In my reader's guide to the President's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, I point out the many parallels between the Obama family's history and the fictional life story of an African leader in the late John Updike's delightful 1978 novel about Africa, The Coup, in which the novelist ventured far from his Atlantic Seaboard comfort zone. It's testimony to Updike's powers that he could shed so much light on three people he had never heard of at the time: Barack Obama Jr. and his parents.
For example, Updike's African scholarship student Hakim Félix Ellelloû bigamously marries a white American coed after a pregnancy scare in 1959, much as Barack Obama Sr. bigamously married a pregnant white American coed in 1961.
From my chapter on "Obama as a Man of Letters:"
Because Obama is a literary man, this is a rather literary analysis of his life and works. I've been intermittently comparing the Obama family saga to its eerie analog in John Updike's 1978 novel The Coup. Written at the gleeful height of Updike's powers, The Coup consists of the verbally dazzling memoirs of a hyperliterate American-educated official in the fictitious African country of Kush. The Coup was based on Updike's prodigious research into the lives of post-colonial African elites very much like Barack Obama Sr.
Two of Updike's children have since married black Africans. Updike's 1989 essay “A Letter to My Grandsons” is addressed to his daughter’s half-African children. In it, Updike explains to them that there’s “a floating sexual curiosity and potential love between the races that in your parents has come to earth and borne fruit and that the blended shade of your dear brown skins will ever advertise.” (I'm not sure that Updike's children and grandchildren truly wanted to read that, but if Updike is to churn out a book a year, in his voracious search for material he must occasionally mortify his progeny.)
After four seemingly pleasant years at an American college, Updike's protagonist, Hakim Félix Ellelloû, returns to Africa, winds up with a total of four wives, including his white American college sweetheart, turns against America and capitalism in the Cold War, and (here is where the lives of Ellelloû and Obama Sr. diverge) deftly climbs the ladder of government, becoming dictator in the late Sixties.
Ellelloû attempts to impose upon his homeland of Kush the three ideologies he acquired while studying in America: Marxism, Black Muslimism, and Islam (all of which have interested Obama Jr. to some degree).
Written at the nadir of American power and prestige during the Carter years, Updike audaciously prophesied American victory in the Cold War for the hearts and minds of the Third World. Ellelloû's radicalism destroys what little economic activity Kush ever had, and he's overthrown by pro-American forces in the titular coup.
Thirty years later, The Coup can now be read as a kind of Obama Clan Alternative History. In our world, Obama Sr.'s career back home in decolonized Kenya got off to a fast start in the Sixties, then foundered. What if, however, like Ellelloû, Obama Sr. had instead possessed the abstemious, observant, and cautious personality of Obama Jr.? It would hardly have been surprising if the elder Obama, if blessed with his son’s self-disciplined character, had become president of Kenya.
The Coup has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in 1980. I always considered Updike's comedy, however, fundamentally preposterous. Politicians and literary men were simply breeds apart.
Updike recognizes that problem, having his protagonist narrator explain, unconvincingly: “… there are two selves: the one who acts, and the ‘I’ who experiences. This latter is passive even in a whirlwind of the former’s making, passive and guiltless and astonished.” The idea of a head of government with an overwhelmingly literary sensitivity and sensibility was an amusing conceit of Updike's, I thought, but not something we would ever see in the real world.
I'm not so sure anymore.
In America's Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama's "Story of Race and Inheritance," I note that Updike's novel can sometimes help us put ourselves in the shoes of Obama's parents even better than can Obama's Dreams from My Father:
The Coup, Updike's novel about a brilliant African government official—one remarkably similar to Barack Obama Sr.—who acquired a white wife at an American college in 1959, offers some insight into what the Eisenhower Era campus romance of Barack Sr. and Ann might have been like. Fifteen years of unhappy polygamous marriage later, Candy (like Ann, the daughter of a Midwestern salesman), tells her African husband, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû:
“You know what everybody at college used to say to me? They said I was crazy to put myself at the mercy of a Negro.”
“You needed to prove them right,” Ellelloû said, bothered by a certain poignant twist in her body, … implying … an ambivalent torque of the soul—in Candace’s case, between taunting and plea, a regret that even in her extremity of rage she should taunt her husband with the blackness that had made him fascinating and herself noble and the two of them together undergraduate stars…
It’s not clear when Ann discovered that Barack Sr. was already married. In the 1980s, she told her son: “And then there was a problem with your father’s first wife…he had told me they were separated, but it was a village wedding, so there was no legal document that could show a divorce….”
(As an anthropologist dedicated to cultural relativism, Ann could hardly dismiss the legitimacy of a “village wedding.”)
