The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family

Filmmaker Peter Firstbrook traces Barack Obama’s family back 700-plus years to the Sudan.

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    The Obamas
    By Peter Firstbrook
    Crown
    352 pp.
    View Caption

Barack Obama never lived in Kenya and he met his African-born biological father only once (at the age of 10, when his father visited him in Hawaii for part of a day). On his mother’s side, the 44th president of the United States has a multiple-nationality ancestry typical of that of tens of millions of Americans: 37 percent English, with smaller mixtures of German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Swiss.

So is there any reason to take a particular interest in President Obama’s African roots? Would it not be overreaching to suggest that his Kenyan heritage plays a particularly significant role in shaping the man who today occupies the White House?

Perhaps. But Peter Firstbrook, a British documentary filmmaker who has traced the roots of the Obama family back to the year 1250, has nonetheless performed a useful service. Not only does his book, The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family, dig where other researchers have failed to look, but it also provides a compelling narrative about a place, a tribe, and the difficulties of uniting humanity across boundaries.

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Firstbrook traveled to the African nation of Kenya, where he visited the towns and countryside around the shore of Lake Victoria still dominated by the Obama clan and other families that constitute the Luo tribe.

The Luo tribe originally resided in what today is the Sudan. Tribal members gradually migrated south and east through about 600 miles of swamp and jungle and desert before settling in what today is Kenya, a territory colonized by the British until a grant of independence during 1963.

The Luo people believe that blood is thicker than water. So they are proud of Obama, although he knows little about their culture. “The Luo will never consider Obama to be a white man,” Firstbrook comments. “Regardless of where he was raised or what he might say or do, they will always see him as an African – a true Luo with an ancestry that can be traced back two dozen generations.”

The genealogical aspect of Firstbrook’s book is important, given Obama’s world prominence. Yet for me and possibly many other readers, the book is more fulfilling when read as a contemporary family detective story, with Firstbrook as the guide and eventually the answer man to questions directly related to the Obama family.

In fact, Firstbrook may now know more about Obama’s roots than does the president himself. In the book’s prologue, Firstbrook says Obama has never heard from his Kenyan family tales such as “the extraordinary story of how his grandfather fell in love with his grandmother, nor the tragic circumstances of their separation.” Neither has Obama heard suspicions about how his father really died in 1982. Firstbrook’s research has yielded plausible narratives. I will not become the spoiler in this review.

It does not require a spoiler role, however, to disclose that contemporary detractors of Obama will find no support from Firstbrook for their claim that he was not born in the United States, and therefore is illegally occupying the White House.

But Firstbrook does make clear that neither can Obama’s African roots be overlooked in any attempt to fully understand him.

Firstbrook believes that Obama’s ancestors throughout Africa contributed to his much-observed emotional makeup. For example, Obama may have inherited his “willingness to be direct, open, and honest from his grandfather Onyango, who, for all his faults, never tolerated deceit or dishonesty.”

And of course there is also Obama’s own desire to know something about the world of his ancestors. In his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama tells of his first visit to Kenya in 1987, when at the age of 26, he met his stepgrandmother in the village where his father and grandfather are buried. Obama recalls, “I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth yellow tile.... I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words.”

Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo., and a frequent book reviewer for Monitor.

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