If there is one person who could be an intelligent and compassionate contributor to America’s destructive debate over race, identity, rights and inheritance, it is you.
From Kenya, the homeland of your late father, the African-American community appears bewildered. The past haunts them, the present judges them and the future eludes them. Somewhat like their ancestors in ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, their destination unknown.
I have read your book, Dreams from My Father. I loved it. I especially enjoyed listening to your voice in the audio version of the book. But I would like to engage you on a question which you raised and left unanswered. You wrote:
What is a family? Is it a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labour? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?
As a starting point, allow me to explore an aspect of African culture that has been referred to as the “cult of the ancestors”. By cult I mean – as the etymology of the word suggests – that which we have cult-ivated and over time has become valuable to us, identified with us and consequently has become proper to our way of being. I mean, that which we honour, cherish and yes, even that which we ultimately worship.
By the way, this rich notion of the cult of the ancestors came up in the blockbuster movie, Black Panther. I’m sure you have watched it. You remember when T’Challa went to the land of the dead (in African tradition we call that place the Land of the Living-Dead) to commune with his father? They met and they spoke.
Wouldn’t you want to go to such a place, Barack? Wouldn’t you want to meet and speak to your Kenyan father, Mr. Barack Obama Senior? To hear his voice and not just hear about him from your mother and your maternal grandparents?
You see, as Africans, we naturally intuit that the dead stay on: they are on the other shore; the only difference is that the other shore cannot be seen with the naked eye. From this side of the veil of death, we feel strongly that the deceased continue to protect and support the community. For us then, even death is captured within the ambit of life; it is part of it, not antagonistic to it. It serves to provide contrast not conflict, to make life shine even brighter.
Now, if I may, I’ll begin answering the questions you posed above about the family.
Is a family a genetic chain? Yes, a family starts off as a genetic chain. In Africa, our ancestors comprise our extended family – a gigantic tree or genetic chain of life and love. And it is this strong bond of life and love that enriches us and leads us to give such great importance to the veneration of our ancestors.
For an African uncorrupted by foreign ideologies, wealth does not consist in material accumulation but in interior richness. We are as rich as the sum total of the people who have preceded us. And which race, Barack, which people on the face of this earth have a longer history than the African people?
As Jean-Marc Éla, the Cameroon sociologist and theogian, said, in African societies, the true pauper is the individual without descendants. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe says, “We do not pray to have more money but to have more kinsmen.” If we look at life from this point of view we will realise that we were born rich, that our true wealth is received, not self-made, that it is natural not artificial.
Is the family a social construct? No! Families are not “constructed” nor are they mere economic units; they descend from a seed, like shoots spring from roots and streams descend from mountain tops. A man can no more construct a family than a child can make itself a face. Families are natural, not artificial.
Is the family an ambit of love? Definitely! This, in fact, seems to be the most fitting definition of a family since it transcends, without eliminating them, differences of race and tribe and because it fosters unity and diversity.
Is a family a reach across the void? Hopefully, yes. If by “the void” we mean that breach or veil of uncertainty that separates the realm of the living from that of the “dead”, then, yes, this is a question best answered precisely by those who have dedicated themselves to the cult of the ancestors. We revere a living community held together by strong values, not dying societies torn apart by ideologies. The power that enables us to reach across the void – preserving our relations and experiences and linking us, via the thin thread of memory to our ancestors – is precisely, the strength of love.
The sons and daughters of Africa love life. Love life, Barack, defend it, nurture it, cherish it … as you and Michelle have done with your two beautiful daughters. But extend it to everyone – black, white, coloured. All lives matter. Every single human life is precious and worth fighting and dying for. This is non-negotiable. If we negotiate on this, everything becomes relative because everything depends on this inherent and transcendent dignity of every human person.
I have always felt that the African responds so naturally to the drum because it echoes a mother’s heartbeat. That primordial heartbeat makes us jump joyfully in the womb. This is also why dancing comes so naturally to us.
