Obama’s Sediments

Obama’s Kenyan ancestry was noted throughout the course of his campaign. He was African American, we learned, not African American. He did not emerge “up from slavery” and thus he was presumably free from the ongoing wounding (as potential) that is the peculiar legacy of those Africans whose histories are directly embedded in U.S.-based slavery.

Indeed, in a moment of historical revisionism, one British newspaper claimed that Obama might redress the history of colonialism, a history in which his grandfather had been treated badly by the British. The article suggested that Obama’s relationship with England and the English might be more ambivalent than that of former, more anglophile presidents—anglophilia, we might remember, is one of the chief features of U.S. nativism, and is often a prophylactic against the ideas and ideals of multiculturalism and multiracialism. Of course, the idea that former U.S. presidents have been more anglophile is its own particular case of historical revisionism.

The distinction posed between an African and an African American heritage has at least two implications.

First, it effaces the notion of diaspora as a fabrication, a necessary historical weaving that has been going on since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and before, in works by Martin Delany, Edward Blyden, Alexander Crummell, Pauline Hopkins, and W.E.B. Du Bois. These works, and others written by African-born and based intellectuals, reach across seas and oceans to promote solidarity within the racial histories that produce blackness. Africans and African Americans embed themselves in and through each other (it’s more accurate to write of “the Americas,” because I’m thinking of Touissant L’Ouverture and the Haitian revolution as specific nodal points of contact).

And given the transformation of slave-holding properties in the Caribbean into colonies, it makes little historical or conceptual sense to posit any kind of absolute distinction between slavery and colonialism within black histories—a point René Maran, C.L.R. James, and Aimé Césaire emphasize in their respective critical and creative works.

By erasing the co-implication between Africa and the African Americas, commentators could ignore the histories of radical figures such as Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon, an erasure that continues today with the continual invocation of Abraham Lincoln. (And, here, the way that genealogy has been racialized and de-racinated, as presidential rather than blood-based, offers an intriguing lesson into the politics of presidential race-making.)

If, within one kind of cultural imaginary, disembedding Obama from the racial histories of the Americas serves one purpose, that of re-making him affectively—he’s not angry, bears no historical wounds directly attributable to U.S. histories—it also re-orients him in relation to the tropes available with which to speak of him. And here Kenya enters, albeit, a dramatically re-formed Kenya.

Obama does not simply become Kenyan, he becomes Luo. And he becomes an intriguing kind of Luo.

Those familiar with Kenyan histories know the truncated histories of Kenyan radicalism that privilege a Gikuyu Mau Mau—though its members were also drawn from other groups. Mau Mau is only the most famous instance of militarism in Kenya, not the only one. Less remarked upon is the equally important history of labor activism in Kenya that ran from at least the 1920s, when Kenya officially became a colony, through the eve of independence. If Mau Mau is “Gikuyu” in one imagination, the multi-ethnic labor radicalism is generally “Luo.” These quotation marks speak more to perception rather than reality.

Indeed, what is often termed Obama’s “Kenyan heritage” becomes a very U.S. story of overcoming the odds: his father is poor, pursues and receives a scholarship to the States, challenges color codes by marrying a white woman, and then fades from the picture, leaving a single mother to raise her son. What is specific about his father, about Luo-ness, about Kenyan-ness, fades to black, only to crop up in Obama’s trip to Kenya, where his remarks about race and the country read as little more than tourist jottings.

Obama’s Kenyan history becomes a floating signifier: distancing him from U.S. histories of wounding and activism but also distancing him from Kenyan histories of wounding and activism. In fact, I would argue, it becomes aesthetic, like a beauty mark that provides him with distinction.

But this is not all.

In disembedding Obama, commentators simultaneously make him available for other tropic readings.

Tropes are historically created sediments that remain possible within the waters of history. Like sediments in a river, they sink to the bottom, waiting to be re-agitated by the movement of history. When disturbed, they re-color the waters of history.

In recent (often conservative, but not always) comments on Obama, it has been striking to see how much he is “Africanized,” though that might not always be the term used. Like other African leaders, he has “gone back on his word,” does “shady things,” acts in a manner “inconsistent with U.S. values.”

While I have suggested, elsewhere, that we should look to the rhetoric of Reconstruction to see where these tropes emerge, I am increasingly convinced that we also need to look toward Africa. Disembedded from U.S. histories of race, Obama can only signify an ambiguous blackness, and the Africa about which much still remains unknown—except in happy tourist fashion or devastated NGO fashion—provides an impoverished set of tropes through which to imagine him.

It is striking, then, that the Kenya Boys Choir chose to sing “Jambo Bwana” for Obama’s inauguration, perhaps the closest we come to minstrelsy in Kenya. Kenya, the song fantasizes, is tourist Kenya, a disneyfied Kenya without trouble, “Hakuna Matata.” It is a Kenya that lives outside history, sanitized from what Toni Morrison might term “eruptions of funk.”

