Before there was Barack Obama, the intellectually supple, epoch-setting president of the United States, there was a brilliant young Kenyan economist, also named Barack Obama, his father. Yet the son never really knew his father—Obama Sr. left the family early in his son’s life, and he squandered his promise in a succession of failed political bids and, more damaging, a sea of drink. In many ways, he set only a negative example for his ambitious young son. But not for nothing did that son write a book called Dreams from My Father.
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Sally Jacobs, a Boston Globe reporter, spent years researching and writing The Other Barack, interviewing family members and retracing the elder Obama’s career across continents. We spoke to Jacobs about her account of the president’s father.
What prompted you to look so deeply into the life, quite evidently a troubled one, of Barack Obama Sr.?
The story of Obama Sr. seemed to me to be the great untold chapter of President Obama's life. He himself grappled in his memoir with the conflicting versions of his father presented to him by his mother and the reality he later discovered when he traveled to Kenya as a young man.
But Obama goes only so far in his explorations, perhaps unwilling to learn too much about his father's chaotic and ultimately tragic life. When he became the first African-American president, it seemed critical that this piece of his heritage at long last be unearthed. To me, the biography of Obama Sr. is a vital piece of American history, one that I hope will contribute to a greater understanding of our current president.
What moments in the life of Obama Sr. seem to you the most telling or most important in reaching that understanding?
There are two events in the life of Barack Obama Sr. that I consider pivotal to his development as a man. The first was his abandonment by his mother, Habiba Akumu, in 1945. Obama’s father, Hussein Onyango, was a notoriously abusive man, prone to wielding his four-pronged hippopotamus whip with vengeance. After a particularly fierce argument between Barack’s parents—during which Onyango threatened to cut his wife’s throat and throw her into a grave he had dug for her behind their home—Akumu decided to run away.
Several days later she left, having urged her children to follow her. Barack, then age nine, and his older sister did just that, walking barefoot and only at night so as not to be discovered by adults. When they arrived in the village of their birth, their father was summoned and fiercely punished them. Obama never fully recovered from the loss of his mother. For the rest of his life he struggled with a sense of unworthiness that made it difficult for him to commit to anyone, and especially his wives and children.
The second incident occurred when Obama was forced out of Harvard University in 1964. Although Obama had come within inches of getting his Ph.D. in economics—he had passed all his exams and had launched his dissertation—school administrators grew alarmed that he had multiple wives and abruptly insisted that he leave. Shattered by this unexplained rejection, Obama returned to Nairobi and began a downward slide that lasted for years.
In the great nature versus nurture contest, do you see any of Obama Sr.’s qualities or characteristics in his son?
The two Baracks share many things in common. Both possess a daunting intellect that in many respects defined their life’s course. A boldness of ambition enabled each man to envision a life far beyond the limited circumstances of their birth. Each man displayed a hubris, some would say arrogance, that allowed them to recast their life in sweeping terms. And both struggled with the absence of a parent, trying to understand their lives without that anchoring presence.
Despite their many differences, I feel sure that if the two Baracks had run into one another on the winding walkways of Harvard University where they both spent critical years of their lives, they would have recognized aspects of their own selves instantly.
Do those who hold that Obama Sr.’s death was the result of a conspiracy have any basis for that view?
Obama himself believed he had been targeted by forces loyal to Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta as a consequence of his testimony in the trial related to the assassination of Tom Mboya, a prominent Luo politician. On a July morning in 1969, Obama happened to run into Mboya minutes before he was gunned down on a Nairobi street. He later boldly took the stand in the trial of Mboya's killer—widely believed to have been a front man for Kenyatta—and forever after believed that he was punished for doing so.
Obama told two of his friends that he believed he had been targeted by the regime for assassination himself. Whether there is any substance to that claim is unclear. On the night of his death, Obama had been drinking heavily at his favorite bar, and it seems more likely that it was alcohol rather than a political enemy that led him into a collision with a eucalyptus tree.
In the course of researching your book, what discovery surprised you the most?
When I first wrote about Obama Sr. for the Boston Globe before his son was elected president, I was unable to travel to Kenya and get to the core of his life's story. As a consequence, I believed that many of his problems stemmed from his chronic drinking and arrogance. I did not fully grasp all that had happened to Obama, both personally and in the context of Kenya's unfolding political story.
What I learned about the losses he sustained—his mother’s abandonment, his rejection from Harvard, the erosion of once great hopes for newly independent Kenya—gave me a far richer understanding of his at times chaotic life. The surprise for me—which perhaps should have been no surprise at all—is how complex and layered a human life can be.