How Obama’s Presidency Has Been Shaped by his Kenyan and African-American Background

President Barack Obama gestures during a speech July 26, 2015, at the Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.   CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
President Barack Obama gestures during a speech July 26, 2015, at the Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

President Barack Obama’s visit to his father’s homeland concluded Sunday with an address to nearly 5,000 young Kenyans in an indoor arena just outside Nairobi. There, he told the adoring crowd, “I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya, and of course, I’m the first Kenyan American to be president of the United States.”

The historic visit was international news, but Obama’s description of himself as Kenyan American for the first time was newsworthy in its own right.

Though some may write off his use of the description as mere pandering to a local crowd, the usage offers additional insight into the nation’s first black president and the sometimes testy relationship he has had with African Americans over the course of his presidency. This tension, admittedly minuscule in comparison with the immense pride African Americans have in having helped elect him, usually surfaces whenever the president brings his seemingly tailor-made message of respectability and hard work to African-American audiences.

While the admonition plays well in black immigrant communities, it has increasingly come under fire in African-American communities. But this is the oft-discussed dream the president received from his Kenyan father.

From the moment Obama entered the national stage, his race has been the topic of substantial discussion. His white American mother and black Kenyan father complicated the tendency we have to rely on simplistic characterizations of race and ethnicity. Was he biracial, black American or African American? The implication, of course, is that he could not possibly be all three. But in his book The Audacity of Hope, the president refers to himself using each of these terms, meaning that he sees himself as all of them at once and none of them exclusively. This is exactly right.

Knowing exactly which nation his people are from, while also living a black existence in America for most of his life, allows the president an uncommon identity that straddles the line between Kenyan American and African American. This, along with his life experience, gives him an immigrant outlook on America as well as an African-American understanding of it.

It is this immigrant view that’s at the core of his respectability and twice-as-good sermons to African Americans, seen in his commencement address at Morehouse College and remarks at events for his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Although respectability politics are not unique to black immigrants (see Bill Cosby’s infamous pound cake speech), professor Christina Greer, author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream, writes, “African immigrants present an interesting portrait of optimism in the belief that hard work is the fundamental crux of American success,” and many of them believe in the “merits of hard work alone” to achieve the American dream.

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Source: The Root | 

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