Kwame Appiah reviews Peter Firstbrook’s book on Obama’s family

By | April 28, 2011

In The New York Review of Books:

Many years ago, the Belgian anthropologist Johannes Fabian identified a tendency he called “the denial of coevalness.” “The history of our discipline,” he wrote, reveals the use of time for “distancing those who are observed from the Time of the observer.” But this isn’t just a professional deformation of anthropologists: presented with an African—and especially a rural African—setting, many in the West instinctively turn to thoughts of the ancient human past. Firstbrook is no exception here. He begins a timeline that appears toward the end of his book with this item:

2.4 million BC…. A manlike ape or hominid called Australopithecus africanus lives in East Africa

Is it fussy to observe that the Obamas have no special claim on A. africanus just because they happen to live on the continent where the species disappeared two million years ago? Although the book blessedly avoids extensive discussion of prehistory, it does insist on recounting—on the basis of academic historical and anthropological accounts—the migrations of the Nilotic ancestors of the modern Luo people. Firstbrook flies north from Kenya to Juba, in southern Sudan, in order to visit the vast swamp north of the Imatong Mountains called the Sudd. “Historians and anthropologists,” he tells us solemnly, “believe the southern part of the Sudd to be the ‘cradleland’ of Barack Obama’s ancestors.” As it turns out, though, they left in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Imagine a book about Bill Clinton’s family that began with the migration of the Franks—apparently Clinton has Frankish ancestry—in the fourth century: “Historians believe the middle and lower Rhine valley to be the ‘cradleland’ of William Jefferson Clinton’s ancestors.”

Fortunately by the third chapter, we are in real family history, following the life of Opiyo, the President’s great-great-grandfather, who was born in the early 1830s in Kendu Bay, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Because Firstbrook was able to recover few specific details about him, he uses this chapter to introduce Luo traditions of birth, marriage, the building of family compounds, funerals, and so on. Opiyo is a name for a firstborn twin, and given that the Luo consider twins “a bad omen,” his life would have begun with the careful carrying out of rituals to keep away harm. Despite this, he “grew to be a strong and respected leader among the Luo of south Nyanza.”

Firstbrook calls this man Opiyo Obama in the chapter’s heading…which would probably have come as news to Opiyo. According to the Luo naming system, he should have been known by the combination of his own personal name and that of his father, which was Obong’o. In fact, the President inherited the name Obama because it was the personal name of Opiyo’s son. When the President’s grandfather took the name Onyango Obama, he was simply following Luo tradition. “Onyango” was his personal name, “Obama” was his father’s. It wasn’t the name of a family.

The breach of naming traditions came in the generation that followed, when Onyango’s son Barack took the name Obama. In the colonial period, the father’s second name came to be treated like an English surname. The idea of an Obama family, defined by a shared family name passing from father to son, is a colonial innovation. Of course, the President’s patrilineal kin thought of themselves as a family. That’s why they had all this genealogical information. But they wouldn’t have thought they were linked by a name.

Lest you think everything is as scathing, read the whole thing here.

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