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The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father

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Barack Obama Sr., father of the American president, was part of Africa's "independence generation" and in 1959 it seemed his star would shine brightly. He came to the U.S. from Kenya and was given a university scholarship. While in the Hawaii, he met Ann Dunham in 1961, and his son Barack was born. He left his young family to gain a master's degree from Harvard.After that, Barack Obama Sr., father of the American president, was part of Africa's "independence generation" and in 1959 it seemed his star would shine brightly. He came to the U.S. from Kenya and was given a university scholarship. While in the Hawaii, he met Ann Dunham in 1961, and his son Barack was born. He left his young family to gain a master's degree from Harvard.After that, Obama's life became progressively more complicated. He was a brilliant economist, yet never held the coveted government job he felt should have been his. He was a polygamist, an alcoholic, and an ardent African nationalist unafraid to tell truth to power at a time when that could get you killed. Father of eight, nurturer of none, he was an unlikely person to father the first African American president of the United States. Yet he was, like that son, a man moved by the dream of a better world. Now, thanks to dozens of exclusive new interviews, prodigious research, and determined investigation, Sally Jacobs tells his full story.


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Barack Obama Sr., father of the American president, was part of Africa's "independence generation" and in 1959 it seemed his star would shine brightly. He came to the U.S. from Kenya and was given a university scholarship. While in the Hawaii, he met Ann Dunham in 1961, and his son Barack was born. He left his young family to gain a master's degree from Harvard.After that, Barack Obama Sr., father of the American president, was part of Africa's "independence generation" and in 1959 it seemed his star would shine brightly. He came to the U.S. from Kenya and was given a university scholarship. While in the Hawaii, he met Ann Dunham in 1961, and his son Barack was born. He left his young family to gain a master's degree from Harvard.After that, Obama's life became progressively more complicated. He was a brilliant economist, yet never held the coveted government job he felt should have been his. He was a polygamist, an alcoholic, and an ardent African nationalist unafraid to tell truth to power at a time when that could get you killed. Father of eight, nurturer of none, he was an unlikely person to father the first African American president of the United States. Yet he was, like that son, a man moved by the dream of a better world. Now, thanks to dozens of exclusive new interviews, prodigious research, and determined investigation, Sally Jacobs tells his full story.

30 review for The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father

  1. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    Sally Jacobs has done an impressive job in bringing together material on the life of Barack Obama, Sr. and describing the history of modern Kenya. The author relies on extensive interviews (there is 7 page list of interviewees in the bibliography), and has sifted through considerable material in the public record. There are several pages of well selected photos. It seems that President inherited his intelligence and charm from the father he hardly knew; however, Barack Obama Sr. also had loud, ru Sally Jacobs has done an impressive job in bringing together material on the life of Barack Obama, Sr. and describing the history of modern Kenya. The author relies on extensive interviews (there is 7 page list of interviewees in the bibliography), and has sifted through considerable material in the public record. There are several pages of well selected photos. It seems that President inherited his intelligence and charm from the father he hardly knew; however, Barack Obama Sr. also had loud, rude and impulsive side to his personality and his son is quite the opposite. Had the 44th President of the United States lived with his father his life would have begun with turmoil and insecurity. In the classic debate on nature vs. nurture as predictors of success, the contrast in life stories of the 44th president of the US and his father, clearly points to the influence of nurture. Obama Sr. came from an abusive home life and, despite a good education, opportunity and travel, he became a domestic abuser too. His bravado and his abuse of alcohol and women appear to be devises to mask his insecurity and to pump up his self-esteem. He sees people he considers less talented rise in the new Kenya. While he seems to be clueless, his life has a predictable downward spiral. There are many interesting aspects to this story, a few being Obama, Sr.'s interface with Americans. First is the devotion of his mentor, Elizabeth Mooney. Next is Obama, Sr.'s friendship with Neil Abercrombie, Hawaii's current governor. Third is how the US Department of State kept watch over student visa holders in the 1960's which thoroughly contrasts with the supervision of the 9/11 hijackers. Fourth, and most striking, is the contrast in how Obama's American in-laws accepted their daughters' marriages and their part African grandsons. (I presume this was a major factor in Ruth Baker's return to Kenya to try to start anew with her husband and Ann Dunham's refusal.) This book adds to (and does not duplicate) the work of Janny Scott in "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother" and P. L. Firstbrook in "The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family". Like the others, this book is a only start at piecing together the lives of this extraordinary family. There is more work for future researchers/biographers of this family and particularly, Obama Sr. What is reason the Obamas never lived together in Hawaii? What of the address on the birth announcement? Ann Obama's trip to Seattle seems unusual in that she planned to go to Boston. In Kenya, what, exactly, did he do at these jobs that allowed him to leave the office for most of the day? Knowing how Obama Sr. supported himself through his jobless years including his trip to Hawaii and his considerable drinking habit could provide more info on his friends and family and perhaps clues about his suspicious death. Hopefully, many years hence, the letters he wrote to his son will be public. The man honored in "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance", surely got a pass from his son. Perhaps Barack Obama, Jr. did not know the depths of his father's abandonment of him and his mother.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Murray