Did Barack Sr. marry Ann under false pretenses? Or did he warn her ahead of time of his prior encumbrance?
In Updike's alternative universe version of the Obama family saga in The Coup, the latter was true. Years later, Candy admits to Hakim that she paid no attention to his warnings. “I couldn’t believe it. When I met Kadongolimi here, when I saw she really existed, I nearly died. How could you do that to me?—have such a big fat wife. I thought you were making her up.”
Similarly, Ellelloû's fascination with the Black Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad in 1950s Chicago can help the reader understand the deep interest Obama took in the editorials of Louis Farrakhan in 1980s Chicago (see, among much else, pp. 195-204 of Obama's first memoir).
As I point out in America's Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama's "Story of Race and Inheritance:"
The Black Muslims are, of course, those gentlemen in the bow ties who preach that, in prehistoric times, the vile Dr. Yacub genetically engineered Europeans to be a race of human wolves. In Updike’s The Coup, this creation story is explained to Ellelloû by a black Chicago student at his American college in the late 1950s:It took, according to the Prophet Mr. Farrad Muhammad, two hundred years of regulated eugenics to create a brown race from the black, two hundred more to produce from that a red race, two hundred more to produce a race of yellow folk … and from this a final deuce of centuries to the ultimate generation and supreme insult to Allah, the blond, blue-eyed, hairy-assed devils…Intrigued, Ellelloû attends Temple Two in Chicago to hear Elijah Muhammad himself speak: “The Messenger … was a frail little filament who burned with a pure hatred when he thought of white men and lit up our hearts.”
Obama’s long dialogue with the Black Muslims began in Hawaii. It started, according to Dreams' uncertain chronology, when “Ray” (one of Dreams’ half-fictional black militant characters; he was based on the actual half-Japanese non-militant Keith Kakugawa), whom Obama uses as a mouthpiece for his own anti-white feelings, opens Barry’s eyes to the reality of white supremacy in 1970s Hawaii: “It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it.”
The young Obama responds to Ray’s insight in his own bookish way:I gathered up books from the library—Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. … I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I'd found it with the terms of my birth. I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. [pp. 85-86]Fortunately, one of the classic African-American authors is different. He isn’t some loser litterateur. He projects power:Only Malcolm X's autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. [p. 86]The secular and self-absorbed young Obama isn’t interested in the Muslim part of the Black Muslims—just the Black part:All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. [p. 86]Similarly, Updike's Ellelloû is less concerned with Dr. Yacub’s putative historicity than with what the Nation of Islam teachings mean for him. Elijah Muhammad informs Ellelloû “that the path to freedom is the path of abnegation. He taught me nationhood, purity, and hatred: for hatred is the source of all strengths, … so Ellelloû held to a desiccated, stylized version of the faith …”
One furious concern for the Black Muslims was the “problem” of mixed-race ancestry. Ellelloû recounts Elijah’s denunciation of how the white man, “through the agency of rape had so mongrelized the American black man that not a member of this audience was the true ebony color of his African fathers.”
In young Obama’s self-tortured mind, the Black Muslims represent both racial purity and a personal reproach. For years, they loom over Obama as the ultimate authorities on Black Enoughness. They symbolically cast doubt upon the career path his mother launched him upon. How can he become a black leader if he’s not all that black?And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border. [p. 86]
Obama’s mixed blood can’t as easily be wished away as Malcolm’s. His white grandfather didn’t rape his black grandmother; instead, his black father seduced and impregnated his white 17-year-old mother, then abandoned her and their child. Obama could try to make the issue disappear. (“I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites.”) Nevertheless, it must have sometimes seemed a hopeless quest as he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in his bedroom in his white grandparents' highrise apartment in their nice neighborhood within walking distance of his prep school.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was hugely popular with white liberals in the 1960s because Malcolm ultimately disowns Elijah, and on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he sees whites and blacks walking together in Allah. In contrast, Obama’s enthusiasm for Malcolm’s celebrated change of heart away from black racism is restrained, to say the least: “If Malcolm’s discovery toward the end of his life, that some whites might live beside him as brothers in Islam, seemed to offer some hope of eventual reconciliation, that hope appeared in a distant future, in a far-off land.”
Moreover, Updike explains much about the temptations of playing the Big Man, an occupational hazard that Obama Sr. fell prey to:
Kenyan politics is a serious affair, because so much of the country’s wealth is at stake. As Updike‘s Ellelloû lectures his mistress, “The difficulty with government in Africa, my dear Kutunda, is that in the absence of any considerable mercantile or industrial development the government is the only concentration of riches and therefore is monopolized by men who seek riches.”
