Excerpt from Airlift to America by Tom Shachtman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Airlift to America

How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours

by Tom Shachtman

Airlift to America
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  • Published:
    Sep 2009, 288 pages

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Jo Perry

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This is a huge moment. It’s one of those times when a movement that seemed ethereal and idealistic became a reality and took on political substance... Obama is changing the tone of American liberalism, and maybe American politics, too.

Obama was being propelled to prominence and potential victory by a tide of youthful voters who saw in him the promise of a society whose politics would no longer turn on racial images and stereotypes. His apparent ease with his unusual background contributed to that perception. But he was also the embodiment of the hopes of several generations of Americans, black and white, who had fought for civil rights. They perceived his candidacy, and the possibility that he might actually be elected president, as the chance to break a barrier that they had been trying to cross for fifty years, in pursuit of social justice and a color- blind society. Obama encapsulated the aspirations of both groups in his oft- repeated line, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

The history of Barack Obama’s rise is a version of the American dream story, but not the one that most Americans were used to hearing. In most previous iterations of the dream saga— rags to riches, anonymity to glory, victim to victor— the protagonist was white and from a Europe an background. Few who achieved the promise of the dream had been men or women of color, and almost none had a parent who came from Africa.

As the campaign wore on, the public was intrigued to learn, from Obama’s now-bestselling books and from interviews with him and capsule bios on television and on the Internet, that his father, Barack Obama, Sr., had come to the United States in 1959, supposedly with several dozen other East Africans, mainly from Kenya, in an “airlift.” Some reportage called it the Kennedy airlift, for John F. Kennedy; others the Mboya airlift, for Kenyan politician Tom Mboya; and still others, the East African airlift. The term “airlift” was shorthand, a reference to planes chartered to bring dozens and then hundreds of East African students to the United States between 1959 and 1963.

As interest in Obama grew, so did curiosity about his Kenyan roots. Some articles included the information that Obama Sr. had been a friend of fellow Luo tribesman Mboya, the visionary who conceived the airlifts and was able to get them airborne through the efforts of American friends. Others cited the tale that a generation earlier, Obama’s grandfather had been the first person in his tribal area— Alego Kogelo, the home of the Olego people, near Lake Victoria in western Kenya— to have exchanged his native garb for Western clothes.

The facts bore out much, though not all, of this story. Grandfather Onyango Obama was a Luo of considerable personal force and integrity. Born in 1898, he had fought in various parts of Africa in the Great War, then returned to Kogelo to clear land for a farm near Lake Victoria; but to earn money for his family he had also worked as a cook in Nairobi and on safari. An herbalist, he had fought against the confidence schemes of shamans and witch doctors. When a first wife was unable to bear children he took a second and later a third, who did. Despite many obstacles, he learned to read and write some English, a rare thing among rural Africans then. Initially subjected to suspicion from the other villagers for this, he eventually earned their respect because he was one of the few who could speak with the Europeans in their own language. He was the first to adopt Western ways, such as putting food on plates and eating with utensils. Converted to Protestantism when young, he later converted again to the Muslim religion, which accounts for the name that he gave to his eldest son, born in 1936. He also added “Hussein” to his own name. Later, Onyango drifted away from the Muslim religion, did not raise his children in that faith, and was not known by the Hussein name. He served again with the British in Burma in World War II, and then returned home. According to his widow, Onyango was arrested in 1949, imprisoned, and tortured by the British for supposedly consorting with other former soldiers who were beginning the revolt that would become known as the Mau Mau uprising. Never convicted, upon his release he became bitterly anti-British.

Excerpted from Airlift to America by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2009 by Tom Shachtman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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