By Carey Baraka,
First, Barack Obama was the first black president of the United States of America. Secondly, he was the first African president of the United States of America. Thirdly, he was the first Kenyan president of the United States of America. His occupation of this office meant that he represented, to Kenyans, the pinnacle of American excellence. No longer was Ben Carson the sole exemplar of the black American dream our parents would point out to us. In Kisumu, where I grew up, Obama became, briefly, as big as Raila Odinga and Dennis Oliech, the symbolic totems the town pivoted around.
Kisumu in the early and mid-2000s was a slow town, the dust and heat all-encompassing in their existence, the politics of the country casting its shadow over the town. Political fervor rose during a by-election in Kisumu Town West following Joab Omino’s death in 2003; raucous Saba Saba day protests that next year led to police officers firing gunshots into my school, and there were increasing instances of police violence as the 2005 referendum drew closer, and more after the government side lost.
Then Barack Obama came to town. This was in 2006. In his book, A Promised Land, released two weeks after the 2020 American elections, he recalls this visit.
My half-sister Auma had thoughtfully organized a family trip to Nyanza Province, so we could introduce Sasha and Malia to our father’s ancestral home in the western region of the country. Traveling there we were surprised to see people lined up and waving alongside miles of highway.”
It is easy, even now, four years after the end of his stint as the president of the United States, to look at Obama from the prism of his Kenyan-ness. Or, stretching it further, his African-ness, his blackness, and his third-world patrilineal links through a Kenyan father and an Indonesian stepfather. And in so doing, as we invariably did in 2008 when this man with a Kenyan name stood on the cusp of the US presidency, convince ourselves that having an American president with a name like ours would be somehow beneficial to us, denizens of the Third World; that here, finally, was an American president without the imperial predilections of his predecessors.
In Kenya particularly, the myth of Obama was further fanned by the magic of his wonderful first book. A purer book than his later work, Dreams From My Father contrasts with the political politeness and revisionism of A Promised Land, and offers Obama as a lyrical, honest writer. In the book, he seeks out his father’s homeland, anxious to explore the Kenyan strand of his identity. In another world, off the success of this book, Obama becomes a left-leaning writer, writing himself hoarse in anger at the American right, or at the sins of a president elected to office on claims of liberalism, perhaps from the pages of the New Yorker. He’d have had two or three novels by now, and would perhaps have moved to Africa as a roving Africa correspondent. He didn’t do that. Instead, he became president of the United States of America.
The difficulty in giving a book review about a book like A Promised Land is that we also possess external information about a public figure like Obama. We are able to, for instance, refer to a 2013 essay by the Nigerian writer Teju Cole, where Cole pointed out that being an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world didn’t mean that Obama wouldn’t have the same failures of character that previous American presidents had. To extend Cole’s thinking, Obama’s Third World links didn’t mean that he wouldn’t have the failures of character of American presidents before him. We knew this, of course. Yet the romance of his biography lured us in. Desmond Tutu, the veritable theologian and anti-apartheid hero told Obama in 2006, during the South African leg of his Africa tour, “So is it true, Barack, that you are going to be our first African president of the United States? Ah, that would make us all verrry proud.”
Various commentators reviewing A Promised Land have praised its supposed literary merit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for one, speaks of Obama “as fine a writer as they come.” Others have been louder in their praise. Admittedly, when held alongside other memoirs by American presidents, the book stands out as an on-page reminder of the communicative phenomenon Obama the politician was. However, when held up to the standards of his first book, it palls, revealing the politician’s veneer its writer has picked up since the publication of Dreams From My Father. Granted, there are several delightful passages in A Promised Land, some of which were shared virally on social media after the book’s release — the popularized excerpt about him trying to impress women with his intellectual prowess springs to mind, as do a few episodes with his wife, Michelle — but there is little of the literary chutzpah that pockmarked his debut book. Instead, its language is sparing and exact. Barack Obama, as a young man, was a fascinating writer. Barack Obama, in his fifties, is a fascinating politician. And as if he recognises it himself, he writes, in A Promised Land, “I feel a great affection for the young man that I was, aching to make a mark on the world, wanting to be part of something great and idealistic; which evidence seemed to indicate didn’t exist.”
Part of what he’d sought as a young man — that which didn’t exist to him yet — was to discover his father’s roots. His father’s biography, we know it. The first African student at the University of Hawaii. The M. A. degree at Harvard when there were few Africans enrolled there. A big man in government who was important in drafting Kenya’s economic policy. Banished from Jomo Kenyatta’s government for his habit of talking about things that ought-not-to-be-talked about.
