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The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family Hardcover – February 8, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The most famous family in Kenya—and, indeed, the world—provides the context for exploring the broader history of that nation as documentary filmmaker Firstbrook explores the Obama family legacy. He draws on academic historical research as well as oral history and interviews to trace Barack Obama’s family history back 23 generations. Part of the Luo, the second largest tribe in Kenya (following the Kikuyu), the Obama family traversed through several ancestral lands before religion (some were Seventh-Day Adventists, and others were Muslims) and distance separated them into the towns of Kendu Bay and K’ogelo. He highlights Obama’s paternal grandfather, Onyango, who traveled beyond the ancestral lands, prospered, fought in two world wars, and witnessed bloody revolt against British colonialism as well as Kenyan independence. His son, Barack, similarly restless and ambitious, was educated in Hawaii (where he met President Obama’s mother) and the continental U.S. before returning home to continue straddling tribal tradition and the demands of modern Western culture. Obama senior was critical of the government and friendly with Tom Mboya, an activist, who was killed during the Jomo Kenyatta administration, adding to suspicion later when Obama was killed in a car accident. Enhanced with maps and photographs, this is an epic look at the history of a nation and a family. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The story of Barack Obama’s Kenyan roots, this title is the product of dozens of interviews with Obama’s African relatives, presented by the first person to trace Obama’s family history back 400 years and 23 generations. --Vanessa Bush


"Not only does [Firstbrook's] book dig where other researchers have failed to look, but it also provides a compelling narrative about a place, a tribe, and the difficulties of uniting humanity across boundaries...A contemporary family detective story, with Firstbrook as the guide and eventually the answer man to questions directly related to the Obama family. In fact, Firstbrook may now know more about Obama’s roots than does the president himself."
—Steve Weinberg, Christian Science Monitor
"Like few others in modern history, President Barack Hussein Obama has been dissected within every fiber of his DNA. The Obamas stands apart by literally finding where the President comes from."
"Firstbrook is a first-rate storyteller."
USA Today

"Firstbrook is nothing if not intrepid...It is not what happened in America that is the point of this assiduous book, which will surely be helpful to future Obama scholars. It is the telling of the story of a large and extended African family that has played a significant and unforgettable role in history across two continents."
Washington Post

"Sharply etched portraits of the president's grandfather Hussein Onyango and his father, Barack Sr.—as well as many living aunts, uncles, and cousins—help bring the periods of British colonialism and Kenyan independence into focus...A sweeping, six-century saga of tribal Africa."
—Douglas Gorney,

"Lively, sweeping, grand, horrifying, and occasionally funny; a historical biography of a continent, a way of life, a people and, somewhere along the way, the Leader of the Free World...Though some tales will make you gulp, he also entertains readers with cultural explanations, imaginative scenarios, hypothetical situations, and small anecdotes. I enjoyed that, partly for the way Firstbrook presents the information and partly for its relevance in today’s world, as compared to yesterday’s way of life...For the curious, or anyone who just loves a great story, “The Obamas” deserves a closer look.” —Terri Schlichenmeyer, (Joliet, Ill.)

"Fascinating and carefully researched."
Hemispheres magazine

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (February 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307591409
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307591401
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #597,269 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on March 31, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I've heard it said that the best way to get your family genealogy prepared is to run for a high public office. It's been published (true?) that on his mother's side President Obama is distant kin to Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. Here is a genealogy for his father. It is not a recitation of names and dates and places. It tells the fascinating story of the President's African family and places it within the history of the Luo tribe and the development of what we know today as Kenya.

Firstbrook begins on the night of the President's inauguration in K'obama where three TVs (one brought in by wheel barrow) and generators to run them are set up for an outdoor communal watch. He then takes you through the migrations that brought the Obamas to western Kenya and eventually to the place they call "Home Square".

You learn that both father and grandfather were high achievers for their place and time and that both were both temperamental. It is not a fact, but the implication is there, that Obama's birth grandmother left Obama's grandfather because she feared for her life. The frequently seen presidential grandmother Sarah is not "the" grandmother, but "a" grandmother... the one who raised Barak Hussein Obama, Sr. when his birth mother fled. You learn why Sarah lives in K'ogelo and not K'obama.

