Being Obama's Mom


Okay, first, the pirate picture: Our president, miniature, mustachiaoed, and adorable.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can read the New York Times magazine
s excerpt of Janny Scott’s forthcoming book on Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. The book draws from two and a half years of interviews, including with the president, as well as travel and documentary research, and as soon as one gets past the entirely unnecessary analysis of the source of Dunham’s weight in a photograph (“Her form was well padded, territory ceded long ago to the pleasures of appetite and the forces of anatomical destiny”) there’s a lot to reflect on here.

The excerpt focuses on the years in Indonesia, with glimpses of Obama’s upbringing supplementing his own account in his memoir. The image of his mother waking him at dawn every day for English lessons stayed with me when I first read it, and this anecdote from Scott’s book will too:

Over lunch, Barry, who was 9 at the time, sat at the dining table and listened intently but did not speak. When he asked to be excused, Ann directed him to ask the hostess for permission. Permission granted, he got down on the floor and played with Bryant’s son, who was 13 months old. After lunch, the group took a walk, with Barry running ahead. A flock of Indonesian children began lobbing rocks in his direction. They ducked behind a wall and shouted racial epithets. He seemed unfazed, dancing around as though playing dodge ball “with unseen players,” Bryant said. Ann did not react. Assuming she must not have understood the words, Bryant offered to intervene. “No, he’s O.K.,” Ann said. “He’s used to it.”

As Scott points out, Dunham was a woman who married an African man when interracial marriage was illegal in dozens of states, and who followed her second husband to a country that had only recently been engulfed in a bloody civil war. She was also, it turns out, a woman who both benefited from privilege in Indonesia and chafed against her circumscribed roles there. When her Indonesian husband began working for an oil company controlled by foreigners, the family moved on up, and Scott notes that having a large staff of local servants “freed Ann from domestic obligations to a degree that would have been almost impossible in the United States…enabling her to work, pursue her inter­ests and come and go as she wanted.”

But she also disliked the culture of expatriates who cut themselves off from Indonesians and, when her husband Lolo Soetoro got a job among them, she didn’t want to go to the country club to socialize with the other oil company wives.

This was part of a larger dissonance between Dunham and Soetoro, who grew apart in that period:

“She didn’t know, as little I knew, how Indonesian men change when suddenly their family is around,” Renske Heringa, a Dutch anthro­pologist and close friend of Ann’s in the 1980s who herself married a man who was half Indonesian, told me. “And how Indo­nesian men like women to be easy and open abroad, but when you get to Indonesia, the parents are there, the family is there, you have to behave. You have to be the little wife. As a wife, you were not supposed to make yourself visible besides being beautiful. By the time I knew Ann, she was a hefty woman. She didn’t care about getting dressed, wearing jewelry, the way Indonesian women do. That was not her style. He expected her to do it. That is one reason she didn’t stick it out. She absolutely refused to. I understand why he couldn’t accept it.”
When one fellow teacher, an Indonesian man whom Ann befriended, asked about her husband in 1968 or 1969, she told him grimly: “I’m never asked. I’m told.”

Dunham had a similarly ambitious plan for her children. One friend recalls, “She was very scathing about the traditional Indonesian wife role. She would tell Maya not to be such a wimp. She didn’t like this passive Indonesian female caricature. She would tell me not to fall into that.” As for her son, she believed, despite the barriers of the time, that his race would be no impediment. Several friends remembered her saying her son was “so bright, he can do anything he ever wants in the world, even be president of the United States.'” She died of uterine cancer before she could see it happen.

Obama’s Young Mother Abroad [NYT]

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