It was like almost any other day in a Honolulu waterfront park. Ka'au Crater Boys playing on the sound system. Kids throwing a football around. Tradewinds blowing savory smoke in from the barbecue pits at the far end of the parking lot, and the occasional light rain against a sunny sky.
Except for the line of 4,000 people that stretched all the way around the perimeter of the park.
They had come to witness the first visit by a major presidential candidate to the islands since Richard Nixon in 1960, and the first ever nominee from Hawai'i. When he bounded up with his wife onto the small makeshift stage, threw up a shaka, and shouted, "Howzit!" into the mic, the crowd went crazy. Barack Obama had come home.
The rally was a last-minute addition to what was supposed to be a quiet family vacation. "I didn't come here to politick," Obama, dressed in a black polo and pleated khakis, told the crowd in their "One In A Million" and "Obama 'Ohana" shirts. "I'm going to get a plate lunch. I'm going to go get some shave ice. I might bodysurf at an undisclosed location."
But after a week of taking a battering from the McCain camp for having the audacity to take a short week-long summer break, Obama campaign staff looked his schedule--which only had a Tuesday $1 million fundraiser at the uber-bougie Kahala Hotel--and hastily added an appearance for the people.
In claiming Ke'ehi Lagoon Park, they displaced the ceremonies for Samoan Flag Day--the biggest Samoan community celebration of the year--and everyone knows you don't get the clans angry. Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann surely had some roundtable diplomacy to do.
By Obama standards, the rally--which most islanders only found out about when it was announced on the front-page of the morning paper--was ragged. There were no Obama merch vendors, the volunteer staff looked thin, the program was barely over a half-hour from beginning to end.
Obama himself seemed a bit exhausted. He turned his "non-political" speech into a brief version of his stump, but barely touched on the economy and missed opportunities to craft his message to local concerns, like the proposed rapid transit system or environmental issues. This state is bluer than the Pacific; no politicking was necessary.
But the crowd didn't care. Here was a genuine keiki o ka 'aina, a child of the land, Hawai'i's own. Instead of playing to their needs, Obama played to their dreams. Islanders want nothing more than to be respected as equal Americans, but respect is hard to come by when you've been reduced to giving leis to haoles from Japan or "the mainland".
So the local political luminaries who introduced Obama--from Senator Daniel Akaka to old Obama family friend Congressman Neil Abercrombie to Hannemann--spent their few CSPAN minutes talking up Hawai'i's diversity.
Hannemann, in particular, recalled seeing John F. Kennedy speaking here in 1963, making an impression on the young politico by saying that Hawai'i represented where the rest of the country needed to go. Forty-five years later, the culturally literate Obama is the living proof.
Where Obama's 20-minute address was thin in details, it was long in history. "A lot of people ask me how Hawai'i has shaped me", he said. He told them that it was the aloha spirit that taught him the value of empathy, gave him the understanding that everyone needs to be responsible for each other.
He spoke of how his haole grandparents saw the islands as "the New Frontier", a place where they could still reach the American dream. "Everybody here understands that," Obama said, "whether they're coming from east or west. We've got to make sure that the dream still lives."
Lofty, sure, but it's also what indigenous people call the 'settler' narrative. The sad truth is that Hawai'i has never been as racially egalitarian as it likes to make itself out to be. The day before Obama's speech, Native Hawaiians at Naue on the north shore of Kaua'i blockaded a haole developer from tearing up 30 ancient gravesites to build himself an ocean-front McMansion.
But we do figure out ways to get along. In a small space bounded by water on all sides, you must learn to.
The hope of Obama--whom everyone in the crowd understood was in a hurry to go and see his tutu, his grandma from Kansas--is that he can help make things pono, make things right. The worry is that he won't find the correct balance.
In Hawai'i, the space where the water meets the land is a place of celebration and gathering or where dreams and histories get paved for parking lots.
Before descending to shake hands and give hugs to the home crowd, Obama grinned broadly and waved.
"I'll see you on the beach!" he shouted.
Originally published at Vibe.com.
This Jeff Chang is the author of Can"t Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and editor of Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, not the Taiwanese balladeer.