Which makes me ask in sorrow, Barack: How many more children will be mutilated and drowned in their mother’s wombs like those ancestors of ours who were drowned in the Atlantic? Why have we allowed the wombs of our mothers, sisters and daughters to be turned into tombs? In the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, I hear the voices of our forefathers crying from the depths. Who will atone for the tears of our drowned brethren? Who will atone for and console all these weeping and bleeding women whose children are no more? Who will go down to the depths to rescue the memory of our forefathers from the belly of the ocean?
Consider the Baobab, that majestic and perennial African tree that can grow even in the desert because its roots penetrate to the heart of the earth, as it were. Its deep roots and stout branches remind me of the congruity of so many things which are often kept separate; among them progress and conservatism, youth and old age, change and commitment, bridges and barriers.
We Africans are becoming dry branches and forgetting our common stock. We are detached from the roots that alone will connect us to the wellspring of life. From the West we have absorbed a secular worldview foreign to our African soil; a worldview that tempts us to separate religion from ordinary life.
Together with Kwame Nkurumah, I want to shout from the rooftop that in order to progress, we in Africa must look neither East (with their unwholesome communism and their suffocating pantheism) nor West (with their soulless secularism and their stifling individualism). We look forward! Unlike Nkurumah I will add that we also look backwards; for how do we know where we are going if we do not know where we came from? We look backwards, not with sterile nostalgia but striving for the good which we can uncover with the help of the community and of tradition.
The role of Africa in history is to remind the rest of the world that to live life fully, as individuals and as a human race, as persons and as one people, we must find our tree of life and graft ourselves onto it. It is this “truth of the tree” that can serve as a solid foundation for the identity that African-Americans are surely looking for.
You, Barack, the child of a black father and a white mother, should remind us of this truth. You are a former President. You speak with the eloquence and compassion of the best in African-American history. You speak with a compassion that found expression in the religious folk-songs of those first brothers of ours who wept nostalgically for their motherland. You speak with that graceful voice that moves people at the depths of their souls, the healing voice of a prophet.
Speak on. Your job is not yet over.
The spoken word is a thing of mystery, so ephemeral that it vanishes almost on the lips, yet so powerful that it decides fates, dispels ideologies and determines the meaning of existence. Our voices are the vehicle of these fleeting sounds which can yet contain the eternal: truth. What really sets people free is the truth. The truth about self, others, community, origins, life, death, the afterlife … African-Americans in particular need to rediscover these truths – most of which are found in Africa, in nature, in history: Where did I come from? Who are my forefathers? Where are they? What did they value? What did they live and die for? Why am I here? Why am I not alone?
Your father emigrated from Africa. You might be the best person to remind black American people of the importance of their ancestral roots. Remind your people – our people – to follow this genuine call of the ancestors and not the enticing but false songs of the sirens. Cherish the African-American family; protect the African-American family; revere the African-American family. This is their heritage as Africans. This is what our ancestors are expecting of us.
If all the sophistication of the 20th and 21st centuries make us lose sight of the truth of our origins, of the family, of the other-centred, intrinsic value of each individual … of what good is it? What good is a skyscraper that rises so high it destroys the very foundation from which it arose? Such a social experiment was tried and tested millennia ago. It was called the Tower of Babel – a confused lot of isolated, ego-centric individuals, unintelligible to each other and ultimately incapable of the very cross-fertilization of cultures they intended to achieve when they started out.
Speaking as an African, my challenge to you is to continue being a “voice that cries out in the wilderness”. My challenge is to you is that you live up to your name which comes from the Swahili word Baraka. May you be a blessing – a Baraka – to all African people living and dead and to all our African-American brothers and sisters. I know this task is above your paygrade –it is actually not within anyone’s paygrade. However, I am sure that the humble African in you will remember the true source of his inner wealth and the high-minded American in you will stop at nothing to achieve such an audacious goal.
Barack, you have a mission. Accept it. Heed and give voice to the voice of our ancestors. Barack: remind Americans to cherish their families. Barack: as the world’s most famous African-American, remind your countrymen, our countrymen, to be a bit more African.