New York Times article that also appeared in its sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, delivered to our door each morning with the Jakarta Globe.
A White Woman From Kansas
By ROGER COHEN
Published: June 2, 2011
LONDON — For a long time Barack Obama's mother was little more than the “white woman from Wichita” mentioned in an early Los Angeles Times profile of the future president. She was the pale Kansan silhouette against whom Obama drew the vivid Kenyan figure of his absent Dad in his Bildungsroman of discovered black identity, “Dreams from My Father.”
Now, thanks to Janny Scott’s remarkable “A Singular Woman,” absence has become presence. Stanley Ann Dunham, the parent who raised Obama, emerges from romanticized vagueness into contours as original as her name. Far from “floating through foreign things,” as one colleague in Indonesia observes, “She was as type A as anybody on the team.”
That may seem a far-fetched description of a woman who was not good with money, had no fixed abode and did not see life through ambition’s narrow prism. It was the journey not the destination that mattered to Dunham. She was, in her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng’s words, “fascinated with life’s gorgeous minutiae.” To her son the president, “idealism and naïveté” were “embedded” in her.
Yet she was also a pioneering advocate of microcredit in the rural communities of the developing world, an unrivaled authority on Javanese blacksmithing, and a firm voice for female empowerment in an Indonesia “of ‘smiling’ or gentle oppression” toward women, as she wrote in one memo for the Ford Foundation.
Unbound by convention, Dunham the anthropologist was nonetheless the anti-hippie with her cache of can-do Kansan wisdom: “You’re not okay, I’m not okay, and I know how to fix it.”
The fixing was not quick. Dunham knew that. “Well, life is what it is,” she would say: As in getting pregnant at 17 by the first African student to enroll at the University of Hawaii, the brilliant Barack Hussein Obama Sr., who loved her and left her — for Harvard. Adulthood was thrust on her early. One colleague recalls her saying: “Don’t conclude before you understand. After you understand, don’t judge.”
Such forbearance is one of her many obvious influences on her son. Taken to Indonesia as a young child on Dunham’s second marriage, then dispatched aged nine back to Hawaii to become an American in his grandparents’ care, Obama emerges here as a product of his mother’s presence and absence.
To an unusual degree, because of the absence and because he was half-black, he had to define his own identity — hence the almost feline coolness, the hermetic quality in the president.
To an equally unusual degree, because Dunham loved him fiercely, he had the emotional grounding to survive such self-definition. “If you are going to grow into a human being,” she told him early, “you are going to need some values.”
Hers were all about bridging, connecting. Doing field research in Javanese villages, she would complain that an interview had been “cut after 3 or 4 hours with poor results” — no zapper, she.
Improving the lot of people was not about rapid industrialization, but about empowering. It was essential to dig. As she noted, “A Javanese woman may have agricultural skills in transplanting, weeding and harvesting rice, but she may also know how to make batik cloth, operate a roadside stall … deliver babies for her neighbor.” Her beliefs were summed up by one colleague: “Development, like democracy, is a learning process. People have to learn to have freedom, on one side, and also responsibility, the rule of law, social discipline.”
Yes, fixing is not quick — and nor is it necessary to look much further to understand Obama’s bridging instinct or his response to the Arab Spring.
I found myself liking Dunham — the nonjudgmental irreverence; the determination to live what she loved; the humor (after a stomach-turning surfeit of peanuts, she notes, “Yes, peanuts do have faces — smirky, nasty little faces, in fact”); the frankness with friends — “I don’t like you in your arrogant bitch mode.” Her 52 years were rich.
She missed her son. The decision to send him to get educated in America was brave — and has changed the world in that Obama would not otherwise have become a black American. This is a central conundrum of a book that makes Obama’s white parent palpable for the first time.
In an affecting passage one colleague, Don Johnston, describes how Dunham “felt a little bit wistful or sad that Barack had essentially moved to Chicago and chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity” that had “not really been part of who he was when he was growing up.” She felt that “he was distancing himself from her” in a “professional choice.”
Was it political calculation, love of Michelle Robinson, dreams of his father, or irritation with a dreamer-mother that made Obama black? After all, he was raised white. He chose black. Or perhaps he had no choice. Being biracial in the America Obama grew up in was not much of an option.
I said “Bildungsroman” — in some essential sense “Dreams from My Father” was fictionalized. Obama’s ballast, the fact of his life, was his mother. This book reveals in a singular woman just why he had the wit and the heart to forge himself, as in those Indonesian blacksmithing villages where Dunham long listened to the “light counterpoint” of the master smith tapping instructions on the anvil.
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