    In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy wherein a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person themselves. The audience, witnessing the suffering, feels a catharsis, a kind of satisfaction and peace. This biography is subtitled “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. Bold and reckless does truly describe the “other” Barack Obama, Sr. Look at his picture on the har In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy wherein a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person themselves. The audience, witnessing the suffering, feels a catharsis, a kind of satisfaction and peace. This biography is subtitled “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. Bold and reckless does truly describe the “other” Barack Obama, Sr. Look at his picture on the hardback cover; that wide, inviting smile, pipe between his teeth, the stylish haircut, those black-rimmed glasses accentuating a well-modeled face with high cheekbones, glasses that reflect light seemingly emanating from the man himself. “Baraka” means “Blessing” in Arabic and he was born blessed. In the words of his own father, Obama was “winyo Piiny Kiborne” which translates, “for the bird, the world is never too far.” As the firstborn son in a patrilineal culture of the Luo Tribe in Eastern Kenya, Obama was treated to the best the rural African village could offer. His father, Onyango, was a man whose criticism and punishment Obama had to contend with all his life, a harsh patriarch who walked 220 miles by foot to school (he became fluent in English and Swahili) and ended up a house servant for a “muzungo” (white) household in Nairobi. Barack Sr’s story unfolds along with the dynamic history of 20th century Africa. It is told in an objective, well-researched way by Sally Jacobs, by all accounts a fair-minded, masterful journalist. The author has a list of imposing credentials that match her rendition of Obama’s vista, bigger than any epic tale. In her preface, Jacobs describes how, after writing short superficial pieces about the newly elected president’s father in 2008 for the Boston Globe, she determined to research and write a substantive piece. She details all the obstruction she ran into during her research from the president’s huge, far-flung African family (he has many African siblings). Unlike the chorus of a Greek tragedy, the African Obamas did not speak with one voice, though three have written books about their experiences. Jacobs does a masterful job of presenting the family’s conflicting versions of their life (or otherwise) with Obama Senior. No one disputes Barack’s great determination, probing intellect, and drive to succeed; and yet there was also his blindness, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, and unchecked alcoholism. For a native boy from Africa, growing up in the 1940s, Barak Obama Sr. did the nearly impossible and he knew it. He was the first African student at the University of Hawaii where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He was one of only 81 African students at Harvard, where black students made up only 1%. Over-confident, argumentative, he pursued his aims at any cost. A classy dresser, superb dancer, with a deep sonorous baritone that no one could ignore, he charmed, seduced, abandoned and abused women. Jacobs emphasizes that as an African man from Kenya, Obama was often merely following the cultural norms; “it was natural for a man to collect many women and to engage sexually with them all.” Leaving Harvard against his will, where he was not allowed to complete his studies, he came home in 1964 just eight months after Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule. In his speeches at the University of Hawaii, he had spoken of an autonomous Kenya where the white colonial system would be replaced with a land that supported Africans with economic justice for all (he majored in Economics); Barack Sr. did not find his dream when he returned to Kenya. Instead he walked into tribal animosity and betrayal, light years away from the Africa he had left six years before. So much promise. So many opportunities. It’s fascinating to see him engage and then stumble away. There were the multitudinous sins of omission--his children never knew him and were too frightened to get close to him; three of his four long-suffering wives--two Caucasian, two African--divorced him. Othello has his jealousy; Oedipus his blindness, the other Obama had his addition but more than that, even at the end, he was shrouded in recklessness and mystery. Somehow there’s a catharsis in that.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Scot

