For Obama’s father, a life of frustrated ambition
President Obama’s life story has emerged as a kind of litmus test of American attitudes toward race and identity, with critics looking to his white mother and African father to render him either not-quite-black or not-quite-American, while admirers see in his personal history an embodiment of enlightened multiculturalism. Newt Gingrich, taking a page from conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, argued recently that Obama’s father’s experience as a Kenyan who came of age as his country gained independence from colonialism had seeped into his son’s worldview (presumably through osmosis, since the two only met once after Obama’s infancy), making the president a philosophical heir somehow to the Mau Mau revolutionaries.
Few will be shocked to learn that the real story is more complex. In Sally Jacobs’s thorough, thoughtful new biography, Barack Obama Sr. emerges as less a revolutionary than an operator, a brilliant, ambitious man who squandered as many opportunities as he created, an alcoholic whose abundant charm corroded into bitterness and anger.
The first son born to Hussein Onyango - a stern, strange man whose work for the English had led to his adopting Western habits - and his second wife, Barack Obama arrived in 1936, a decade before Kenya began shaking off colonial rule. His childhood was marked by academic success - he was considered “the brightest boy in the school’’ as a youth - and personal loss. When he was 9, his mother left Onyango and her three children, unable to bear her husband’s cruelty. Although Obama and his older sister, then 12, walked for two weeks (covering 100 miles of Kenyan countryside) to reunite with her, their father forced them to return to him. Jacobs writes that the wound left the young Obama with “a sense of unworthiness that made it difficult for him to commit himself to anyone, including his wives and children.’’
Accepted into Maseno, one of Kenya’s best secondary schools for African students, Obama was poised to put his intelligence to good use, possibly as a leader in a soon-to-be independent Kenya (as many of his classmates did). But his “often unyielding posture and refusal to concede his own fallibility’’ undermined his chance at success, as they would time and again. Although he had performed well in his classes, Obama was sent home from the school after his fourth year, denied the prestige of a Maseno diploma and entry to an elite African or English university because the teachers found his behavior rude and disrespectful. It was a pattern repeated after he managed to gain admission to the University of Hawaii (where he made Phi Beta Kappa). His graduate studies in economics at Harvard ended when an administrator ended the university’s support, in effect kicking him out. Obama’s academic progress was adequate, but his personal life was vexing - already married to a Kenyan woman back home, he had married one white woman in Hawaii (the president’s mother) and was romancing others in Cambridge.
The rejection was crushing. “So broken was Obama by Harvard’s summary judgment of him,’’ Jacobs writes, “that he returned to Nairobi unable to even look at the dissertation that he had initiated with such high hopes.’’ He spent the rest of his life in Nairobi, getting and losing a series of jobs in economic development for the newly independent government. Although one obstacle was political - Obama was a vocal critic of former Mau Mau leader and first Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta - his personal demons proved the greater enemy. His drinking, already legendary in Hawaii and Cambridge, worsened. Seeing him drunkenly stagger down the halls of the Ministry of Agriculture years later, an old Harvard acquaintance called his decline “a shame, just a real waste.’’
He saw his son only once after leaving Hawaii just months after his birth. On a visit to Honolulu in 1971, the future president recalled a painfully thin father he yearned to know better, but whose sternness could be frightening. The elder Obama’s other children received his financial support and encouragement to attend the best possible schools, but he was distant, harsh, and even violent with them. His 1982 death in a drunken car crash was perhaps the only way to end a pattern of promise and self-sabotage, ambition, and recrimination.
Jacobs, a reporter at The Boston Globe, occasionally undermines her extensive reporting and strong narrative with unfortunate word choices - “tribal,’’ “colorful,’’ the “dark heart of the African interior’’ - that echo an earlier tradition of white writing about Africa. Still, she renders an Obama much more well-rounded and sympathetic than the figure found in his son’s autobiography, “Dreams From My Father.’’ In the end, he’s a character whose self-inflicted wounds we pity. As for his unmet potential as a political and economic thinker, his most potent legacy - a journal article in which he proposed “a creative blending of the opposing economic principles that were under debate’’ - bears more than a passing resemblance to his most famous son.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.