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.