Shades of Truth

Does Barack Obama embroider his own history for political effect?

"There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together, and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama."

Problem here is that the Selma marches occurred in 1965. Obama was born in 1961. So whatever was "stirring" in Honolulu probably had very little to do with the little town in Alabama.

The Chicago Tribune picked up on this discrepancy and cursorily reported it. Obama's campaign told the newspaper that the senator was referring to the entire civil rights movement, not just Selma.

Grandson of a houseboy?
Grandson of a houseboy?

So Obama was caught making a connection that wasn't quite there. You have to give Martin some points on this one, since it's clear that Obama fudged the facts to falsely impress his audience.

The political objective of the Selma speech was obvious: An almost defensive Obama was trying to build his cred with the African-American community. That support is crucial, since his most formidable opponent, Hillary Clinton, enjoys popularity with blacks, partly due to the coattails of her husband, and was also in Selma that weekend (at another church, of course).

There's a reason Obama might be trying too hard. Unlike most black Americans, his family history doesn't have roots in slavery. His grandfather, Onyango, lived in a small village in Kenya while it was under British rule. Here's how the senator tried to tie Onyango to the folks in Selma:

"You see, my grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village, and all his life, that's all he was — a cook and a houseboy. And that's what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a houseboy. They wouldn't call him by his last name. Sound familiar?"

Martin bristles at this account.

"He makes his grandfather out to be a houseboy, but his grandfather was an extraordinary human being," Martin says. "He educated himself. He learned to read and write. He adopted Western attitudes about cleanliness. He was a major-domo, a head of the household."

Obama's grandfather is indeed an extremely interesting character — and though he worked as a servant, he was much more than a "houseboy" for the British. We know this because Obama wrote about Onyango, whom he never met, in his first book, Dreams From My Father. He describes him in the first pages of the book as "a prominent farmer, an elder of the tribe, a medicine man with healing powers."

Obama conveys in the book that his grandfather embraced the British and their Western ways zealously. When white people first came into the region, Onyango disappeared for many months and came back "wearing the trousers of the white man, and the shirt of a white man, and shoes that covered his feet," Obama quotes a Kenyan relative as saying.

For this transgression, Onyango's father shunned him for the rest of his life. As British rule became more oppressive in Kenya, Onyango worked for the empire, overseeing road crews. He then moved to Nairobi, where he worked at white-owned estates as a cook and house organizer. He traveled around the world with the British during World War II. And he was paid wages that he used to buy land and cattle in his village, where he owned a sizable "compound" and was known as a man alternatively cruel and generous.

Obama writes in his book that when he heard his grandfather's story, "ugly words flashed through my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger."

When he asked his African stepgrandmother about Onyango's views toward the white man, this is what she told him: "... 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. 'The African is thick,' he would sometimes say to me. 'For him to do anything, he needs to be beaten. '"

Yet Onyango, an almost ridiculously stern man, wasn't obsequious in the face of British power. He refused to be beaten and was said to have lost jobs because of it. "If the white man he was working for was abusive, he would tell the man to go to hell and leave to find other work," his granny told him, adding that Onyango once took the cane from a white man and beat him with it.

So Obama's grandfather's experience with the white man was a far cry from slavery. And dubbing him only as a cook and "houseboy" does seem a bit disingenuous.

But technically, Onyango did work as a cook and servant for white people. And he was called a boy, no doubt. So was Obama lying through his teeth, as Martin believes, or was he just being politically creative?

It's the latter, of course. Obama chose small details to deliver a message while shading larger truths. If Obama were giving a speech before an upper-crust white crowd, for instance, he might tell them how Onyango was an immediate convert to Western ways and one of the richest people in his village.

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