A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
by Janny Scott
Riverhead, 376 pp., $26.95
To write a biography without mentioning the subject’s name in the title is unusual, just as irregular, in fact, as publishing a serious work of anthropology, entitled Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, with a portrait of the author splashed on the cover.* But then the author of that academic book, the late Stanley Ann Dunham, an expert on the economics of Indonesian crafts, bore a startling resemblance to President Obama—the same long chin, the slight quizzical tilt of the head, the prominent eyebrows. Which is not surprising, since she was his mother. The scholarly book based on her Ph.D. thesis, which contains much excellent firsthand description of life in remote Javanese villages, is of great interest to specialists, and would probably have been picked up by a university press anyway. The biography, on the other hand, might never have been written were it not for the career of Dr. S. Ann Dunham’s son.
President Obama’s mother was born in 1942 in Wichita, Kansas, and died of cancer in Hawaii in 1995. She was not discussed very much during his presidential campaign. Apart from the sad fact that she was no longer alive to see her son’s success, her legacy was overshadowed by that of Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan economist, about whom the President wrote so well in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. He, too, died young, in 1982, in a car crash. Since Barack Sr. left for Africa only a year after his son was born, Barack Jr. barely knew his father. But Obama chose (or felt constrained to choose) to identify with the “typical black experience in America,” as he once put it. This meant that his father had a more prominent part in the public narrative of Obama’s life than his mother, whom he knew much longer and more intimately.
Of course, Obama’s youthful experience, first in Hawaii, then in Jakarta with his mother, was anything but typical, or typically black. Don Johnston, a colleague of Ann’s in Indonesia, recalls that she felt that her son’s black identity “had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up.” It had been “a professional choice,” made when he moved to Chicago. Ann, so Johnson believes, even felt, a little wistfully, “that he was distancing himself from her.”
The facts were perhaps more complicated. In Dreams from My Father, Obama writes about “trying to raise myself as a black American” in Hawaii, partly by hanging out in pool halls with black poker friends of his white grandfather. But this was after he had spent several years in Indonesia, where it was his mother who came home with books on the civil rights movement, recordings of Martin Luther King’s speeches, and spiritual songs by Mahalia Jackson.
Ironically, Obama’s decision to anchor himself in Chicago, as an African- American with an African-American wife, was his way of avoiding the nomadic existence that his mother had chosen, his way of conforming. Nonetheless, during the presidential campaign, Ann was cast in a posthumous role as the typical daughter of Kansas, a dose of salt from the midwestern earth, the plain white counterbalance to the tropical strangeness of Kenya. During his time in Jakarta, Obama wrote, his mother gave voice “to the virtues of her midwestern past.” The other aspect of her life that was given some publicity was her inability to claim health insurance when she was gravely ill. She symbolized a dysfunctional system that her son promised to fix. But given the sensitivities in America’s continuing culture wars, Dunham’s long attachment to Indonesia, her marriage to a Javanese, her openness to African-American culture, and her free-spirited relations with many interesting foreigners were given less prominence than her roots in the soil of Kansas.
This is a pity. For her biographer, the New York Times reporter Janny Scott, is quite right:
To describe Dunham as a white woman from Kansas is about as illuminating as describing her son as a politician who likes golf. Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story—of a girl who…married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at age twenty-four, moved to Jakarta with her son…; who lived half of her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans…; who spent years working in villages where an unmarried, Western woman was a rarity; who immersed herself in the study of a sacred craft long practiced exclusively by men…
—and who raised her son “to be, as he has put it jokingly, a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte….”
In fact, Ann Dunham did not actually live in Kansas for more than a few years in early childhood. Her father, Stanley, a happy-go-lucky furniture salesman with a louche grin and dark slicked-back hair, took his family to Oklahoma, Texas, California, and Mercer Island, near Seattle, where Ann spent most of her youth. Stanley and his wife, Madelyn Payne, were anything but conventional. The grinning man who “looks like a wop” was not considered suitable by Madelyn’s parents. So the young couple ran off to marry in secret. Madelyn saw herself as “a Bette Davis type.” Her brother, Charles, noted that she had wanted to get out of small-town Kansas ever since they visited the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, where they were exposed to “art, anthropology, intellectual stuff.” Their daughter was named Stanley, not only after her father, but after the role played by Bette Davis in John Huston’s In This Our Life, a movie about drunkenness, suicide, and racial discrimination in the deep South, which was barred from foreign release by the wartime Office of Censorship. But she was generally known as Ann.
