The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family

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Overview

"Fascinating...adds many interesting details to what we know of the President’s heritage."
--David Remnick, TheNewYorker.com

On January 20, 2009, a few hundred men, women, and children gathered under trees in the twilight at K’obama, a village on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Barack Obama’s rise to the American presidency had captivated people around the world, but members of this gathering took a special pride in the swearing in of America’s first black ...

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The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family

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Overview

"Fascinating...adds many interesting details to what we know of the President’s heritage."
--David Remnick, TheNewYorker.com

On January 20, 2009, a few hundred men, women, and children gathered under trees in the twilight at K’obama, a village on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Barack Obama’s rise to the American presidency had captivated people around the world, but members of this gathering took a special pride in the swearing in of America’s first black president, for they were all Obamas, all the president’s direct African family.
 
In the first in-depth history of the Obama family, Peter Firstbrook recounts a journey that starts in a mud hut by the White Nile and ends seven centuries later in the White House. Interweaving oral history and tribal lore, interviews with Obama family members and other Kenyans, the writings of Kenyan historians, and original genealogical research, Firstbrook sets the fascinating story of the president’s family against the background of Kenya’s rich culture and complex history.
 
He tells the story of farmers and fishermen, of healers and hunters, of families lost and found, establishing for the first time the early ancestry of the Obamas. From the tribe’s cradleland in southern Sudan, he follows the family generation by generation, tracing the paths of the famous Luo warriors—Obama’s direct ancestors—and vividly illuminating Luo politics, society, and traditions.
 
Firstbrook also brings to life the impact of English colonization in Africa through the eyes of President Obama’s grandfather Onyango. An ambitious and disciplined man who fought in two world wars, witnessed the bloody Mau Mau insurrection, and saw his country gain independence from white rule, Onyango was also hot-tempered and autocratic: family lore has it that President Obama’s grandmother abandoned the family after Onyango attempted to murder her. And Firstbrook delves into the troubled life of Obama’s father, a promising young man whose aspirations were stymied by post-independence tribal politics and a rash tendency toward self-destruction—two factors that his family believes contributed to his death in 1982. They say it was no accident, as described in the president’s memoirs, but rather a politically motivated hit job.
 
More than a tale of love and war, hardship and hard-won success, The Obamas reveals a family history—epic in scope yet intimate in feel—that is truly without precedent.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Not only does [Firstbrook's] book 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...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."
—Steve Weinberg, Christian Science Monitor
 
"Like few others in modern history, President Barack Hussein Obama has been dissected within every fiber of his DNA. The Obamas stands apart by literally finding where the President comes from."
Essence 
 
"Firstbrook is a first-rate storyteller."
USA Today

"Firstbrook is nothing if not intrepid...It is not what happened in America that is the point of this assiduous book, which will surely be helpful to future Obama scholars. It is the telling of the story of a large and extended African family that has played a significant and unforgettable role in history across two continents."
Washington Post

"Sharply etched portraits of the president's grandfather Hussein Onyango and his father, Barack Sr.—as well as many living aunts, uncles, and cousins—help bring the periods of British colonialism and Kenyan independence into focus...A sweeping, six-century saga of tribal Africa."
—Douglas Gorney, theatlantic.com

"Lively, sweeping, grand, horrifying, and occasionally funny; a historical biography of a continent, a way of life, a people and, somewhere along the way, the Leader of the Free World...Though some tales will make you gulp, he also entertains readers with cultural explanations, imaginative scenarios, hypothetical situations, and small anecdotes. I enjoyed that, partly for the way Firstbrook presents the information and partly for its relevance in today’s world, as compared to yesterday’s way of life...For the curious, or anyone who just loves a great story, “The Obamas” deserves a closer look.” —Terri Schlichenmeyer, TheTimesWeekly.com (Joliet, Ill.)

"Fascinating and carefully researched."
Hemispheres magazine
Wil Haygood
…it is not what happened in America that is the point of this assiduous book, which will surely be helpful to future Obama scholars. It is the telling of the story of a large and extended African family that has played a significant and unforgettable role in history across two continents.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal
Combining oral and academic history, former BBC documentarian Firstbrook (Lost on Everest) spins a story that traces President Obama's Kenyan roots to the Luo tribe—a proud, polygamous people reputed for their high intelligence—who came to Kenya via Uganda from southern Sudan over 500 years ago. Seeking to delve far deeper than the President's autobiography Dreams from My Father, Firstbrook traces Barack Obama's paternal lineage back several generations—set against the backdrop of the social and political climate of Kenya, from British colonial rule to the struggle for independence. Therefore, the emphasis here is not on President Obama himself, about whom there are few new insights. There is much Kenyan history integrated into this genealogical study, which readers may find both fascinating and frustrating, as it can overshadow the information on the Obamas themselves. VERDICT Genealogy and Obama enthusiasts and students of African studies and global political history will find plenty to dissect and discuss in this book. [See Q&A with Firstbrook in BookSmack!, 10/21/10.—Ed.]—Tamela Chambers, Chicago Public Schs.
Kirkus Reviews

Multigenerational history of the president's African ancestors.

Former BBC documentary director and producer Firstbrook (Surviving the Iron Age, 2003, etc.) takes care to note that Barack Obama is, of course, of mixed ethnic ancestry, "about 37 percent English, with additional contributions from German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Swiss forebears." Even so, he adds, the Luo people who claim the president as their own do not consider him in any way white. He is instead both a "near demigod" and—fodder for right-wing critics, no doubt—might as well be the president of Kenya as well as of the United States, so highly esteemed is he there. Obama has written sensitively and well of his search for his African roots, since his father was absent from his life. Firstbrook brings some news to his account by suggesting that Obama senior may not have died accidentally, though his death in 1982 was ruled an accident while driving drunk. He notes that many Luo dissidents—Obama senior was an outspoken critic of the government—have been assassinated over the years. The author announces three aims: to trace the story of the Obama family as far back as possible; to chronicle the Luo's forced migration from southern Sudan to Kenya; and to describe the transformation of Kenya from British colony to independent nation. In each of these, he does yeoman work, painting a vivid portrait of Luo village life. He falls clearly on the side of nature in the nature/nurture debate, too, which finds him sometimes trending into difficult, un-PC territory: "Barack junior is a very different man from either his father or his grandfather, but certain family characteristics seem to flow from his African bloodline; intelligence, resourcefulness, motivation, and ambition can all be traced back several generations."

Firstbrook's account complements Obama's own, though it is of much more limited appeal.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307591418
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 1,448,465
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

PETER FIRSTBROOK worked for the BBC for twenty-five years as a director and producer, specializing in history and international documentaries and winning more than thirty international filmmaking awards. He has traveled and worked in Africa for over 30 years. His previous books include Lost on Everest, which was published in seven languages.

From the Hardcover edition.

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