Obama and the Legacy of Africa’s Renaissance Generation

There was a generation of Africans who went to the western world to get educated. That generation included the father of former President Barrack Obama and a lot of political leaders who led their countries into independence. This article by Aminatta Forna in the New York Review of Books talks about that Renaissance generation.

It came to be a core belief held by the American public and media that Barack Obama was a self-creation who had stepped out of nowhere. In a racially divided society, for some the idea that he belonged to no tribe made it possible to vote for him. For his detractors, of whom Trump and his birther movement were the most visible, the belief provided an opportunity to claim that Obama was not a true American. Indeed, he cut a solitary figure: parents and American grandparents dead, no full siblings; what else there was of his family lived in Kenya, which might as well have been the moon to many Americans. Marriage to Michelle gave Obama what he appeared to lack, a family and a community, though his Kenyan ancestry meant he was a member of the African-American community by adoption rather than birthright.

Against the backdrop of the fantasy of normality to which American (and not just American) popular culture subscribes—that is to say, the insistence that all but a few grow up in the same town and live there all their lives—Obama’s story appeared unusual. The truth is that his grandparents made the move to Hawaii (after several moves around the country), doing what millions of Americans before them have done and continue to do: searching for better opportunities. One result is that families become stretched over distance and time until the links between uncles, aunts, cousins, and generations are broken and reformed with new generations in new places.

Even so, the stand-out fact of Obama’s biography remained and remains that he had been born of a Kenyan father and a white mother. “No life could have been more the product of randomness than that of Barack Obama,” wrote David Maraniss in his 2012 biography of the former president. This, though, is the case only when his life is viewed from an American perspective. From an African perspective, the tradition of sending young men to study overseas, as was the case with Barack Obama Sr., is a familiar and longstanding one. In 1852, William Wells Brown, the American playwright, fugitive slave, and abolitionist, noted that he might meet half a dozen black students in an hour’s walk through central London. Some sixty years before that, in 1791, the Temne King Naimbana (of what became Sierra Leone in West Africa) sent his son John Frederick to England, for reasons of political expediency (he sent another to France, and a third to North Africa to acquire an Islamic education). Tragically, John Frederick never made it home, but died on the return passage.

In the second half of the twentieth century, geopolitical events—the end of empires, the rise of nationalism in African countries, the cold war, communism, and the second “red scare”—would see an exponential rise in the numbers of Africans sent to study overseas. So the meeting of Obama’s parents came about more as the unintended consequence of political policy than by random chance. For me, Obama’s story is remarkably familiar. My parents met under very similar circumstances. My father was born in 1935 in Sierra Leone; Barack Obama Sr. was born in Kenya in 1936. My mother was white and British; Obama’s mother was a white American. Both women met and married the men who would become our respective fathers when those men were selected to study at university abroad—a story Obama relates only briefly in his memoir Dreams from My Father:

My father grew up herding his father’s goats and attending the local school, set up by the British colonial administration, where he had shown great promise. He eventually won a scholarship to study in Nairobi; and then on the eve of Kenyan independence, he had been selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a university in the United States, joining the first wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western technology and bring it back to forge an new, modern Africa.

Obama was wrong about one thing: his father was not in the first wave of students sent overseas to master Western technology, though he was in the first wave of Kenyans who were sent to America. Up until then, most African students had been destined for Britain and, starting after World War II, to the Soviet Bloc and China. In fact, the adventures of this generation of Africans would one day inspire a genre of literature, collectively known as the “been to” novels, exemplified by Ay Kwei Armah’s Fragments, No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe, and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Dilemma of a Ghost, fictions that told of the challenges both of leaving the motherland for the West and of return.

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