Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama, African Food and "Authenticity"

I was deeply impressed by Barack Obama from the moment I saw him deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. My opinion of him only grew after I read his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."

A passage involving food (yes, this is a food blog) in the book's epilogue to me sums up him and his philosophy.

Obama is about to leave Kenya when his relatives take him to dinner at the home of a history professor. They eat tilapia and ugali after which the professor asks Obama his impressions of Kenya. Obama comments that he thinks many black Americans who visit Africa come away disappointed. Why do you think that is? he asks the professor:

She shook her head and smiled. "Because they come here looking for the authentic," she said. "Look at this this meal we are eating. Many people will tell you that the Luo are a fish-eating people. But that was not true for all Luo. Only those who lived by the lake. And for those Luo, it was not always true. Before they settled around the lake, they were pastoralists, like the Masai. Now, if you and and your sister behave yourself and eat a proper share of this food, I will offer you tea. Kenyans are very boastful the quality of their tea, you notice. But of course we got this habit from the English. Our ancestors did not drink such a thing. Then there's the spices we used to cook the fish. They originally came from India or Indonesia. So even in this simple meal, you will find it very difficult to be authentic -- although the meal is certainly African."
Later she says of the younger generation:
"They live in a mixed-up world. It's just as well. In the end, I'm less interested in a daughter who's authentically African than one who is authentically herself."
Like the food they ate, Obama is a mixture of cultures and influences, indeed like America itself. And he is authentically himself, which I would argue is authentically American. After all, there is nothing more American than inventing or reinventing yourself and Obama's unusual and complicated background forced him to do just that -- very successfully, I would add.

But this passage illustrates more than just Obama's personal journal. It also underscores his core message, infusing his rhetoric and, hopefully, his policies. There is no such thing as cultural or ethnic "authenticity," at least in the sense of purity uninfluenced by the outside world. We are, the world is, E Pluribis Unum, out of many one.

If we can remember that, the next four years are certain to be a huge improvement over the last eight. And if the world could learn this lesson -- Muslims and Jews for example, share the same origins and many of the same stories in their holy books -- it would be far better off. Let us hope that it happens.

Godspeed to President Barack Obama.

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