Library’s newest collection is all about Obama

Shanika Gunaratna

Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies – the largest library of Africana in the world – is embarking on a new mission: collecting every bit of Barack Obama paraphernalia made in Africa. With the president-elect’s inauguration approaching, these materials are now on display in an exhibit called “Africa’s Response to Obama.”

In a press release, the university called this collection “undoubtedly the largest collection of Obama T-shirts, CDs, buttons, bumper stickers, artwork, posters and other materials created in Africa.”

Although curator David Easterbrook said there is no way to determine whether that statement is true, the only collection that could compete for the title is an initiative by the Smithsonian Institution.

“We’re documenting a very important cultural event in Africa right now,” he said. “It’s cross-cultural, cross-national. It’s also significant because it is an aspect of the history of Barack Obama, who’s a resident of Chicago.”

Due to a limited number of available display cases in the library, only about one-third of the collection is on display, Easterbrook said.

While traveling in southern Africa in February 2007, Easterbrook heard the announcement of Obama’s candidacy and decided to start collecting materials. After he returned, Easterbrook solicited help from NU students and faculty traveling in Africa and quickly amassed a substantial collection. Packages from Africa still arrive almost daily at the curator’s office.

The items currently on display include a portrait of Obama by a street artist in Nairobi, Obama-inspired music, greeting cards, buttons, an empty bottle of “President Lager” beer from East African Breweries Limited and a traditional East African khanga cloth that reads “Yes We Can” in Swahili.

At a time when most Americans were acquainting themselves with the junior senator’s resume, Obama already had a broad base of supporters on the African continent, Easterbrook said.

“The interest in what he was undertaking was enormous,” he said.

Richard Lepine is NU’s only professor of Swahili, the official language of Obama’s father’s native country, Kenya. Lepine said the collection made him curious enough to look up a word he did not recognize: “unbwogable,” which means “unshakable” in a mash-up between Luo, the language of Obama’s grandfather, and English.

Lepine said he appreciates that the Herskovits Library has chosen “to go beyond what we traditionally think a library is doing.” Collecting these pop culture materials in addition to scholarly work will one day give academics helpful, nontraditional historical insight, he said.

“Later on, scholars may want to do a comparative study,” Lepine said.

The African materials are also interesting in relation to American paraphernalia, anthropology Prof. Kearsley Stewart wrote in an e-mail Monday.

“Due to Obama’s multiple ethnic identities, he is many things to many people – similar to Tiger Woods,” Stewart said. “There is a tremendous pride in Kenya to claim Barack as a Kenyan above all, and particularly a Luo.”

The collection will be on display through February and the library is anticipating a much larger exhibition in 2010.

Easterbrook said the prospect of a future presidential library in Chicago that may draw from his collection was also in the back of his mind.

“These are materials that will be a significant contribution to the history we are experiencing right now,” he said. “Africa is very proud of an African being elected president of the United States.”

[email protected]