Some commentators have compared President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Kenya later this month to John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in June 1963.
Officially, the president is visiting the East African country for a global entrepreneurship summit, but Kenyans can’t get over the fact that the world’s most famous person of Kenyan ancestry will be spending a couple of days in the land of his forefathers, in the land that the majority of his paternal relatives call home.
There is some truth to the Kennedy comparison. Like Kennedy, Obama is a descendant of immigrants—although Kennedy was the great-grandchild of an immigrant who came here to escape the famine in Ireland, while Obama is a first-generation American. Both men embraced their ancestral heritage.
Kennedy’s victory inspired oppressed people everywhere. It showed citizens of the still impoverished and only four-decades-old independent Republic of Ireland that anything is possible. It radiated hope—just like Obama’s victories have done for people of African ancestry around the world.
Kennedy’s election in 1960 was a huge morale booster to people of Irish descent around the world —just like Obama’s 2008 victory lifted the spirits of people of color everywhere, particularly Blacks. Like Blacks around the world, the Irish suffered oppression, subjugation, genocide, occupation and discrimination for hundreds of years (in their case mostly at the hands of English overlords). When they started arriving in the United States in large numbers in the mid-1800s, they were consistently subjected to discrimination in employment, housing and education, a trend that persisted for more than 100 years.
Beyond those similarities, the comparisons are superficial. Barack Obama Sr. didn’t come here to escape. He was looking to improve himself with a first-rate education and go back home to help build the new Kenyan nation. He was part of a cohort of young Kenyans who received scholarships to come study at American universities on the eve of Kenya’s independence. He attended college and graduate school in the U.S. in the 1960s was briefly married to Obama’s Kansas-born mother. He was born and died in Kenya.
Obama’s ethnic heritage goes beyond merely being Black or Kenyan. The Obamas are Luos, Kenya’s third largest ethnic group, famous for originating several musical styles. In the African tradition, you belong to your father’s ethnic group or tribe regardless of where you were born, where you live and how long you’ve lived there.
For example, I was born in the United Kingdom to Yoruba parents. I have lived in the United States for two-thirds of my life, but I am still Yoruba. And my 6-year-old son—who was born in North Carolina, has never visited Nigeria and has a non-Yoruba mother—also is Yoruba.
By this definition, which I wholeheartedly embrace, Obama, a native of Hawaii and part-time resident of Chicago, is a Luo. So are his daughters, Sasha and Malia.
Like their African American brethren, African immigrants and their children still suffer from regular White supremacist treatment of “otherness.” In America, a University of Connecticut sociologist once told me, Blacks are still considered “the ultimate other.” This “otherness” is perhaps the underlying reason for the silly questions about Obama’s birthplace.
This “otherness” explains why the question persists even though there are still many people in Hawaii who remember his birth and even though the courts have never ruled that a person born to one American parent outside the United States is not eligible to be president.
It also explains why birthplace was not an issue for Mexico-born George Romney, a child of Latter Day Saints missionaries, when he ran for president in 1968, and why it is not an issue for Ted Cruz—the ultra conservative Cuban American senator from Texas and Republican presidential candidate—who was born in Canada. Irish immigrants and their children were subjected to “otherness” as well, but it hasn’t lingered anywhere as long as it has for Blacks.
On the surface, Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency of the world’s most powerful nation is the quintessential parable of the American Dream and American immigrant experience: Kenyan goat herder who came to the United States for college sires a son who more than makes good. It shows what is possible with hard work, persistence and a good name in the land of Disney and Hollywood.
But the Obama story is also the paradox of a nation still anchored to its White supremacist roots, a nation very stubbornly divided along racial lines; so divided, in fact, that in both presidential elections, most people of color voted for Obama and most Whites didn’t.
Outside of the United States, though, most people still see the fabled America.
And that’s the America that Kenyans will celebrate next week when Air Force One touches down at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Lexan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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