Robinson on Carotenuto and Luongo, 'Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging'

Matthew Carotenuto, Katherine Luongo
Marsha R. Robinson

Matthew Carotenuto, Katherine Luongo. Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging. Ohio University Research in International Studies Global Series. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016. 240 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-300-8; $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-89680-299-5.

Reviewed by Marsha R. Robinson (Miami University Middletown) Published on H-FedHist (August, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

In the near future when the increasingly quantitative fields of history and ethnography intersect more frequently with the field of discreet mathematics, this book will be a prime example of world history modeled on Sylvester or Peterson graphs as opposed to Hamiltonian ones. Until then, we can relax and follow Matthew Carotenuto and Katherine Luongo’s comparison of US and Kenyan histories of race, identity, and political marginalization from their chosen node in linear time framed by the rise of Barack Obama to the US Senate and presidency and the rise of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The entry node to this history is President Obama while the catalyst is Tom Mboya, a Pan-Africanist during the independence era who influenced the fathers of both of these heads of state.

Carotenuto and Luongo’s bibliography is impressive for its inclusion of primary sources (interviews, Kenyan and US newspapers, material culture, and photographs) and for its homage to Bethwell Ogot. It is also notable for its absence of two pillars of the foundational African studies narrative of Kenyan history: Vincent Khapoya and Ali Mazrui. This is a Luo history presented for audiences in and beyond the borders of Kenya.

When introducing this book to undergraduates, instructors should open the discussion by exploring Obama’s rare privilege to witness his own historical objectification in the US immigration history narrative. It is true that Obama—community activist, senator, and president—lives as a black person in the United States, enduring the political and social keloids of racism that attach to almost all Africans in the United States as a legacy of the shackles of slavery. It is also true that newer African Americans benefit from a political state of grace earned by slaves’ descendants in the civil rights movement that continues to this day. The reality of Obama’s patriline and matriline suggests that it is whiggish history to reduce his historical significance to the African American context. President Obama’s 2015 visit to Kenya is similar to that of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 visit to Ireland in that both reflected on their transatlantic heritages. Carotenuto and Luongo’s argument about some Kenyans’ celebration of Obama’s paternity is perhaps closer to that of John F. Kennedy’s election as a historical object that provided political validation of the Irish Catholic population that was formerly oppressed in earlier US history. This narrative, rather than the narrative of the African American struggle for civil rights, opens the window for understanding the arguments and structure of this book. The challenge for a US-centered or even an Afrocentric reader is the authors’ insistence that the US definition of race and power fractures when the Kenyan perspective is introduced.

Carotenuto and Luongo’s book is situated in 2008 classrooms, “history buff” commentaries, and documentary biographies of Obama that were “simplified and boldly inaccurate narratives about Kenya’s past and present” (p. 1). They guide students to the transnational context by describing the November 3, 2004, Election Day party at the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, where US Ambassador William Mark Bellamy greeted Raila Odinga just after CNN announced that Illinois State Senator Obama won a US Senate seat. “Obamamania” was born (pp. 10-14). To their credit, Carotenuto and Luongo admit that in this book they diminish or reduce Obama from a living person to an object of history when they invert the American story by focusing on the story about Obama as told in Kenya. In Kenya, he is the son of a Luo intellectual. The marginalization of his Luo ethnic group was not the product of slavery but a conscious choice of the Luo to cooperate with the British colonizers whereas the Kikuyu chose to resist. After independence, patronage benefits fell to the Kikuyu ethnic group under Jomo Kenyatta’s leadership and to the Kelenjin ethnic group under Daniel Arap Moi. Carotenuto and Luongo provide ample evidence that while skin color defines a marginalized population in the United States, it does not create unity in Kenya.

They do so in several chapters, carrying the reader between the Kenyan and US contexts of President Obama as a node in a transnational history. The first chapter, “Discovering Obama in Kenya,” explains to a US audience Obamamania and the appropriation of him in the media and in the marketplaces. The next chapter, “Representations of Kenya: Myth and Reality,” explains to Kenyan audiences the image of Kenya in the United States as the land of the great white hunters like Theodore Roosevelt. The third chapter brings both audiences to a common lesson by using the lineage of the Obama family as a linear connection to eras of Luo history, ranging from their migration from the Nile River Valley, to the establishment of a Luo nation in precolonial times, to intentional efforts to retain Luo culture during the colonial era, through the time of being in a nation in the throes of liberation and the present era as a free nation. The next common lesson is the promise and fear of Obama as a shared historical experience for some in both nations. In the fourth and fifth chapters, the ethnic groups accustomed to holding power based on white skin color in the United States or on ethnic identity in Kenya experience the empowerment of a minority population. In the sixth chapter, political violence in Kenya is discussed as a product of this political shift. The fifth and seventh chapters explore expectations of patronage and disappointments in the United States and in Kenya that this son of Africa was not a “big man” patronage politician. I wish this book included information about the 2010 Kenyan Constitution that institutionalized, at least on paper, Kenya’s rise above the destructive tribalism that colonizers encouraged in pre-independence political culture.

Placing this book in a reading list that includes Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s Barack Obama and African Diasporas: Dialogues and Dissensions (2009) and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995) should produce an interesting conversation in black and white about transnational intersections of race, power, and identity. To advance the conversation, one must inform students that Kenya and the United States have citizens whose lineages connect to Asia, Europe, other parts of Africa, Oceania, and South America. To focus on only two or three ethnic groups in either nation is reductive and oversimplified. Perhaps, as we become less dependent on a single or double linear narrative and more comfortable with Sylvester’s or Peterson’s spherical representations of intersections and nodes we can write more inclusive and less abstract national and transnational histories. Until then, Carotenuto and Luongo’s Obama and Kenya is a useful text for training students in simultaneous histories that complicate our understanding of the deeper historical context of our present world. 

Printable Version:

Citation: Marsha R. Robinson. Review of Carotenuto, Matthew; Luongo, Katherine, Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL:

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