Kvelling Over Obama: Kwame Anthony Appiah on the President’s Roots

Kvelling Over Obama: Kwame Anthony Appiah on the President’s Roots

I knew Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Princeton philosopher, was smart. But I didn’t realize he knew so much about Judaism–or at least about the etymology of the Yiddish word "kvelling." Do you know it? Well here’s what Appiah says about the word in his excellent review of a new book about President Obama’s absent Kenyan father: "that wonderful Yiddish word," Appiah says of "kvell," is "derived from the German Quelle, a spring, which gives just the right sense of gushing with pleasure."

And why the disquisition?

Because Appiah says kvelling is what Obama’s African family, including his Kenyan aunt, the sister of his long-dead father, has every right to do, especially since she makes $2 a day selling charcoal in a rural village, while her nephew made a cool $1.7 million last year–oh, and is president of the United States of America. Or as Appiah writes himself: Obama’s aunt "Hawa Auma—who makes perhaps two dollars a day selling charcoal—may not be rich in the things of this world, but she can kvell over the fact that she is the aunt of the most powerful man in the world."

I read Appiah’s review last night, after a print copy of the New York Review of Books landed in my mailbox Tuesday night. That means the article was written well before yesterday’s big news: that Obama was (unbelievably!) born in the United States. But the book under review–"The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family" by a documentary filmmaker, Peter Firstbrook–actually had nothing to do with the "birther" movement. According to Appiah’s review, it was simply an earnest journalist’s attempt to learn more about the African family of our president.

The quick story: our president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kenyan when it was still under British colonial rule. Charming and intelligent, he had already had two wives in Kenya when he got a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii. There he fell in with our president’s mother, Ann Dunham. He married her, impregnated her with Barack Jr., then absconded to graduate school at Harvard. That year, 1964, Barack Sr. and Ann filed for divorce, and he would soon marry another woman in Cambridge, Mass.–"Ruth Nidesand, a teacher of Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry" Appiah tells us. "A year later, he gave up his doctoral studies and returned home."

Not such a great idea. When Barack Sr. went back to Africa, a newly independent Kenya was in the throes of a civil war. Barack Sr., who many believe had the intelligence and charisma to have a prominent role in the new nation’s government–not unlike his son actually did here–took to the bottle. Amidst the chaos of war, he never found a steady government job, and instead would go on drunken rampages at various Kenyan nightclubs. He got fired from numerous jobs, would berate his African wife and son, and eventually killed himself in car crash, driving while drunk.

Meanwhile, his American son, the man who would become our president, knew none of this. In his memoir "Dreams From My Father," President Obama says he remembers being visiting by his father only once, in 1971, when Barack Jr. was ten. But while Jr.’s knowledge of his biological father is dim, Appiah’s review suggests the president is better off not knowing about him at all.

As Appiah writes: "Learning what President Obama’s father was like hardly makes one feel that our president would have been better off if Barack Obama Sr. had stuck around. Indeed, the son’s isolation from his father and grandfather—and his immersion in his mother’s happier and much more helpful family—must be part of what explains the contrasts between his persona and theirs."

Appiah continues: President Obama "is inclined to caution and self-restraint; [his father and grandfather] tended to be impulsive. He is slow to anger; they ignited like flash paper. They were men who desired many women and honored none; the President’s marriage seems a model of love and respect. What the three generations of Obama men have in common is intelligence, charm, ambition, and pride. But no doubt his Dunham ancestors could lay claim to those traits, too."

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