Stanley the father went on to have a checkered career in the furniture trade, but was relatively liberal in his views, and supportive of his strong-minded daughter and his grandson, whom he helped to raise. Madelyn, perhaps more intelligent than her husband, and certainly more practical, became the first woman vice-president of a local bank in Hawaii.
Mercer Island, around 1960, was not a center of nonconformity, and Ann’s generation, post-beat and pre-hippy, was not especially rebellious. The pill had not arrived yet. In Janny Scott’s terse description, “There were slumber parties, sock hops, ski trips, little drinking, no drugs, little dating, less sex.” And yet Ann’s education was liberal enough to inflame right-wing, Obama-hating bloggers. On one such site, Mercer High School is described as a “hotbed of pro-Marxist radical teachers.” This refers to a teacher in Ann’s senior year named Jim Wichterman, who was asked to instruct his pupils in “contemporary world problems,” and decided that reading Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, but also Marx, Sartre, and Camus, would be good for them. He also had them ponder such dangerous questions as “Does God exist?” The other “pro-Marxist radical” was a humanities teacher named Val Foubert, who had once been a drummer in a swing band, and got his class to read such books as William Whyte’s The Organization Man, as well as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, not the kind of thing, one would have thought, to light the fires of revolution.
By all accounts, however, Ann and a select band of clever friends read other books too, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which, in the words of one fellow pupil, “would have been our bible.” Ann was evidently quick to roll her eyes at the conventions of the society around her. Her best friend at Mercer High School remembered: “She touted herself as an atheist, and it was something she’d read about and could argue…She was always challenging and arguing and comparing. She was already thinking about things that the rest of us hadn’t.” Like her mother, she was a free spirit, who felt the pull of a wider world than the one she grew up in. While still living on Mercer Island, this meant dreaming over back issues of National Geographic and forays into the university district of Seattle, where she caught an early glimpse of abroad in foreign films, such as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy.
By the time the Dunham family moved to Hawaii, the 1960s had begun. If Bill Clinton was the first president to come of age in the 1960s, Obama represents the offspring of the Sixties generation. Clinton has sometimes been depicted by his detractors as a typical exponent of Sixties depravity, even though he did not, as we have been told, ever inhale from anything that was being passed around at the time. But he did let his hair grow, and presumably enjoyed the benefits of the post-pill era. Ann Dunham is not remembered as a typical exponent of 1960s hedonism. In many ways, she seems to have personified the more idealistic aspects of that frequently maligned era.
The various activities of Ann’s Mercer Island friends, after they left high school, give us an idea of the idealism that inspired many young people in those days: one went to Korea with the Peace Corps; another spent two years in India helping farmers in dirt-poor Bihar; yet another worked in Sierra Leone. This was the time when Lyndon B. Johnson was majority leader in Congress, and Congress appropriated $10 million to set up the East-West Center in Hawaii, where Asians and Westerners could study together. At the opening of the center, Johnson declared that the fusion of East and West would produce “a new strength for freedom that will last through eternity.” This was only a few years before he escalated the Vietnam War, in his less than charming phrase, “to nail the coonskin to the wall.”
The East-West Center, which is part of the University of Hawaii, offered courses in Javanese, Sanskrit, and Hindi, as well as other Asia-related subjects. Civil rights were debated. Dick Gregory and Gloria Steinem gave talks. And the students were told: “The reason you’re here is to learn about other peoples and nations, so you should always be mixing.” Ann Dunham was one of the first students at the center. And she took its goals quite literally.
Everything happened rather fast. Barack Obama Sr. was a twenty-four-year-old Kenyan, sent to the US to study politics and business, in order to be part of the governing elite of a newly independent African nation. His reputation was that of a brilliant, somewhat domineering figure, with a booming voice and the plummy accent of a British-Kenyan education. Ann, still seventeen, met him in the fall of 1960, was deeply impressed, and became pregnant in early November. They married secretly in Maui, with no family or friends in attendance. Barack Jr. was born in August 1961 at the Kapi‘olani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu.
Stanley and Madelyn accepted their daughter’s unconventional arrangements with good grace. Ann’s Kenyan father-in-law, on the other hand, informed Stanley in a stiff letter that “he didn’t want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman.” In any event, the marriage didn’t last long. In 1962, Obama Sr. left Hawaii to study economics at Harvard. In 1964, Ann filed for divorce. In 1965, he returned to Kenya. By that time Ann had already met her second husband, a handsome, gregarious, athletic Javanese geography student named Lolo Soetoro. There is a photograph of the two of them, taken on “Indonesian Night” at the East-West Center in late 1963 or early 1964, with Lolo in a batik shirt and Ann, smiling happily, in a sarong.