Barack’s Indonesian stepfather, Lolo, lived an equally fraught existence. Recalled from his studies in the U.S. by the murderous regime of Suharto, he was forcibly conscripted and deployed to the jungles of New Guinea for a year. Barack and his mother, ignorant of this, moved to Indonesia to live with him. When Barack’s mother learned about this history, she sent Barack back to the U.S., and a year later, she and her daughter — Barack’s stepsister — followed him, fleeing Indonesia. Thus, both of Barack’s possible paternal figures were removed from his life.
Nevertheless, his family remained a poster child for global integration: the Kenyan father, the white, American mother, the Indonesian stepfather, and half-Indonesian sister. However, by the time Barack was making a run for the presidency, he had pivoted from the more nuanced version his intersecting racial and geographical identities and experiences might have made possible in his twenties, to a more chest-beating Americanism. In his new (or perhaps newly-emerged) view of the world, as he writes in A Promised Land: “The United States could legitimately claim that the international order we had forged and the principles we had a promoted — a Pax American — had helped bring about a world in which in billions of people were freer, more secure, and more prosperous that before.”
Naturally, on the third day as the leader of a country which had freed billions of hypothetical people, he signed off on his first drone strike; later it transpired that the target of the drone strike had never been on the premises. Killed and injured in his stead were tens of innocent civilians. This is not the vision of the first days of office that Obama gives us. As if to pre-empt the inevitable critique of its erasure from the book, Obama has apparently postponed the story of his drone strikes to the second volume of his memoirs.
Yet, already, we know much about the effects of Obama’s drone policy. We know, for instance, that the killing of the Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan in 2009 was preceded by sixteen failed attempts, in which between two hundred and eighty and four hundred and ten people were killed. We know that the only reason there were such few civilian casualties under the Obama presidency is that his administration provided as wide a definition of terrorist as possible: every male of military age in a strike zone — which is to say that had a strike zone been identified in, say, a Kenyan town near the border with Somalia, any dead male person over the age of sixteen would have been classified as a terrorist by American military statisticians, unless proven, after death, that they were innocent. Not very helpful to the dead boys and men. We know that, as he says in A Promised Land, a huge reason why drones were a policy of choice is that he, Obama, had to look tough, and that his administration “couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism.” We know that, under him, as with previous American presidents, the words for murder were edited to allow him as much room as possible to commit it. We also know that it was not until his second term, a period not covered by the memoir’s first volume, that his government issued its first policies and procedures for conducting drone strikes.
Still, Obama was the first Luo/Kenyan/African president of the U.S., and so we were supposed to love him. The first generation of Kenyan boys called Barack Obama not related to Barack Obama Snr. are sixteen now, birthed in the period following his historic DNC speech in 2004. His links to us means that we are more likely than citizens of other African countries to fall in thrall to the vignettes he offers us in his books. In Dreams From My Father, for instance, he is introduced to the Luo proto-culture of gonywa, he plays basketball at the University of Nairobi’s courts with his cousin Bernard, is accused by his aunt Zeituni of having been lost (umelost/umepotea/ilal and other possible Kenyanisms) and told not to get lost again, and there is a delightful passage of him in a Kisumu matatu where, after the matatu conductor assures him, Auma, and their older brother Roy that “this bus is first-class” and assures them that he can find them seats,
An hour later, Auma was sitting on my lap, along with a basket of yams and somebody else’s baby girl.
“I wonder what third-class looks like,” I said, wiping a strand of spittle off my hand.
Even now I delight at these passages. When I was in my first year at UoN, my roommates and I would spend a lot of mornings and evenings on one of the basketball courts, and every time I played, I’d remember reading the passages of Obama playing there. It also didn’t help that my second name is Baraka, a name that people would unhelpfully remake as Barack, and that both names share the Arabic root barak — blessing.
Being in Kenya that first time, Obama felt that here was a place he could belong. He had finally made the journey to his roots after a conversation with Auma, who had unwittingly rescued him from a life in the drudgery of consulting work. Here, he writes, “For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue.”
But Obama’s ascension to the highest political office in the country would have been even more improbable in Kenya than in the United States. His is the American dream, not the Kenyan dream. The things that attracted American voters to him — his lack of visible political patronage, roots all over the country, in Chicago and Hawaii and college in L.A and New York and Boston, having one parent who was from another country — would have doomed him in Kenya from the start. He would have been asked, where are you from, been told to go vie in Siaya, where he would have been dismissed by voters as not being from Siaya. He would have been dismissed as nothing more than a Luo politician, which he was, in any case.
