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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As Obama Jr. would later write in Dreams from My Father, his father was a complicated man; the son gleaned a sense of that complexity from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin interview with his father published upon his graduation in 1962.

He appears guarded and responsible, the model student, the ambassador for his continent. He mildly scolds the university for herding visiting students into dormitories and forcing them to attend programs designed to promote cultural understanding— a distraction, he says, from the practical training he seeks. Although he hasn’t experienced any problems himself, he detects self-segregation and overt discrimination taking place between the various ethnic groups and expresses wry amusement at the fact that “Caucasians” in Hawaii are occasionally on the receiving end of prejudice.

Because of Obama Sr.’s good record at Hawaii, he received scholarship offers to work toward a doctorate in economics, a full one from the New School in New York City and a partial one from Harvard University; he chose the latter, which did not have enough money attached for him to bring his wife and son. He moved to Cambridge alone, and, except for the occasional letter, mostly disappeared from his young son’s life for the next decade. He suddenly reappeared when Barack Jr. was ten years old, and the two had an intense reunion for a month, after which the father and son never saw one another again. Barack Jr. knew that his father had remarried, and had a new family in Kenya and worked for the government, but he had few other details about his father’s life.

Barack Jr. was twenty-one and living in New York City when he received the news of his father’s death in a car accident in Kenya. It hit him hard. He then embarked on a journey of discovery— of himself and of his father— that took him a decade, reunited him with his Kenyan half-brothers and half-sisters, brought him to Kogelo and the site of his grandfather’s land— which he was taught to revere as “Home Squared,” the “center of the center” of his Kenyan family’s existence—and culminated in Dreams from My Father, his autobiographical exploration of the complex relationships between father and son, whiteness and blackness, and being American and Kenyan.

As the 2008 Massachusetts primary approached, Senator Obama’s candidacy was endorsed by several members of the Kennedy family, including Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, surviving patriarch of the clan, and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president. They said that Obama and his candidacy, with their expressions of great promise and hope, reminded the family forcefully of John F. Kennedy and his 1960 campaign for the presidency. The Kennedy endorsement was a very important matter for Obama, since Hillary Clinton was still the choice of Democratic Party leaders.

In trying to make the connection between himself and President Kennedy more direct, candidate Obama, based on incomplete information, made a mistake about his own history, saying that his father’s journey to America in 1959 had been aided by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Not exactly, fact- checkers soon found out. The Kennedy Foundation had not underwritten the airlift until 1960, although Obama Sr. had been aided earlier by the AASF, and some Kennedy money was later used to assist him in Hawaii. Glossed over by news reporters in 2008 was that John F. Kennedy’s support for the 1960 airlift had created a political uproar that affected the African- American vote in a very close election— a story long overlooked by historians and popular culture. The Kennedy Foundation’s underwriting of the airlift had trumped Vice President Richard Nixon’s attempt to force the State Department to fund the airlift so that Nixon rather than Kennedy could reap the po liti cal benefi t of African- American votes.

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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