Second Thought: Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Experience with poverty and prejudice comes from both sides of the new president’s family tree.


As Barack Obama begins his historic presidency, most are focusing on him being the first African-American elected to the highest office in a country that once held black people as slaves. This is monumental, obviously, for this country and the world.
But I think one of the reasons Obama won is because he is not from what might by considered a typical African-American background. He has no slaves in his ancestry; his father came here from Kenya to study in college. Obama was raised in Indonesia for a time and then mostly in Hawaii. His mixed-race and international background made him appealing in this world that seems to be shrinking by the day.
I do find it somewhat odd, though, that Obama’s white background seems to have been almost ignored by the media, especially since his father left the scene very early in his son’s life, leaving him to be raised by his mother’s side of the family.
And as it turns out, Obama’s ancestry on that side is Irish. As someone who likes to find things in common with candidates I might vote for, I was very happy to see that part of Obama’s family comes from a place in Ireland very close to my family tree.
Obama’s great-great-great grandfather came from the town of Moneygall (very appropriate name, given the gall of the U.S. monetary system on folks these days) in County Offaly. Falmouth Kearney was a shoemaker who emigrated to the United States in 1850 at the age of 19. This was the time of the potato famine, and Kearney came here to take his chance on the American dream. He settled in the Midwest and eventually became a farmer.
My grandmother was born in Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, right next door to Offaly. She was forced to come to this country at age 9, in 1900, because her family couldn’t afford to keep her. Her brother’s labor was needed on the family farm, and she had two blind sisters who couldn’t be sent away. So she made her way to Ohio, where she lived with a great-uncle who owned a bar and a boarding house. Her first job was to empty out the chamber pots.
The mix of Irish and African is a very important one for me. The Irish who landed here around the same time as Falmouth Kearney were looked upon as ignorant drunks. The newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as monkeys in bowler hats who were swigging whiskey. They shared the bottom rungs of the economic totem pole with blacks and competed with them for menial jobs in urban areas. In Louisiana, the state wanted to dig canals in the swampland, and the recently freed slaves and the Irish fought in New Orleans for the right to dig in hip-deep water for a few pennies and the chance to contract malaria.
As will happen under such circumstances, the Irish-Americans and African-Americans didn’t like each other much. And as the blacks migrated to the big cities of the north in the 20th century, the Irish were among the most intolerant and prejudiced groups confronting them. When I look back at all the school busing protests of the 1970s, I see a Gaelic glint in the eyes of many of those yelling at the black kids on buses.
So while I find the election of America’s first African-American president to be very historic, I think his Irish ancestry makes Obama’s succcess even more interesting. He comes from two different peoples who were once portrayed as monkeys by the reigning American establishment.
As America moves deeper into these trying times, the timing of Obama’s election is key for our future. We are throwing out stereotypes that hold us back. He is black and white, the descendant of immigrants from both Africa and Europe. He endured some prejudice but has moved past that. He has become one of the better examples of who we are in this country these days.
And Ireland is now claiming Obama as one of its own. A popular song in that country these days is “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama” by a band named The Corrigan Brothers: “He’s as Irish as bacon and cabbage and stew/He’s Hawaiian, he’s Kenyan, American too/He’s in the White House, he took his chance/Now let’s see Barack do Riverdance.”

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