I missed this story when it first appeared, but apparently Rush Limbaugh has been saying that Barack Obama’s father was actually an Arab from “an Arab part of Africa”. Look, why bother with real places at all, if you’re comfortable saying this sort of thing in public with millions of people listening? Just say that Obama’s father was a Calormene from Tashbaan and his mother was a Ferengi who ran a bar for Denebian slime devils.
But this does show you something about the persistence of culture, though. There is a kind of thermodynamics to narratives and rumor that achieve a certain degree of initial circulation. They can be created, but they’re almost impossible to destroy. What I think some village idiot on Limbaugh’s staff (or some other deranged partisan workshop) pulled out of the cultural substrate of the last two hundred years is a kind of mutant offspring of the “Hamitic myth” plus a hazy fragment or two of the history of Swahili society in East Africa.
The “Hamitic myth” was a proto-imperial view held by some European travellers and observers that African societies, particularly in East and Southern Africa, could be distinguished by whether they were original to Africa or composed of alien and more ‘evolved’ outsiders who came from the Middle East. The basic historical picture drawn by the myth was wrong, and its imagined racial hierarchy even more so. However, East African societies over the last two millennia were shaped a great deal by successive migrations of different linguistic and cultural groups and forms through the region. Some of those migrations passed through from west to east, or northwest to southeast, some from north to south, and some back in the other direction. Particularly at the northern end of the region, there were some connections to the historical world of the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. The Luo people (Obama’s father was Luo) speak a Nilotic language, which connects them in diffuse ways with other people spread through East and Northeast Africa. Also, the Swahili coast of East Africa (which is not where Luo-speakers come from), has long been shaped by cultural and economic interaction with the societies of western India, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Saying that this in any way connects Obama to the Middle East through descent is like saying that my heritage is partly French because the name Burke in Ireland came originally from Norman invaders, or that my heritage is Spanish because de Burgos or de Burca was a Hispano-Norman surname. You can’t slap contemporary national and ethnic labels down on histories where those labels make no sense at all. Actually, it’s not even that close. It’s like saying that because my great-grandfather came from Ireland, and Ireland was sometimes invaded by Vikings, and Vikings were connected to Germany, and the Mongols defeated Teutonic Knights in 1241 and probably there was some interbreeding involved in all those connections and hence I am probably at least a bit Mongol.
Many white Americans like to imagine a loose, affectionate connection to one or several ethnic or national “original” identities connected to one or more immigrant ancestors. That often gets looser and more imaginary the further people get from the historical moment of immigration. So the Ireland that a group of Irish-American families I grew up with could imagine was built from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, lots of Chieftains albums, and occasional boozy donations to the IRA made in pubs or when someone passed a hat at a party. That’s ok: I honestly don’t think people mistook that for reality, or made strong claims based on the more or less harmless and romantic images involved. (Though obviously that trickle of money to the IRA had some real meaning in the world, if it actually ever got to them.) This is the same kind of historical register that encouraged people to account themselves 1/16th Cherokee, or after Roots, that engendered new rememberings of descent from stolen royalty in Africa for some African-Americans. This is often a good, creative use of history, a way to try and locate oneself and one’s family in time and space. In American society, it’s a subtle counterbalance to the relentless pressure to constantly reinvent oneself, to fit into changing places, changing needs.
But this kind of memory can become a rotten, decomposing foundation for self-understanding when it starts to believe too much in the fixity and stability of the past it has set its eye upon. When any “European-American” forgets (or never knew) how much the making of “Europe” is both recent and how much movement of people, goods, ideas and culture in, out and through the borders of what we now think of as Europe has been involved over the long haul. The same goes for any European (or other) nationality that one wishes to claim as heritage. The pleasant (or even grim) heritage you may think about as your roots is almost certainly a far more recent and shallow thing that you know. But precisely because many Americans regard heritage in a somewhat romanticized, somewhat imaginary way, as a set of selections off an a la carte memory menu, this kind of gibberish coming from someone like Limbaugh may sound plausible in some sort of way.