Margaret Murray's Reviews > The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father

The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs
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In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy wherein a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person themselves. The audience, witnessing the suffering, feels a catharsis, a kind of satisfaction and peace.

This biography is subtitled “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. Bold and reckless does truly describe the “other” Barack Obama, Sr. Look at his picture on the hardback cover; that wide, inviting smile, pipe between his teeth, the stylish haircut, those black-rimmed glasses accentuating a well-modeled face with high cheekbones, glasses that reflect light seemingly emanating from the man himself.

“Baraka” means “Blessing” in Arabic and he was born blessed. In the words of his own father, Obama was “winyo Piiny Kiborne” which translates, “for the bird, the world is never too far.” As the firstborn son in a patrilineal culture of the Luo Tribe in Eastern Kenya, Obama was treated to the best the rural African village could offer. His father, Onyango, was a man whose criticism and punishment Obama had to contend with all his life, a harsh patriarch who walked 220 miles by foot to school (he became fluent in English and Swahili) and ended up a house servant for a “muzungo” (white) household in Nairobi.

Barack Sr’s story unfolds along with the dynamic history of 20th century Africa. It is told in an objective, well-researched way by Sally Jacobs, by all accounts a fair-minded, masterful journalist. The author has a list of imposing credentials that match her rendition of Obama’s vista, bigger than any epic tale. In her preface, Jacobs describes how, after writing short superficial pieces about the newly elected president’s father in 2008 for the Boston Globe, she determined to research and write a substantive piece. She details all the obstruction she ran into during her research from the president’s huge, far-flung African family (he has many African siblings). Unlike the chorus of a Greek tragedy, the African Obamas did not speak with one voice, though three have written books about their experiences. Jacobs does a masterful job of presenting the family’s conflicting versions of their life (or otherwise) with Obama Senior.

No one disputes Barack’s great determination, probing intellect, and drive to succeed; and yet there was also his blindness, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, and unchecked alcoholism. For a native boy from Africa, growing up in the 1940s, Barak Obama Sr. did the nearly impossible and he knew it. He was the first African student at the University of Hawaii where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He was one of only 81 African students at Harvard, where black students made up only 1%. Over-confident, argumentative, he pursued his aims at any cost. A classy dresser, superb dancer, with a deep sonorous baritone that no one could ignore, he charmed, seduced, abandoned and abused women. Jacobs emphasizes that as an African man from Kenya, Obama was often merely following the cultural norms; “it was natural for a man to collect many women and to engage sexually with them all.”

Leaving Harvard against his will, where he was not allowed to complete his studies, he came home in 1964 just eight months after Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule. In his speeches at the University of Hawaii, he had spoken of an autonomous Kenya where the white colonial system would be replaced with a land that supported Africans with economic justice for all (he majored in Economics); Barack Sr. did not find his dream when he returned to Kenya. Instead he walked into tribal animosity and betrayal, light years away from the Africa he had left six years before.

So much promise. So many opportunities. It’s fascinating to see him engage and then stumble away. There were the multitudinous sins of omission--his children never knew him and were too frightened to get close to him; three of his four long-suffering wives--two Caucasian, two African--divorced him.
Othello has his jealousy; Oedipus his blindness, the other Obama had his addition but more than that, even at the end, he was shrouded in recklessness and mystery. Somehow there’s a catharsis in that.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 11, 2012 – Finished Reading
March 22, 2012 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Geoffrey (new)

Geoffrey Fox Waiting for your review. He must have been a charming and clearly very bright man, but from his son's memoir it sounds like he got caught up in sticky and tangled family commitments, including problems with his own father. And there was another wife, wasn't there?


Margaret Murray Thanks for writing, Geoffrey. Your email is inspiring me to finish my review--the subject plus Africa is the stuff of Greek Tragedy.


message 3: by Geoffrey (new)

Geoffrey Fox Nicely written review. Thank you. I now know a lot more than I did, about him and about Kenya.


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