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. To be sure, this is not some feel-good trip.
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 popular person of African ancestry — whom they claim as one of their own — is visiting their country.
There is some truth to the Kennedy comparison, but the differences are much deeper.
First, Obama is a first-generation American. His father, Barack Obama Sr. — who attended college and graduate school in the U.S. in the 1960s and who was briefly married to Obama’s Kansas-born mother — was born and died in Kenya. On the contrary, Kennedy was a third-generation American.
Second, the Obamas are Luos, Kenya’s third largest ethnic group, famous for originating several musical styles. In 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 whose mother is not Yoruba — 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.
Who says you can’t be both?
Third, 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” also 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 it 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 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.
But there are some similarities with the JFK experience. 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.
Kennedy’s victory inspired oppressed people everywhere. It showed citizens of the still impoverished and only four-decades 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.
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: child of an occasional goat herder from Kenya who came to the United States to go to 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 make believe, Disney World 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, racial divisions notwithstanding, that’s the America that Kenyans will celebrate next week when Air Force One touches down at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Los Angeles Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.