The Other Barack
By Sally H. Jacobs
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $27.99
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Late on a November evening in 1982, Obama [Sr.] was driving home when he rammed his white pickup truck headlong into the high stump of a eucalyptus tree at the side of the road and died instantly. He was forty six.
Obama's eight children, some of whom had not seen him for years, largely closed the door on the subject of their father. For better or worse, the Old Man was gone.
A quarter-century later another Barack Obama emerged, this one a cerebral U.S. Senator from Chicago who was angling, quixotically it seemed, for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency. As that heavily laden name dominated the headlines and the nightly news, it triggered a flood of complex emotions among some of the elder Obama's children.
They were struck at how oddly the younger Barack's name was pronounced. The Old Man had also been called Barack, but his was a working man's name, with the emphasis on the first syllable. The American pronunciation was heavy on the second syllable, giving the name a more formal, somewhat aristocratic cast. This particularly amused the elder Barack's three surviving wives—not that they were talking to each other.
Reporters scoured the younger Obama's background, and questions invariably arose about his namesake and the Kenyan family he had met on a handful of occasions. The phenomenon of Obama's candidacy and the worldwide prominence that his name achieved after he became America's first African American president prompted some of the children to begin rethinking their relationship with the Old Man and to grow curious about the elements of his chaotic life. Somehow they were all bound by that restless, bespectacled onslaught of a man who was their father and now to this gentler but no less intense version of him on the front pages of America's newspapers.
The questions led to more questions. Who was their father? And who, for that matter, were really his children? To get to the truth of the man, how could any of them penetrate the skein of lies and half-truths he had woven? Even the makeup of his immediate family was a confounding jumble.
Three years after his death some of his children and wives became embroiled in a legal brawl aimed at establishing exactly who his legitimate heirs were and to which of his "wives" had he actually been married.
The colorful legal drama, which went on for years, pitted the first wife against the fourth, the eldest son against the youngest, and generally divided the family into two warring camps. At the heart of the matter was a claim by Obama's first wife, Grace Kezia Aoko Obama, that she had never divorced her husband and remained married to him at the time of his death. If that were true, then none of his subsequent three marriages—including the one with the president's mother—would have been legitimate. A host of family members who took sides on the issue provided conflicting affidavits peppered with name-calling and insults.
Even Obama's sixty-seven-year-old mother, frail and heartbroken over her first son's death, weighed in and declared that Grace had long ago divorced her son.3 The Nairobi High Court judge considering the dizzying squabble apparently believed Obama's mother: In 1989 Judge J. F. Shields ruled that not only had Grace divorced her husband but also that two of the four children she claimed he had fathered with her were not his sons at all.4
And that was just the first phase of the battle.
The name of Barack Hussein Obama II, the second son, crops up only incidentally in the bulging pink case files in Nairobi's High Court. No one in the case ever challenged the legitimacy of his paternity. But in July 1997 Barack Hussein Obama of Chicago, Illinois, deftly extracted himself from the matter with a brief letter to the court disavowing any claim he might have on the estate, which was worth about 410,500 Kenyan shillings, or $57,500, at the time his father died. He wrote the letter six months after he was sworn in to serve his first term in the Illinois Senate representing the 13th district.
Nearly a decade earlier, in the summer of 1988, Obama had launched his own effort to uncover the father about whom he had often wondered.
At the time, his father had been dead for six years and he had just completed work as a community organizer in Chicago and was preparing to enter Harvard Law School. During a five-week visit to Kenya, Obama met many members of his sprawling clan for the first time and listened to their stories of his father's political frustrations and domestic travails. He also found that many of his relatives had no greater command of his father's essence than he had gleaned from his mother's recollections. The elder Obama seemed a baffling mystery to many with whom he had lived and worked, including his disparate tribe of children.
Although he was a master of the verbal parrying and one-upmanship that are the Luos' stock in trade and was famous for his legendary black velvet baritone, the elder Obama confided in virtually no one, not even those in his wide circle of drinking comrades. Talk of personal matters, and certainly of children, he considered to be a show of weakness. He mentioned the son he had fathered while in Hawaii to only a handful of his closest friends and family members, even though he kept a photograph of that little boy, riding a tricycle with a small cap perched jauntily on his head, on his bureau. Taken a couple of years after he had left his small family in Hawaii, the picture always followed him through his many moves and dislocations.
His children may have understood him least of all. As Auma Obama, President Obama's half-sister, says in Dreams from My Father, "I can't say I really knew him, Barack. Maybe nobody did . . . not really. His life was so scattered. People only knew scraps and pieces, even his own children." Some of his children have pored over the letters and papers their father left behind, trying to pull all those inconclusive scraps and pieces together.
Four of the five children indisputably fathered by Barack Obama have written books that are at least in part a rumination of the Old Man and his impact on their lives. Like Dreams from My Father, each of the works is a yearning of sorts, an effort to make some sense of their father's character and complex legacy.
Only his firstborn son, Abong'o Malik Obama, a volatile fifty-three-year-old who lives with his three wives near the family's compound in western Kenya, has not written a book about his father—at least not yet.
Malik recently made headlines of his own when he took a nineteen-year old schoolgirl as his third wife. He has also irritated some Obama family members when he built a small mosque on his property that the steady parade of tourists heading to the Obama compound pass daily. Some Obamas worry that such a glaring symbol of the family's Muslim faith will negatively impact the Obama presidency. Malik has accused others of trying to profit from his father's life and says that he intends eventually to write the definitive biography of his father himself.
Auma Obama, Obama's only daughter and the second of his children born to his first wife, Grace Kezia, has painful recollections of a distant father who rarely spoke to her and often returned home from work drunk and irritable.8 But as she read some of the newspaper accounts of his life, she found she wanted to understand more about the forces that shaped his experience and left him so embittered. She called Peter Oloo Aringo, a longtime friend of Obama's and then a member of Kenya's Parliament representing the Alego district where he spent his childhood, who recalled that Auma was "very troubled about [her father's] life. She had spent more time with him than most of the children, but she felt she had not known him at all. She wanted to know how we had gotten along, how we had been friends, that kind of thing. But mostly she wanted to understand what had led to his downfall."
Excerpted from The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father by Sally Jacobs. Copyright Sally Jacobs 2011. Reprinted with permission of PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group.