What you need to know:
- The letters span the period when the elder Obama fathered a son in Hawaii who would go on to become president of the United States.
- In the writings newly made public, Obama Snr comes across as an ambitious, brilliant but impoverished young man.
Several letters written by and about Barack Obama Snr between 1958 and 1964 reveal details about his efforts to study in the United States and his experiences while attending the University of Hawaii and Harvard.
The letters span the period when the elder Obama fathered a son in Hawaii who would go on to become president of the United States.
But the documents make no mention of that boy, and President Obama has yet to read this trove of letters written by his father, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
The Times published a selection of the letters, some typed and some hand-written, along with an account of their discovery at a research centre in Harlem.
In the writings newly made public, Obama Snr comes across as an ambitious, brilliant but impoverished young man. Omissions from these letters, however, also suggest that he put his own interests far ahead of those of two women he had married and the children he had with them.
“It has long been my cherished ambition to further my studies especially in America and therefore any slight assistance which you would be kind enough to offer me in regard to this would be very much appreciated,” Obama Snr wrote from Nairobi on October 20, 1958.
“I would have furthered my studies locally had it been that there were any colleges or universities in our country Kenya,” the applicant continued in his letter to the Institute of African American Relations in Washington.
“But due to the fact that we have none, it has therefore been difficult for me to further my studies taking into consideration my financial difficulties.”
Seven months later, in a formal application for aid that lists Tom Mboya as a personal reference, Obama Snr recounts his academic achievements in Kenya.
“My father did not have opportunity for much formal education but was eager for his children to obtain as much as possible,” the then-22-year-old Obama wrote in May 1959.
“I was interested in my studies and was the top of my class” at Ng’iya Intermediate School.
He added, “I was forced to leave school in my last year due to financial difficulties at home.”
“However,” Obama Snr goes on, “I have continued to educate myself since leaving school by taking courses in secretarial work (typing, shorthand, accountancy) Quantity Surveying and Journalism. I have also furthered my learning by reading extensively on many subjects.”
Obama Snr’s applications for aid and descriptions of his studies in the US were discovered in 2013 in a forgotten archive at the Harlem-based Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture.
The letters had been given to the Schomburg Centre by a foundation that awarded scholarships to African students.
The Times reported that the Schomburg Centre had invited President Obama to review the newly discovered documents in 2013 but received no response.
A senior White House official recently told the Times, however, that President Obama would be interested in seeing the letters after he leaves office next January.
The elder Obama says in one of the letters that he feels cut off from Africa and complains about the high price of food in the US, offering the example of a 50 cent hamburger — “a thing I never experienced before.”
He also noted in a letter from Hawaii that “the people around here have made me feel at home.”
Obama Snr added that they had “called upon me to give several speeches on Africa and Kenya.”
In his financial aid requests, Obama Snr made no reference to his US wife, Ann Dunham, his son, Barack, from that marriage, or the wife and two children he left behind in Kenya.
He left blank the section on marital status and dependents in an application for grants to pay for his graduate studies at Harvard.
The last letters in the archive were written in the year that Obama Snr returned to Kenya, leaving behind in Hawaii a three-year-old son.
The boy and his father would be together on only one more occasion.
Obama Snr spent a month in Hawaii in 1971 when the future president was 10 years old.
The elder Obama was killed in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982 at age 46.