There were still a handful of empty folding chairs a few minutes before Mark Obama Ndesandjo walked to the podium at Barnes & Nobles on the Upper West Side last night. Ndesandjo is the younger half-brother of the president of the United States, the biographical note that probably brought most of the audience out to the first event on his tour to promote his new memoir, An Obama’s Journey: My Odyssey of Self-Discovery Across Three Cultures.
Ndesandjo is the son of the president’s father, Barack Obama Sr. and his third wife, Ruth Baker. He is a pianist, writer, artist, and businessman, who also runs a foundation to promote arts education, where some of the proceeds for his memoir will go. The flap of his book jacket says his book “sets the record straight on several points” of the president’s own best-selling memoir, Dreams of Our Fathers — ostensibly by adding another perspective to Obama’s own telling of his visit to Kenya.
“This off-kilter image of myself sitting across from me was my brother, Barack,” Ndesandjo read of their first meetings in Kenya. “I felt I could hide nothing from him, that there was nothing in my life that I had experienced that he had not, though for him the results might have been different. He looked so like me in some ways, his gait, his face, his hair, even his voice, though his was deeper than mine. I should have been happy to see him, but I was not.”
Ndesandjo looks like a younger, looser version of the president. Skinny and tall (though, he noted, he’s shorter than Barack), he wore black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a slim green blazer that nearly matched the Barnes & Nobles logo. A printed headband circled his forehead and a stud glinted in his left ear.
The audience perked up when Obama made his first appearance in one of Ndesanjo’s passages. One woman kept sighing audibly throughout, as if it were all too much to handle.
When Ndesandjo took questions, all of them were, of course, about his brother. He fed the crowd congenial anecdotes, until a guy in seersucker pants and black-rimmed glasses blasted Ndesandjo about Obama’s critics and their accusations that the president is a disappointment and a fraud.
“You know, I don’t get too much into politics,” Ndesandjo said. “But that said, it’s tremendous that in America you can stand up and say these things.” Ndesandjo added that while one man can’t solve all the problems, he believes his brother has inspired people. It was a very measured, calm, Obama-like, putdown. The audience applauded loudly.
The final question came from a man in the front row. “Which culture do you identify with the most?” Ndesandjo seemed relieved that someone finally had a question for him, about him.