The Oberlin Stories Project

On America’s first black president

Myrina D. McCullough ’69

“I’m glad and proud that I … and countless other Obies who have also shared their stories here all rejected the paralyzing fear of “otherness” that keeps people apart and keeps our world fragmented.”

Multiracial family portrait with Myrina and 3 kids.

Before I even got to Oberlin in 1964, I had been bit by the ‘wanderlust.’ I spent my senior year of high school in Pakistan with my older sister, and I had studied French fervently. Even though Oberlin didn’t have nearly as many study abroad opportunities as it does now, it did have a Sophomore Summer-Abroad Program which I had set my sights on. During my sophomore year, I lived at La Maison Francaise on campus (though I usually ate at one of the co-ops), and in 1966 I went to France on that summer program. But the summer wasn’t long enough for me, so I ‘quit’ Oberlin and went to l’Institut pour les etudiants etrangers in Aix-en-Provence for a year. Besides my studies, I taught evening literacy classes to Algerian immigrants, studied yoga, and fell in love with the yoga instructor (that is what you’re SUPPOSED to do your junior year, right?)!

I returned the next fall to Oberlin with so many credits that I was able to leave again after the first semester of my senior year. I went to join my French (yoga instructor) fiance who was doing alternative military service in Bamako, Mali in West Africa. I finished up a few courses by correspondence and got my B.A. in absentia in 1969.

Mali suffered a drought for nine of the thirteen years I was there. The heat was blistering and exhausting, especially with no air conditioning and often little water. It may, in fact, have been a partial cause of the demise of that first marriage, but not of my love affair with Mali. As happens everywhere for everyone, life keeps unrolling, and I became very busy going to nursing school in Bamako, having and bringing up three mixed-race children, and working as a nurse in various hospitals.

The strain and frustration caused by the heat, malaria, skin conditions, almost no fruit, and an out-of-control bureaucracy were easily out-weighed by the richness of the human connection in Mali. When all one has - literally - is other people, relationships become the focus of one’s energy, creativity, time, and effort. People really value and respect one another.

In 1976 I became the head nurse for the outpatient research program of an international leprosy clinic. Lepers are the very poorest of the already very poor, unfairly stigmatized by their disease. They came -- beaten down, fearful, and depressed -- from all over western and central Africa to be cured, but once there -- cared for and accepted -- never was there a happier group of people: generous, cheerful, philosophical, patient, and loving. A hot heaven on earth. I was in no hurry to leave.

Family and scholastic considerations, however, eventually brought me and my three little African Americans to Washington D.C. With the specter of putting my children through college hanging over me, I worked in the Health and Education Sector of the African Region of the World Bank for a long time, but upon retirement I quickly launched myself back into the hands-on activities that I love: running support groups for HIV+ clients, delivering food for home-bound patients, and being a ‘buddy’ for HIV+ patients in Mayor Adrian Fenty’s (’92) highly HIV-prevalent city of Washington D.C.

Now, in 2008, I feel intensely proud and connected to our new President for reasons that must be abundantly clear by now: I count myself as one of a few (or is it many?) pioneers who bridged continents and racial divides at a time when miscegenation was practically outlawed in America. I’m glad and proud that I, Ann Dunham (Barack Obama’s mother), and countless other Obies who have also shared their stories here all rejected the paralyzing fear of “otherness” that keeps people apart and keeps our world fragmented. I’m glad we trusted in the basic goodness and sameness of humanity, which allowed us to join other societies and put culturally mixed children on earth. This is the way our world will move forward.

In the same vein, I am proud to be an alumnus of Oberlin College, which played its own important role in being the first college to open its doors to African Americans, a fact which I never fail to remember and remark upon to any who will listen. What will its next step be? What will its next generation do?