In 2006, after Obama criticised the rampant graft in the Kenyan government, the then government spokesman (and current Formula 1 track-builder) Alfred Mutua retorted: “It is very clear that the senator has been used as a puppet to perpetuate opposition politics.” In the background of Mutua’s accusation was the belief being peddled in pro-government circles that Obama was the then-opposition candidate Raila Odinga’s cousin, a belief that was stoked too by Odinga’s side. According to this line of thinking, he, Obama, would automatically parrot the views of the man considered the political voice of the Luo community in Kenya.
Over the next few years, at Gor Mahia football matches (and at certain political rallies), “Oliech, Odinga, Obama,” became a chant to rally around. Elsewhere, Obama was referred to as the first Luo to ever be president anywhere, either in pride, or in derision, depending on who was saying it. However, at the end of Mwai Kibaki’s second term as Kenyan president, another factor emerged that cast a fissure over the Kenya-United States relationship: the candidature for the presidency of two International Criminal Court indictees. It didn’t help that the latter was the son of the man who had locked his father out of government.
Obama does not speak about any of this in A Promised Land. He wouldn’t, in any case. In the period between his first book and this book, he had eschewed any connections he may have wanted to have with his father’s Kenyan identity, and was now fully American, and behind the American idea. He writes, “I had wrestled with the meaning of my mixed-race status and the fact of racial discrimination. Yet at no point had I ever questioned — or had others question — my fundamental ‘American-ness.’”
And, “The conviction that racism wasn’t inevitable may also explain my willingness to defend the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.”
And, “But another set of stories had also been etched onto me — different though not contradictory — about what America meant to those living in the world beyond it, the symbolic power of a country built upon the ideals of freedom.”
That Obama would rewrite his history this way in A Promised Land is no surprise. It is part of his campaign towards embracing a virile strand of American exceptionalism. One would assume that in espousing the idea of America as a country built upon the ideals of freedom, Obama is deliberately ignoring the tyranny of its slavery, and the genocide of the Native Americans. More importantly, he is whitewashing the image of America as an international killing machine, an image that he had, in his campaign speeches, vowed to change – “I don’t oppose all wars,” he’d said. “What I oppose is a dumb war.” But a ‘dumb war’ is more of a personal opinion than it is a foreign policy that protects American interests, so naturally, having ascended to the White House, he decided to adopt a “pragmatism over ideology” approach, and embarked on a killing spree to rival American presidents before him.
It is hard to argue that the war in Yemen, for instance, which his government was heavily-involved in, both directly and through its patronage of the Saudis, is not a ‘dumb war’, or that the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from political power and the chaos that has followed in Libya was not ‘dumb’. In A Promised Land he writes about the removal of Gaddafi, and celebrates it as a victory for democracy, but conveniently neglects to mention what has happened to the country in the years since, as happened to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was deposed. He writes of Iraq that, “we had invaded Iraq, broken that country, helped spawn an even more virulent branch of al-Qaeda, and had been forced to improvise a costly counterinsurgency campaign there,” but does not focus the same lens on himself with respect to Libya.
At times, some of Obama’s justifications for war, and about who gets to wield that kind and scale of militaristic violence, seem like anatubeba ufala — he is carrying us for fools. Like when he says his government imprisoned foreign nationals at Guantanamo and other places, because “International law also prohibited us from repatriating detainees who we had grounds to believe might be abused, tortured, or killed by their own government.” Or, when he, the commander-in-chief of the Israeli military’s biggest backer, frowns at Palestinians not having a nonviolent movement “with the moral force to sway Israeli public opinion.” Or when he expresses his shock that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who “had received billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars; we supplied them with weapons, shared information, and helped train their military officers,” could dare use these resources against the Egyptian people. Perhaps an instructive addition about what his priorities is his admission that “with all the world watching — that was a line I was unwilling to cross.”
Donald Trump pushed further the worst excesses of the Obama presidency. There are now secret strikes in Somalia by multiple American agencies, and the airstrikes may soon expand into Kenya. Despite the endless and dangerous spectacles of his tenure and his consistent attacks on Obama’s identity and policies, he was true to the patterns of the American presidency, demonstrating the fallacy of the difference between Democrats and Republicans.
Encountering Barack Obama in A Promised Land, in the history he chooses to include, and the ones he chooses to omit, is a reiteration of what we knew all along but ignored anyway; that he was never a president of the world, but of America. Nevertheless, it is a helpful read for those who are interested in the idea of Obama, in the idea of the United States under the problematic politics of ‘black excellence’, and in the future of the United States under the presidency of Joe Biden, who is packing his nascent administration with veterans of the Obama years.