    A fascinating and thorough look at the life of Barack Obama's Kenyan father, also named Barack Obama. The Obama of this book's focus is incredibly talented and ambitious--but also arrogant and ultimately, sadly self-absorbed, his tumultuous life a long, spiraling descent into the depths where alcoholism, unacknowledged and unabated, can take anyone. This other, earlier Barack had a troubled relationship and interaction with his own father, another person of great talent and social climbing status A fascinating and thorough look at the life of Barack Obama's Kenyan father, also named Barack Obama. The Obama of this book's focus is incredibly talented and ambitious--but also arrogant and ultimately, sadly self-absorbed, his tumultuous life a long, spiraling descent into the depths where alcoholism, unacknowledged and unabated, can take anyone. This other, earlier Barack had a troubled relationship and interaction with his own father, another person of great talent and social climbing status among his own Luo people. Learning the cultural practices and accepted norms of the Luo people during the British colonial period--and how President Obama's grandfather challenged them--offered a context to assess the changing world his father experienced. Jacobs does a very commendable job of helping the reader understand the political intricacies and status jockeying going on the Kenyan experience of President Obama's father, how he was in the right place at the right time (and possessed the extraordinary charisma needed) to be one of the lucky ones able to go to America for university education. Both this man and his world famous son went to Harvard for a graduate school experience that would shape their future paths and opportunities. For me, ultimately, the story of this "other Barack" is a moral lesson about discipline, humility, and thinking of the good of others before yourself. Sometimes charisma, alone, is not enough. Now I also have a strong sense, though, of where our Chief Executive got his Al Greene song styling ability and the dance moves he briefly demonstrated once on the Ellen show. This other Barack might have burned his candle at both ends a little too long--but man, I bet that candle could sizzle on those early 60s dance floors.

  4. 4 out of 5

    B

    Turned out to be an interesting read...Barack Obama Senior was a complex character with both good and (very) bad qualities and the tumulteous history of Kenya after liberation from colonization was fascinating as well.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    An intriguing biography of Obama Sr.'s four decades alive. This is a well-researched book especially about the scene surrounding Kenya's early years after independence. I particularly enjoyed following the politics and social life that shaped what Kenya came to be and Obama's role in it. An intriguing biography of Obama Sr.'s four decades alive. This is a well-researched book especially about the scene surrounding Kenya's early years after independence. I particularly enjoyed following the politics and social life that shaped what Kenya came to be and Obama's role in it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Theresa

    The other bookend to "A Singular Woman". A superbly talented man at a time of great opportunity in Kenya. Sadly, alcoholism frustrated his ambition. A fascinating read. The other bookend to "A Singular Woman". A superbly talented man at a time of great opportunity in Kenya. Sadly, alcoholism frustrated his ambition. A fascinating read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Stephan

    The hectic life and death of President Obama's father. Overall, it's a good read, however I got lost more than a few times due to the constant name dropping of anyone and everyone who was around Obama Sr and their backstory. The hectic life and death of President Obama's father. Overall, it's a good read, however I got lost more than a few times due to the constant name dropping of anyone and everyone who was around Obama Sr and their backstory.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Wilhelmina