And Obama is its product.

3 thoughts on “Obama’s Sediments

  1. Keguro (ok I have no idea what to call you), first let me say that I love your blog, and second, that your eloquence puts me to shame. I simply cannot communicate as well as you can :). I will say though, that I find nothing wrong with the distinction between African and African American (I actually prefer to use Black American, but that might be a hint of how strange my language preferences are). While those in ‘the struggle’ might bemoan the fact that first-and second-generation Africans do not identify with their American-born ‘cousins’ and vice-versa, that does not make it any less true. Your evocation of Diaspora and Pan-Africanism is a little rose-colored (which is completely your right, to be sure), because Delany, Blyden, and Crummel were actively calling for the colonization of the continent (which I suppose does reference the “co-implication between Africa and the African Americas”, just not in the way one might think). Toussant was applying the lessons of the French Revolution to Haiti (which makes him suspect to a lot of serious Pan-Africanists, who prefer the lunacy of Dessalines) and though he did try to export revolution to Venezuela, it had less to do with racial solidarity but rather revolutionary zeal. I do not know enough Maran to really say anything ;). Garvey was a fascist (And I mean that in the most narrow of definitions vis-a-vis the alliance between capitalists and the state, hyper-nationalism, dreams of military conquests… read some of his quotes regarding Mussolini and Hitler stealing their tactics from him, or his general anti-semitism which, to be fair, was fairly typical at the time) and Fanon was defending one colonized state (Arab Algeria) over another. Perhaps because I do think of the racialized-lived experiences of the Black Atlantic as constructions, “a necessary historical weaving” I am obviously not the best one to talk about this, but to imply that Obama should feel “fundamental” kinship with blacks worldwide is, in itself, a “grave error” (Oh CLR James, you are my dude). Still, your overall point of the tropic nature of how the certain media outlets read Obama is valid, I just did not agree with the rationale. I will shut-up now :).

  2. Hi Winston,

    Keguro is my given name, do use it.

    Thanks for engaging with such eloquence. As I said in a previous post, these are drafty notes, trying to get some kind of angle on how to write about Obama, so, I’m all the more grateful that you’ve responded.

    Some of my writing on diaspora, particularly in the East African, is rosy, and I want to argue that is strategic, and diasporic, in fact. Despite many struggles internal to diaspora, diasporic writers, Blyden and Du Bois, for instance, often cite each other as co-travelers. There is, to fabricated diaspora (and this is why the metaphor is so crucial here) not a glossing over, but a drawing from that is intentional and limited. One does not lift wholesale ideas from others, let alone their ideological work, but one picks and chooses.

    In fact, one of the best unwritten studies will examine precisely how diasporic writers pick and choose what goes into diaspora–think, for instance, of how Alex Haley disregards economic/global power structures to reconstruct his journey back to the Gambia.

    Now, my claim is NOT that Obama should “feel fundamental kinship.” If it is, then I have been sloppier than I should be, and I apologize. I am interested, rather, in the tropes through which he has been and continues to be constructed, both in the U.S. and in Kenya (I don’t have the energy to do all of Africa). Now, do tropes create certain forms of affinities and affiliations? Of course they do. What interests me is precisely how tropes interact with so-called reality, how, that is, constructions of Obama are both confirmed by and at odds with his policy decisions and actions.

    How do tropes create what Lauren Berlant aptly terms “cruel optimism?” And what work do tropes accomplish in their interaction with history (I note you are a student of history, and I, of course, am not trained as such, though I play in it).

  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I am merely a student of history, not yet a historian, and because I privilege primary sources over anything else, and because (I imagine) you have read the works of the people you cited rather than analyses written by others, you are as much of a historian of this stuff as I am. I obviously punted DuBois because, well, he is probably the greatest, if not the most prolific, intellectual of the late 19th and all of the 20th century.

    I like the way you put it: “One does not lift wholesale ideas from others, let alone their ideological work, but one picks and chooses” and the formation of the consciousness of the diaspora was truly a cross-fertilization of many ideas (and a fractious one, because there were a lot of intellectuals that could not stand each other).

    Obama has so much to live up to (via tropes themselves) by so many people that he will inevitably disappoint. I did sort of read your text to mean fundamental kinship, but the more I look at it the more I see the error in such a simplistic reading. He obviously had to negotiate his Kenyan origins within the United States and abroad in developing his black identity, but I have yet to actually read his books so anything I say is bound to look stupid.

    As for history as a whole, tropes in themselves are a kind of history. Indeed, one should be clear in differentiating history from the past from the truth, because they are not the same thing (as much as I wish they were).

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