in a practice that made them criminals. They put their religion and their God before their country. I am in awe of their conviction. I feel that the Mormonism I am asked to live is a watered down version of theirs. And no, I don’t want to be a polygamist. I couldn’t do what they did not would I want to. But they were more committed to religious convictions that I am. I have it easy.