    An exceptional history on the life of President Obama's father. An exceptional history on the life of President Obama's father.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Neil Mudde

    An interesting story, obviously well researche, since a lot of the cast is still alive. There is a lot of data about family members, several wives, several children etc.. From the story it appears that the Presidents Father was a brilliant man, on the road to a successful career in whatever career he chose, his life was filled with demons, alcohol being the worst of it, it ended up taking his life. It is a major credit to the life of President Obama that he became president, since anyone in poli An interesting story, obviously well researche, since a lot of the cast is still alive. There is a lot of data about family members, several wives, several children etc.. From the story it appears that the Presidents Father was a brilliant man, on the road to a successful career in whatever career he chose, his life was filled with demons, alcohol being the worst of it, it ended up taking his life. It is a major credit to the life of President Obama that he became president, since anyone in politics has its past scoured and researched with a fine tooth comb, especially a black person. It is a sad story, but something that had to be told, as god knows they are still checking to see if they can discredit him for perhaps not bein an American citizen.....

  10. 4 out of 5

    Roger Smitter

    Sally Jacobs provides an engaging narrative of the life of the father of our president. The strong narrative theme doesn’t provide much room for analysis of Barak Sr. The early passages supply an accessible history of the transition of Kenya from a colony to sovereign country. We learn about the early leaders of Kenya, with a focus on their failed potential to turn a colony into a regional leader. One takeaway is that sometimes the best thing a father can do is to provide good genes to his offsp Sally Jacobs provides an engaging narrative of the life of the father of our president. The strong narrative theme doesn’t provide much room for analysis of Barak Sr. The early passages supply an accessible history of the transition of Kenya from a colony to sovereign country. We learn about the early leaders of Kenya, with a focus on their failed potential to turn a colony into a regional leader. One takeaway is that sometimes the best thing a father can do is to provide good genes to his offspring and then get out of the way.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Glenn

    This is a very well-researched, well-written account of the President's father and his tumultuous life. It's fascinating and painful to read about his sometimes-brilliant but ultimately sad life. An exceptional student, he had the potential to be a large and powerful force in the newly independent Kenya in the early 1960s. But his personal troubles -- largely his excessive drinking and sharp tongue -- doomed him to a frustrated, stalled career. This is a very well-researched, well-written account of the President's father and his tumultuous life. It's fascinating and painful to read about his sometimes-brilliant but ultimately sad life. An exceptional student, he had the potential to be a large and powerful force in the newly independent Kenya in the early 1960s. But his personal troubles -- largely his excessive drinking and sharp tongue -- doomed him to a frustrated, stalled career.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    The 2 stars are for a potentially fascinating story. The rest are for some pretty horrifying basic writing/editing that left me with a feeling that hurling this onto shelves to make a quick election season buck was the primary goal. I read this for work.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Palacio

    Great book, I enjoyed it. Very. Informative. I especially like how the author addresses the African tribal differences. The costumes, re: dating white women, all well research. And the great, tragic life of Obama sr. The moder African culture comes alive.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Corey Holmes

    I am sadden what a vice can do to impede potential.....This man was great put few people outside of Kenya know it...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Janet

    Great read

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Interesting read. Barack Obama Sr is the forgotten parent and this gives some idea to what kind of person he was although he was a marginal influence on his famous son.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Eugene

    An outstanding bio of the President's father. An outstanding bio of the President's father.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn

    timeline was a bit confusing at times, but it was obviously well researched.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Richard Martin

    Outstanding research, marred by poor editing and clunky, repetitive prose.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis

  21. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Mount

  22. 4 out of 5

    Teri

  23. 4 out of 5

    Terry

  24. 5 out of 5

    Josiah

  25. 5 out of 5

    Christine Mungai

  26. 4 out of 5

    Marina

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cathy Madigan

  29. 4 out of 5

    Derrick Adang'

  30. 4 out of 5

    Carla

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