On the half-siblings who connect to both the worst and the best of contemporary America.
Given the amount of time I spend reading, thinking, and writing about contemporary political issues and debates and narratives—not in this space necessarily, but on my Facebook page for sure, and in many other aspects of my life—it’d be unquestionably hypocritical of me to complain about the over-politicization of, well, everything in 21st century American life. And I likewise know too much about the political battles in our past to argue for some idyllic golden age when everybody just got along. But on the other hand, I do believe that a variety of factors—24-hour news cycles, cable news, the internet, and other new media chief among them—have brought us to a somewhat unprecedented point, where virtually everything and everybody can and usually do become fodder for political battles. And one of the most convincing arguments for that idea would have to be politicization of numerous members of President Obama’s extended family.
Obviously siblings and other family members have been part of politics for a good while—just ask Billy Carter—but in most of those cases the family members were explicitly connected to (and even part of, in Billy’s case) the politician’s administration. For Obama, on the other hand, all of his living relatives are extended family in the most literal sense—the half-sister that is his mother’s daughter by her Indonesian second husband, for example; the half-siblings that are his father’s children by his Kenyan second wife, for another—and his relationships with them are (if present at all) partial and fragmented, not at all part of his administration or life in Washington, and extremely complex. So when these distant and complex relationships are used as political fodder, as they have been far too many times in the last four years, it can’t help but feel like one of the worst sides of our contemporary politics and society—the way in which fraught and difficult questions without easy answers or simple narratives are not only not treated as such, but are instead reduced to just another case of whose narrative can win over public opinion, no matter how far it may be from any meaningful truth.
If Obama’s half-siblings thus represent some of our worst current trends, though, they can also exemplify some of the best of American identity and community. I’ve written before here about Obama’s first and best book, Dreams from My Father, and in that post I mentioned the book’s complex and compelling engagement with the cross-cultural identities of not only Obama’s parents and himself, but also of two particular half-siblings with whom Obama has grown somewhat close: Auma and Roy. In many ways, all three of them, Obama and these two half-siblings, have inherited the book’s titular dreams from their father Barack, and all three have both struggled with their resulting mixed American identities and found their own peace with who they are and what their heritage has contributed and where they go from there. If anything, as Obama himself recognizes and articulates eloquently in the book, Auma and Roy represent a 21st century cross-cultural American identity and community even more fully than does he, embody the newest generation of this unifying, complex, and vital national experience. So we should in fact include these Obama half-siblings in our national narratives, but for the best and most communal, not the worst and most divisive, reasons.
Crowd-sourced post on the week’s topics and on any other interesting American siblings this weekend, so I’d love to hear your thoughts and nominees!
PS. You know what to do! Last chance before the weekend post!
8/3 Memory Day nominee: John Scopes, the Tennessee schoolteacher whose teaching of evolution—and more exactly whose willingness to take a stand in defense of that teaching—helped change the course of American education, law, and history, and inspired many cultural representations.
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