“My image of Onyango, faint as it was, had always been of an autocratic man—a cruel man, perhaps. But I had also imagined him an independent man, a man of his people, opposed to white rule… What Granny had told us scrambled that image completely, causing ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger.”
In one of the most remarkable passages in Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” he uses the terms “collaborator,” “Uncle Tom,” and “House nigger” to describe someone he detests. That someone, it turns out, is his own grandfather! We have a striking phenomenon here: the first African American president using the N-word, and to refer to his own grandfather! Ordinarily this would be occasion for massive comment and analysis, but if there has been any, I am not aware of it.
So what could possibly cause the president to describe his own grandfather in this appalling way? The answer, it turns out, provides an important insight into Obama’s character. The president is not the healer and unifier that he said he was four years ago. Rather, he views people who disagree with him—including members of his own family—in terms of ideological kinship or betrayal. And by Obama’s standard, even his own grandfather is an ideological sellout deserving of insults and abuse.
Onyango Obama is an odd candidate for such abuse, because he was himself a victim of colonialism. In fact, he suffered far more under colonialism than did Barack Obama Sr.
Onyango Obama was born around 1895, the very year the British established Kenya as a “protectorate.” By the time Onyango was 25, Kenya was an official British colony. Onyango was a house servant in Nairobi. He had to carry around identity papers that included evaluations of his previous domestic work. During World War I, Onyango enlisted to help the British who were fighting the Germans in East Africa. He worked for several years with road crews in the former German protectorate of Tanganyika, which was taken over by the British. Onyango also served during World War II in a British regiment called the King’s African Rifles; in this capacity he traveled to Europe and Asia.
During the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s he was detained in an internment camp, along with tens of thousands of other Kenyan males. He was there for approximately six months and, according to his wife Sarah, endured torture at the hands of British soldiers. (This account has been disputed by David Maraniss in a recent biography, but Maraniss provides no proof that Sarah Obama’s account if false.) Eventually Onyango was released, lice-ridden and looking aged.
So far we might expect that Onyango would have his grandson’s full sympathy, and this indeed was the case.
It is what followed in Onyango’s life that got Barack Obama thinking very differently about him. His grandfather, Obama learned, was an Anglophile. No, he did not consider the British to be inherently superior to the Africans, and he did not approve of British mistreatment of Africans. But at the same time, he performed admirable service for the British, as the evaluations on his identity card showed. One employer said Onyango “performed his duties as personal boy with admirable diligence.” Another commented, “He can read and write English and follows any recipes….Apart from other things his pastries are excellent.”
Throughout his life, Onyango identified the British with civilization and progress. He had grown up in an Iron Age society. He saw what British rule meant in Kenya and around the world.
Onyango had the good fortune to study English at an English mission school, and consequently was one of the first in his tribe to learn to read and write in a Western language, something in which he took great pride. He grew skeptical of shamans and witch doctors at a time when such figures were highly revered in his village. He took regular baths and became obsessed with cleanliness, not permitting cows to come near his hut because they brought insects with them.
Obama’s brother Roy told him that their grandfather “would make you sit at the table for dinner, and served the food on china, like an Englishman.” Onyango was considered the first Luo tribesman to discard traditional garb and wear Western clothing, not just pants and a shirt but, more controversially, shoes. One of Onyango’s prize possessions was an RCA gramophone. Onyango permitted only his closest friends to come and listen, but they had to sit outside the gate of his compound, and no one was permitted to touch the gramophone. In keeping with Luo tradition, Onyango as a young man had his six front teeth removed; later he adopted the Western solution of getting dentures.
From Obama’s point of view, Onyango’s unforgivable heresy was not merely his admiration of the British, but how this man contemplated the differences between Western and African ways.
When Onyango returned home to his village after his confinement, he began to ponder the question of how the British, from their tiny island, were able to conquer so much of the globe. Here I must quote Sarah Obama on her husband: “He respected the white man for his power, for his machines and weapons and the way he organized his life. He would say that the white man was always improving himself, whereas the African was suspicious of anything new.”
According to Sarah Obama, Onyango admired three things about the British. The first was their level of knowledge. “To him knowledge was the source of all the white man’s power,” she said. Onyango also considered the British to be generally fair-minded. “If you do a good job for the white man,” he liked to say, “then he will always pay you well.”
Finally, Onyango unfavorably contrasted African organization with Western organization. “How can the African defeat the white man,” Onyango would tell his son Barack Sr., “when he cannot even make his own bicycle?” In Onyango’s words, “The white man alone is like an ant. He can be easily crushed. But like an ant, the white man works together. His nation, his business–these things are more important to him than himself….Black men are not like this. Even the most foolish black man thinks he knows better than the white man. That is why the black man will always lose.”
Onyango’s favorable disposition toward the West, provoked in Obama a visceral reaction. Obama reports that as he heard Onyango’s views, “I…felt betrayed.” Of Onyango he says, “I had imagined him an independent man, a man of his people, opposed to white rule….What Granny had told us scrambled that image completely, causing ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger.” And thus it came to be that Obama came to view his own grandfather as an ideological sellout, and to write him off with the N-word.
We see here a defining Obama trait which contrasts dramatically with the image he portrayed in 2008.
In reality, Obama is a polarizing figure who divides the world into the good guys and the evil guys. For him, the latter group is simply the enemy. Today that group is Mitt Romney and the Republicans, but it is instructive to see that the first of these villains, from Obama’s point of view, was his own grandfather.