|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
For well over two centuries, the United States has been vastly more diverse than its ruling families. Now the Obama family has flipped that around, with a Technicolor cast that looks almost nothing like their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant predecessors in the role. The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack — are quite poor.
“Our family is new in terms of the White House, but I don’t think it’s new in terms of the country,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, the president’s younger half-sister, said last week. “I don’t think the White House has always reflected the textures and flavors of this country.”
Though the world is recognizing the inauguration of the first African-American president, the story is a more complex narrative, about immigration, social mobility and the desegregation of one of the last divided institutions in American life: the family. It is a tale of self-determination, full of refusals to follow the tracks laid by history or religion or parentage.
Mr. Obama follows the second President Bush, who had a presidential son’s self-assured grip on power. Aside from a top-quality education, the new president came to politics with none of his predecessor’s advantages: no famous last name, no deep-pocketed parents to finance early forays into politics and, in fact, not much of a father at all. So Mr. Obama built his political career from scratch, with best-selling books and long-shot runs for office, leaving his relatives astonished at where he has brought them.
“It is so mind-boggling that there is a black president,” Craig Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s brother, said in an interview. “Then you layer on top of it that I am related to him? And then you layer on top of that that it’s my brother-in-law? That is so overwhelming, I can’t hardly think about it.”
Though Mr. Obama is the son of a black Kenyan, he has some conventionally presidential roots on his white mother’s side: abolitionists who, according to family legend, were chased out of Missouri, a slave state; Midwesterners who weathered the Depression; even a handful of distant ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. (Ever since he became a United States senator, the Sons of the American Revolution has tried to recruit him. )
Only five generations ago, the first lady’s great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, was born a slave on Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C., where he almost certainly drained swamps, harvested rice and was buried in an unmarked grave. As a child, Mrs. Obama used to visit her Georgetown relatives, but she only learned during the campaign that her forebears had been enslaved in the same town where she and her cousins had played.