The Corner

Obama’s Family Ties

I think it’s a mistake for Obama to make so many references to his family, as he did with his maternal grandfather’s military service over the Memorial Day weekend and as he will reportedly do again, with the same grandfather, in a trip to Punchbowl National Cemetery sometime in the future.  It’s a mistake because it invites this question: How come he talks about his family a lot, but only one side?  And then mostly just his grandparents on that side?  

Before his marriage, Obama’s mother’s parents were his only real familial link to the sort of life experience that most Americans would recognize.  His mother was basically an expatriate, and his father was a visitor from Kenya.  (Although Obama has at times portrayed his father as drawn to the United States by the immigrant dream, he in fact came to the U.S. for school and went back home.)  That leaves Toot and Gramps, the maternal grandparents who raised Obama as an adolescent in Hawaii while his mother was in Indonesia and his father had abandoned the family for Africa.  Since Gramps was a World War II veteran, Obama has focused on him to show patriotic bona fides.

As for the other side of the family, in coming months we’ll likely see stories along the lines of Nicholas Kristof’s column a few months ago in the New York Times in which Kristof visited Obama’s family in Kogelo, Kenya:

A barefoot old woman in a ripped dress is sitting on a log in front of her tin-roof bungalow in this remote village in western Kenya, jovially greeting visitors.

Mama Sarah, as she is known around here, lives without electricity or running water. She is illiterate and doesn’t know when she was born. Yet she may have a seat of honor at the next presidential inauguration in Washington — depending on what happens to her stepgrandson, Barack Obama.

Mama Sarah cannot communicate with Obama, who calls her his grandmother, because she speaks only her Luo tribal language and a little Swahili. Senator Obama’s Luo is pretty much limited to ‘’musawa,’’ meaning ‘’how are you?’’…

Mr. Obama’s late grandfather is said to have been the first person in the area to wear Western clothes rather than just a loincloth. For a time he converted to Christianity and adopted the family name Johnson.

Later he converted to Islam, taking four wives. Senator Obama’s father, who apparently converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school, was also polygamous in keeping with local custom, taking an informal Kenyan wife who preceded Mr. Obama’s mother but remained a consort, according to accounts by local people and the senator himself.

The father, also named Barack Hussein Obama, was as much of a pathbreaker as his son. He went from herding goats in Kogelo to studying in Hawaii and at Harvard, even if his career as an economist was frustrated in part by ethnic rivalries…

Toward the end of the column, Kristof wrote, “Frankly, I worry that enemies of Senator Obama will seize upon details like his grandfather’s Islamic faith or his father’s polygamy to portray him as an alien or a threat to American values.”  I think it’s going too far to say he will be portrayed as a “threat,” but I do think there will be portrayals of Obama’s family background as somewhat alien, based on reporting like Kristof’s.  Kristof continued: “But snobbishness and paranoia ill-become a nation of immigrants, where one of our truest values is to judge people by their own merits, not their pedigrees.  If we call ourselves a land of opportunity, then Mr. Obama’s heritage doesn’t threaten American values but showcases them.”  

I think there might be another side to the story, as well.  If Obama keeps talking about his mother’s family, some commentators are going to ask, bluntly: “How come he talks mostly about the white side of his family?”  My guess is those questions will come from the black community, which will be torn between wanting Obama to be proud and open about his African side and also wanting to cut him some slack if he feels he has to de-emphasize that to win the White House.  I’m not sure how Obama will answer them. In any event, he is hastening the discussion by making high-profile references to his family.


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