The huge extended family is described and there are examples of their daily lives and the type of arguments that have torn them apart. Many are Seventh Day Adventists; others followed President Obama's grandfather to Islam. Raised a Muslim, Obama's father claimed no religion as an adult.

Hussein (a name he selected upon conversion to Islam) Onyango Obama, the President's grandfather, was educated and influenced by the British.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By churley on February 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is a must read for every American as evidence that no matter what your background, through hard work and education, every citizen has the opportunity to become President of the United States. In what can truly be called the "prequel" to Obama's own "Dreams of My Father", author Peter Firstbrook completes the journey of a family from the obscurity of central Africa to the most powerful office in the world. Although it is the story of an African family, it is, in reality, the story of the American Dream.
It begins the night of Obama's inauguration. Firstbrook paints a picture of the President's relatives in a remote village in western Kenya gathering to watch the historic event on television. He talks about people walking for miles, the lack of a television or a generator. Finally, televisions and generators arrive, some by wheelbarrow, and 500 relatives settle in to celebrate. Juxtapose this picture against the scene in Washington, DC, where the elite and powerful parade through this nation's capital in limousines, where everyday citizens turn out by the thousands in support of the first black President, and a nagging question arises. How can someone just one generation removed from tribal living in K'obama, Kenya, be elected to the most powerful position in the world? Firstbrook puts it this way. "It is a journey that started with a local chief living in a mud hut overlooking the White Nile, and ended seven centuries later with the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, living in the White House."
The answer to how one can go from tribal living to President of the United States appears early in the story and is repeated throughout. The Luo, Obama's tribe in Kenya, place a great deal of emphasis on education.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Lientje on February 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was a pleasant surprise for me in at least two ways. I happened across it by accident.
I was looking for information to use on my own genealogical research. And after reading this story
I have discovered that just getting names is not at all enough. One must also know the history of
the area and the culture. I needed that reminder for my own research. It makes the story so much
more interesting.

The other pleasant surprise was that this is not a book that "takes sides." It is the story of
the Obama family through the centuries, without all the garbage that can so easily enter into this
sort of book if one decides to do so. Mr. Firstbrook takes a very professional approach. This is
much appreciated.

The book itself is very well written and a fairly fast read. I enjoyed every minute. I would
love to go and see the area myself some day.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By NJ Book Lover on February 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A must read for anyone interested in the background of President Obama....also great for anyone interested in Kenyan/African culture..very well written book...!!
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Robin S. Hall on February 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a thoroughly recommended read, opening a range of questions about the forces which shaped the destiny of the 44th President of the United States. This book is nominally about the history of the ancestors of President Barack Obama, but the US President is an unseen presence on almost every page. Apart from the President, the two main players are his father, Barack Obama Snr., and grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama. Neither come across as sympathetic characters, but both in their own ways were charismatic and powerful men.

The book commences with an analysis of three hundred years history of the ancestors of Obama up to Hussein Onyango. The family tree in the front of the book is an essential reference. It does put much of the difficult family history in a context. And there are fascinating references to many Luo tribal customs and taboos - including an explanation of why President Obama is under an obligation to pull down the White House.

Hussein Onyango lived through the era from the arrival of European colonists to the eventual independence of Kenya in 1963. He travelled widely and converted to Islam whilst working in Zanzibar (unlike the rest of his extended family, who became Seventh Day Adventists). Serving in both world wars with the British forces, he even travelled to Burma to fight the Japanese. But he was a man with a violent temper. When he seriously threatened to kill Habiba Akumu (President Obama's grandmother) with a machete, she fled, leaving her son to be raised by the youngest of Hussein Onyango's five wives.

Barack Obama Snr. was also charismatic, and also stubborn and self-opinionated. After seriously falling out with his father over his behavior at school, he was thrust into the world to make his own way.
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