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First Family's Global Reach

By       Message Dinesh Sharma       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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The human family remains the bedrock social institution in many cultures. For the first time America projects an all-inclusive image of the first family for people around the world. The forty-fourth president of the United States brings with him a starkly different genealogy. At his inaugural ceremony, President Obama was surrounded by the different branches of his family tree, a lineage that would have been unimaginable in the more than two-hundred years since the birth of this nation.

As a reporter observed, the Obama clan brought together the colors of the American rainbow: "Black and White and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Low country." [1] The Obama family does not boast wealth, lineage to any kings or queens and a generation ago were quite poor. Thus, as Americans celebrated the inauguration of the first African-American president the world seemed to usher in the first global president.

The Obama story is quintessentially a heroic saga of an American family, emerging from the depths of the American psyche, the same cultural crucible that has given rise to American individualism and secular or democratic institutions. Like the human family tree, the genealogical narrative of the Obama family with all its twists and turns has multicultural roots, great migratory journeys and testing of the limits of the human spirit. Above all, it extols the American virtue of upward social mobility, determination against all the odds, and "the refusal to follow the tracks put down by history, religion, or parentage." As Obama's sister Maya described, "Our family is new in terms of the White House, but I don't think it's new in terms of the country, [nor do I] think the White House has always reflected the textures and flavors of this country."[2]

Young Barack's extended family included his Depression-era grandparents from Kansas who were politically conservative and lived in a modest two-room apartment in Honolulu so they could afford the best private schools for him and his sister. This was something their mother could not afford on academic grants and salaries. Their grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, rose from bank secretary to vice-president which made it possible to enroll Barack in one of Hawaii's elite prep schools.

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Stanley Dunham, a World War Two veteran, was Barack's constant male companion during his teenage years and on several occasions reprimanded young Barack for experimenting with drugs. 'Gramps,' as Obama referred to him, was a travelling salesman and a life insurance agent "who could sell the legs off a couch." In Dreams from My Father, Obama reported that Gramps was a bohemian at heart and that "it was his desire to obliterate the past and his confidence in the possibility of remaking the world that proved to be his most enduring patrimony."[3] It is well documented that Barack's grandfather educated himself on the GI Bill following the war; and his grandmother, who had stayed in Wichita during the war, worked on a bomber assembly line while raising their only daughter, Stanley Ann.

Obama's gritty pragmatism, which he acquired from his grandmother, has been pivotal to his success. He credits her for giving him the spine to take on big challenges. During an interview before Obama became a United States senator from Illinois, she wished her grandson might have pursued international law or had become a judge rather than enter into the business of politics[4]. This self-made matriarch had big dreams for her grandson despite her own lack of formal education. We know from psychological research that children adopt life's enduring lessons from what their parents do in real life, and not from what they preach.[5] Thus, while Obama inherited his mother's progressive vision and idealism, it was his hard-knuckled grandmother who gave him his steely spine.

Obama's genealogical history from his mother's side of the family is every bit as American as some of the earlier presidents; as Obama used to jest during the campaign, he is related to the former Vice President as a distant cousin.[6] Obama's American ancestors can be traced back to earlier historical eras; they were abolitionists; Midwesterners who lived through the Great Depression; and a few of them even fought in the Revolutionary War.[7]

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Finally, Obama's wife Michelle is the product of African-American slavery. Confirmed by both the demographic data and interviews, "Mrs. Obama is the descendant of slaves and the daughter of the Great Migration," the mass exodus of African-Americans to the north in search of greater freedom and jobs during the first half of the twentieth century.[8]

In this unique melding of culture, history, race and ethnicity not seen in other developed or socially democratic societies, the Obama presidency symbolizes its global reach and a harbinger of the changing demographic landscape. If we realize that Obama is indeed the son of a Kenyan immigrant, "not the seed, but the flower of the civil rights movement,"[9] only a generation removed from his father who landed in Hawaii with a "funny sounding name" less than half-century earlier, we may fully actualize the promise of the Obama generation. We need only look at the confidence he has generated in the American values in places like Egypt, Turkey and Ghana, as confirmed by several global surveys, where very few American Presidents have managed to hold town meetings.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Media Monitors Network:

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Dinesh Sharma is a marketing science consultant with a Doctorate in Psychology from Harvard. He is a senior fellow at Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Research, St Francis College, NYC, and a regular columnist for Asia Times Online. (more...)

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