The outstanding feature of African politics is the Big Man, of whom Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya remains the archetype. In The Coup, Updike burlesques the species in the voice of Ellelloû, the puritanical Muslim Marxist who can’t abide his Kenyatta-like neighbor “Wamphumel Komomo, President-for-Life of Zanj: height six foot six, weight three hundred seventy pounds.”
Ellelloû gleefully snipes at The Coup’s stand-in for Kenyatta:Not a tuck in his patriarchal robes ungarnished by private gain, which he extracted from the toubab [European] corporations as blithely as his forebears the cannibal chiefs extracted hongo from the Arab slavers …
(Obama's Kenyan family hated Kenyatta, a Kikuyu who withheld the blessings of crony capitalism from the Obamas' Luo tribe.)
Theodore Dalrymple, who practiced medicine in Africa in the 1970s, offers a more sympathetic appraisal of the burdens of being a Big Man:The young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family … and people from their village, tribe, and province.
... Similarly, when the dictator Ellelloû visits the French colonial villa that his first and most traditional wife, the equivalent of Obama Sr.‘s Kezia, had seized and which was now populated by an entire village of his extended family from the Salu tribe, Updike explains (in a couple of sentences more convoluted than even Obama can produce):Nephews, daughters-in-law, totem brothers, sisters by second wives of half-uncles greeted Ellelloû, and all in that ironical jubilant voice implying what a fine rich joke, he, a Salu, had imposed upon the alien tribes in becoming the chief of this nation imagined by the white men, and thereby potentially appropriating all its spoils to their family use. For there lay no doubt, in the faces of these his relatives … that nothing the world could offer Ellelloû to drink, no nectar nor elixir, would compare with the love he had siphoned from their pool of common blood.
Dalrymple points out that the ever-increasing number of relatives a Big Man is supposed to support explains "… the paradox that strikes so many visitors to Africa: the evident decency, kindness, and dignity of the ordinary people, and the fathomless iniquity, dishonesty, and ruthlessness of the politicians and administrators."
“Dr.” Obama loved to play the Big Man. His son Sayid recounted to Barack Jr.: “You know, your father was very popular in these parts. Also in Alego. Whenever he came home, he would buy everyone drinks and stay out very late. The people here appreciated this. They would tell him, ‘You are a big man, but you have not forgotten us.’” [pp. 389-390]
When Obama Jr. finally visits Africa around his 27th birthday, his emotions, as described in his Dreams from My Father, are much like Ellelloû's:
Obama’s first trip to Kenya (apparently in 1988, before he began Harvard Law School) got off to an angry start, what with all the white people he kept running into.
Initially, he stopped off for a three-week tour of the cultural wonders of Europe that left him psychologically devastated: "And by the end of the first week or so, I realized that I'd made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I'd imagined it. It just wasn’t mine." [pp. 301-302]
Then, on the flight to Nairobi, he sat next to a young English geologist who was continuing on to work in the mines of apartheid South Africa. The Englishman insulted Obama’s racial dignity by rationalizing his trip to that international pariah with this simple comparison: "The blacks in South Africa aren’t starving to death like they do in some of these Godforsaken countries. Don’t envy them, mind you, but compared to some poor bugger in Ethiopia—"
After his unwelcome seatmate falls asleep, Obama starts to read a book, most likely David Lamb‘s bestseller The Africans, the 1983 book by the Los Angeles Time's Nairobi correspondent, which Obama describes as “a portrait of several African countries written by a Western journalist who’d spent a decade in Africa; an old Africa hand, he would be called, someone who apparently prided himself on the balanced assessment.” But the picture that emerges of Africa freed from Europe’s control—“Famine, disease, the coups and countercoups led by illiterate young men wielding AK-47s …”—leaves Obama too irate and humiliated to read more of this white man’s book about the results of misrule by Obama’s black brethren."I set the book down, feeling a familiar anger flush through me, an anger all the more maddening for its lack of a clear target. Beside me the young Brit was snoring softly now … Was I angry at him? I wondered. Was it his fault that, for all my education, all the theories in my possession, I had had no ready answers to the questions he’d posed?" [pp. 300-301]
As always in Dreams, the central conundrum is his racial identity, “my own uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.” The quiet rage that flows through Dreams stems from Obama having invested his sense of self-worth in the identity his mother had chosen for him as a black race man, exacerbated by his gnawing suspicion that the multiculturalist conventional wisdom taught him by his mother, his professors, and his beloved Black History Month documentaries is increasingly obsolete. His inability to wholly exterminate the quiet voice of crimethink inside his head, to reassure himself that the failures of blacks in the late 20th Century can be blamed solely on white racism only spurs him to redouble his efforts to win personal political power to help in his people’s struggle.
