Airlift

Look Homeward, Obama

The president’s upcoming trip to Kenya will take him at last, as president, to the country of his father. But his heritage is not what his critics have claimed.

Pete Souza/White House

Later this week Barack Hussein Obama Jr. will visit Kenya for the first time as president of the United States. Years ago, he wrote about the village of Kogelo, near Lake Victoria, as the home of his father and his father’s extended family—as “Home Squared.” But this visit to Kenya will not be the kind of homecoming many in America might expect after so many years of misleading stories and paranoid fantasies about the president’s origins.

To understand his African origins, it’s important to understand how Barack Hussein Obama Sr., the president’s father, came to be in America in the first place, and how much distance he put between his son and Home Squared.

While in office, Obama has downplayed the Kenyan part of his background to the point of skipping the country on his four previous trips as president to sub-Saharan Africa. No doubt he was unwilling to feed the conspiracy theories of those pundits in tin-foil hats who have tried to portray him as a Kenyan-born socialist and Muslim.

Yes, the president is the son of a self-professed “African socialist” and the grandson of Onyango Obama, a convert to the Muslim religion just prior to the birth of the president’s father in 1936. But the tin-hats who wave those loaded words around have no idea what they meant to the president’s forebears or to his father’s Africa as it emerged from a century of bitter and often brutal colonization.

The conversion of Islam of the president’s grandfather did not run deep: Onyango quickly drifted away from the faith and did not raise his children as Muslims. By 1959, when Barack Sr. went to college in the United States, he had very little to do with religion. As most of us know, or should know, while at the University of Hawaii, the young Kenyan met and married Ann Dunham, a fellow student originally from Kansas, and their son, Barack Jr., was born there in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.

But how did Barack, Sr. get to that Pacific island 50th state of the USA in the first place? He owed his residence in Hawaii to the work of the African American Students Foundation, a project driven by American faith in democracy and the future of the emerging African people, as chronicled in my 2009 book, Airlift to America.

Founded by American entrepreneur William X. Scheinman and his close friend, Kenyan politician Tom Mboya, the AASF raised the money for its initial “airlift,” a term suggestive of the airlift that saved West Berlin from the communists a few years earlier. Baseball great Jackie Robinson, the hugely popular singer Harry Belafonte, and the actor Sidney Poitier signed an extraordinary fundraising letter, and in 1959 the AASF garnered enough donations to bring a planeload of East Africans to New York and to transport them to colleges throughout the U.S. mainland. Martin Luther King Jr. underwrote several airlifted students. Senator John F. Kennedy’s support for the airlift in its second year, 1960, positively influenced the black vote that was an important factor in his narrow presidential election victory.

Elizabeth Mooney, a pioneering American literacy specialist in Kenya who had taken an interest in the brilliant young Obama Sr., bought his ticket to Hawaii, but after he landed there the AASF supported him. And the organization’s files contain a half-dozen references to his time in Hawaii that reflect on his diligence, but also his personal troubles. There are checks made out to Obama Sr. for books and tuition payments, records of his receiving one of the Foundation’s Jackie Robinson scholarships, and copies of letters to Obama Sr. from Mboya, a fellow Luo tribesman. Mboya’s missives enclosed letters from the wife Obama Sr. had left behind in Kenya (along with children), pleading for his return.

The AASF airlift would be spectacularly successful in terms of what its graduates eventually accomplished. From the nearly 800 students in the program came the founding fathers and mothers of Kenya and its neighboring countries in East Africa. For a quarter-century, “the airlift generation” provided half of Kenya’s legislators and cabinet members, and many doctors, lawyers, and other leading citizens. Among the airlift graduates was Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts at reforesting East Africa.

When Obama Jr., was 2 years old, Obama Sr., left his American wife and son in Hawaii. They divorced shortly thereafter. He reappeared in Barack Jr.’s life only once, when the boy was 10, staying for a month, an occasion achingly remembered in the president’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father. In 1982, Barack Jr. was 20 and a student at Columbia when news arrived of his father’s death in a car crash in Kenya. After that event, Obama Jr. made his first visit to the country and became acquainted with his Kenyan relatives.

Yes, Obama Sr. did call himself an “African socialist,” but Kenyan socialism was not all that socialist, especially in the context of the times. Independent Kenya’s first leader, Jomo Kenyatta, found it important to state specifically that the new country would not nationalize any industries, and to define African socialism as primarily devoted to righting the wrongs of the colonial period.

One of the bonds between AASF founders Scheinman and Mboya—and between Mboya and President Kennedy—was their belief that capitalism and democracy needed to be the twin pillars of Africa’s new nations. Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania was much more within the Communist orbit, and provided a very visible contrast to Kenya’s more capitalist version of African socialism.

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Obama Sr., became a prominent voice for the Kenyan brand of African socialism. In a critique issued in 1965, he considered the important question, “How are we going to remove the disparities in our country, such as the concentration of economic power in Asian and European hands, while not destroying what has already been achieved?” His answer was to give the farmers more ownership and control over their land so they could make a better living.

Obama Jr. resembles his father in many ways, say men who knew the father well. Olara Otunnu, a Ugandan former undersecretary general for the United Nations, who interacted with Obama Sr. from their teenage years through to Obama Sr.’s death, was stunned by the physical resemblance of father and son: same physique, same gait, similar voice. Obama Sr., he recalled in an interview for my book, had “charisma, supreme confidence, and eloquence.” Otunnu added that it was a blessing the son had not inherited the father’s self-destructive flaws, a judgment echoed by other old friends of Obama Sr. who had been airlift participants.

“Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Thomas Wolfe asked in his novel Look Homeward, Angel. Before Obama Jr. ever became president that is what he went to Kenya to do. Now as he goes back, he can pay proper homage to what was, and was not, his heritage, unconcerned at last that his personal history will stand between him and the nation where he was born and elected twice to the highest office in the land.