Obama’s political career coincides, roughly, with the Kenyan government recognizing and attempting to marshal the economic resources of Kenyans abroad. This coincidence enables us to examine how rhetorics of kinship function to secure identification, and to meditate on the function of identification. I will be suggesting that at least two paradigms of identification intersect in Obama’s case: an ethno-nationalist one from Kenya and a post-Roots one from the U.S.
The Kenya government’s attempt to secure investments from Kenyans abroad is premised, in part, on the obligations of ethno-kinship. I use the term ethno-kinship to suggest the range of attachments and obligations that attend belonging to a specific group—in Kenya, such groups have often functioned along ethnic lines, though they are not limited to ethnic affiliations. I am interested, however, in how ethno-kinship provides a governing paradigm for conceptualizing attachment and obligation: to belong is to have responsibilities.
Ethno-kinship functions in at least two ways. First, the government’s attempts to secure investment in Kenya are premised on reports of money that Kenyans have already been remitting, predominantly within ethno-kinship structures. The government hopes to expand the scope of (diminishing) remittances so that they extend beyond satisfying ethno-kinship needs—paying school fees and rent, for instance—and help create local, national, and regional structures. In this instance, ethno-kinship will ostensibly become metonymic—that this is how Kenyan politics functions as a whole needs to be remarked.
Ethno-kinship is as much affective as it is economic, and is, in fact, premised on the notion that the affective will direct the economic. Invocations of kinship, where one is termed a son, a daughter, a cousin, and so on, are meant to create affective ties that are realized in material ways. In fact we cannot separate the economic from the affective, and it is especially this connection that Obama represents and ruptures.
Obama belongs to the post-Roots generation. First published by Alex Haley in 1976—although portions had earlier appeared in Playboy—Roots claimed genealogy for African Americans. In Roots, Haley traces his family’s history back to the Gambia, creating an ostensibly direct link between Africans and African Americans. Notably, the idea of this link already suffused Black Arts discourse; Haley merely provided an empirical method for proving this link.
It is no exaggeration to say that Roots changed African Americans’ relationship to history and to historical method, especially following its serialization on TV in 1978. Names from the novel were adopted, African Americans booked tours to the Gambia, and genealogy became a national obsession. Roots was so powerful that even when scholars revealed serious problems with Haley’s narrative, it remained just as culturally powerful, undiminished in its affective power.
Roots inspired African Americans to discover where they were from, a task that has been enhanced with advances in DNA technology today.
Yet the novel and its aftermath were distanced from pan-African politics and other forms of black solidarity. The affective kinship that Haley described so movingly was divorced from other forms of economic obligation and mutuality. While it was both fashionable and important to know where “one was from” that knowledge need not translate into any political or social action.
Throughout his campaign, Obama constantly evoked his Kenyan background, but it was always in the context of establishing his U.S. bona fides. Whereas Kenyans, and the Kenyan government, heard such declarations within the frame of ethno-kinship, those statements often lived within a post-Roots framework. Within such a framework, identification is frequently aesthetic: something interesting to state, akin to having an interesting mole, but has no obligations attached to it, no expectations demanded or expected.
Arguably, little of this would be that important were it not that Obama represents one of the many Kenyan descendants abroad: those born in Kenya and those born to Kenyans. These are populations whose attachments and obligations to Kenya are not clear. And while some may choose to answer the call of ethno-kinship, it is just as likely that many will embrace the aesthetics of kinship.
*I wrote this a year ago, and that might account for the mothball effect.