Upon arrival, Obama tours Nairobi with his half-sister Auma, who teaches German at the university. At the marketplace, surrounded only by blacks, Obama finds a moment of peace, free at last from “white people’s scorn.” In this de facto segregated environment, Obama reflects,You could see a man talking to himself as just plain crazy, or read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate. Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal. [p. 311]
At the restaurant of the ritzy New Stanley Hotel, however, Obama Jr. experiences the same outrage as his father 23 years before, who complained in his anti-capitalist article, “when one goes to a good restaurant he mostly finds Asians and Europeans …” Obama Jr. writes, sounding very much like Updike's tourist-phobic Ellelloû:They were everywhere—Germans, Japanese, British, Americans … In Hawaii, when we were still kids, my friends and I had laughed at tourists like these, with their sunburns and their pale, skinny legs, basking in the glow of our obvious superiority. Here in Africa, though, the tourists didn’t seem so funny. I felt them as an encroachment, somehow; I found their innocence vaguely insulting. It occurred to me that in their utter lack of self-consciousness, they were expressing a freedom that neither Auma nor I could ever experience, a bedrock confidence in their own parochialism, a confidence reserved for those born into imperial cultures. [p. 312]
Likewise, when Ellelloû discovers tour buses from Komomo's Zanj (Updike's fictionalized stand-in for Kenyatta's Kenya) are crossing the border into his xenophobic and impoverished Marxist Islamic state, he rants that Komomo "was flooding my purified, penniless but proud country with animalistic buses stuffed full of third-echelon Chou Shmoes, German shutterbugs, British spinsters, bargain-seeking Bulgarians, curious Danes, Italian archaeologists, and trip-crazed American collegians bribed by their soused and adulterous parents to get out of the house and let capitalism collapse in peace …”
Obama and his sister are outraged when the black waiter gives quicker service to the white Americans sitting nearby. Auma complains, “That’s why Kenya, no matter what its GNP, no matter how many things you can buy here, the rest of Africa laughs. It’s the whore of Africa, Barack. It opens its legs to anyone who can pay.” Auma's accusation is a less colorful version of Ellelloû's denunciation of Komomo's Zanj as “decked out in the transparent pantaloons of neo-colonialist harlotry.”
Obama reflects on his half-sister’s outburst:I suspected she was right … Did our waiter know that black rule had come? Did it mean anything to him? Maybe once, I thought to myself. He would be old enough to remember independence, the shouts of “Uhuru!” and the raising of new flags. But such memories may seem almost fantastic to him now, distant and naive. He’s learned that the same people who controlled the land before independence still control the same land … And if you say to him that he’s serving the interests of neocolonialism or some other such thing, he will reply that yes, he will serve if that is what’s required. It is the lucky ones who serve; the unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs; many will drown. [pp. 314-315]Lamb points out in The Africans:Under [Kenyatta] a generation grew up accepting peace and possible economic gain as a normal part of life. Its members had only to look across Kenya‘s border to what the alternatives were. Ethiopia and Uganda were wracked by bloody chaos, socialistic Tanzania was stagnating, and Marxist Somalia was slipping backward. Only Kenya had come close to fulfilling the promises of independence.
Crucially, Kenyatta and Mboya accepted a high level of white and Asian participation in the Kenyan economy. Lamb writes:What had Kenyatta done differently than other African presidents? Almost everything. While Zaire’s Mobutu was chasing away the whites, expropriating their plantations and businesses, Kenyatta had been encouraging Kenya‘s whites to stay because they had the technical and managerial skills that Africans had not yet learned. The result was that Kenya operated far more efficiently than most African countries, and foreign investment and tourists from the West have poured into the country, providing great economic stimulus. ...
In Dreams, Obama cribs Lamb‘s assessment, but puts his own sour spin on it, sounding like Updike‘s Ellelloû on Valium:[Kenyatta] had immediately assured whites who were busy packing their bags that businesses would not be nationalized, that landholdings would be kept intact, so long as the black man controlled the apparatus of government. Kenya became the West’s most stalwart pupil in Africa, a model of stability, a useful contrast to the chaos of Uganda, the failed socialism of Tanzania. [p. 312] ...
As far as I can tell, no reporter has ever asked Obama if he has read Updike's satire. It would be surprising if Obama hadn’t started it, considering that The Coup spent 15 weeks on the bestseller list when Obama was 17 and its subject matter is extraordinarily relevant to his life. He may not have finished The Coup, though, just as he found Lamb's The Africans too truthful to endure. In fact, Dreams sometimes reads like Obama’s response to The Coup: not so much a parody of a parody as a de-satirized satire. Dreams often seems like The Coup if Ellelloû didn’t have Updike's sense of humor.
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