An interest in faraway places often has an erotic component, and it is hardly surprising to hear that “intermarriage was not unusual among East-West Center students.” According to Ann’s half-Indonesian daughter, Maya, her mother used to say about Lolo that “she liked the way he looked in his white tennis shorts.” The pull of the exotic often meant little more than dressing up in sarongs, lighting incense sticks, reading the I Ching, or listening to Ravi Shankar play his sitar. What made Ann Dunham unusual is the seriousness with which she took her interest in the non-Western world, specifically Indonesia. Her attraction to Lolo, whom she married in 1964, may well have had a strong idealistic component too. Barack Obama thinks she was inspired by “the promise of something new and important, helping her husband rebuild a country in a charged and challenging place beyond her parents’ reach.” She certainly worked hard at becoming an anthropologist, even though she did not receive her Ph.D. until 1992. Although she wanted her son to have an American education and sent him back to Hawaii when he was nine to live with his grandparents, she spent much of her adult life in Indonesia.
Sometimes when Western women marry Asian or African men, things start to go awry when they move away from the West. Fun-loving husbands become dutiful sons who insist that their wives conform to standards the young women are wholly unprepared for. Or else they become household tyrants. This does not appear to have been the case with Lolo, whose duties under a military regime that came to power in a sea of blood were not so much familial as political. He was not an authoritarian husband, and Ann was not one to play the submissive wife. If anything, the rift between them came partly because, in a certain sense, she was insufficiently American, or at least unwilling to behave like one.
While Ann taught English at a management institute in Jakarta, immersing herself in Indonesian language and culture, Lolo was employed by an oil company, possibly in a political function, smoothing relations between American oil men and the Indonesian government. This meant taking part in the back-slapping, mildly racist, expatriate life of private clubs, tennis parties, and women discussing their servant problems. He was compelled to do this, whether he wanted to or not. Ann refused. She preferred to make friends with Indonesians, deepening her anthropological interests. When Lolo complained that her absence at expatriate functions made him look bad, and that those oilmen and their wives were her own people after all, she exclaimed: “They are not my people.”
Indeed, apart from their common nationality, they were not. But Ann was unusual in another way. American idealism abroad is frequently expressed in a desire to teach the natives about freedom, and so forth. Because of her anthropological background and her own inclination, Ann was a listener who assimilated many things from the Javanese, without, it seems, ever “going native.” In her carefully researched and perceptive book, Janny Scott points out how this affected the young Barack (“Barry”) Obama, who went to two Indonesian schools while he was in Jakarta from 1967 to 1971. She quotes from Dreams from My Father:
[My mother] had always encouraged my rapid acculturation in Indonesia: It had made me relatively self-sufficient…and extremely well-mannered when compared to other American children. She had taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad.
Obama’s early exposure to Javanese life also had an effect on his attitude toward racial differences. Skin color matters at least as much in Indonesia as it does in the US. Lightness is a sign of refinement, darkness is considered coarse. An Indonesian friend of Ann’s pointed out to Janny Scott that “people tease about skin color all the time.” And Obama was teased a lot. What he learned in Jakarta was the Javanese art of restraint, of not displaying emotions, of never raising your voice. Once an Indonesian child learns how to ignore the teasing, it stops.
To find out about Javanese culture, Ann, too, needed to learn Javanese manners, especially in her field, since she was a lone woman whose Ph.D. project was to carry on research into various crafts practiced by men, who demanded a particular respect. The received opinion, alas, too often true, about traditional crafts in developing countries is that they are dying out fast, replaced by mass-produced plastic objects from God knows where. Ann Dunham found out that Java in the 1970s was different. Farming was tough and not always lucrative. So, Ann wrote, “Instead of being merely a quaint and minor survival of days gone by, cottage industry is the major mode of manufacturing many types of light consumer goods.” Some villages specialized in producing batik cloth, others in bamboo, and others in metal objects.
Ann became especially interested in blacksmiths from a remote cluster of hamlets in central Java named Kajar. Blacksmiths in Java enjoy a high status, tinged with mysticism. Like the Japanese, Javanese make a cult of the forged weapon—samurai swords in Japan, the wavy-bladed dagger called keris in Java. Like King Arthur’s sword, such weapons are imbued with supernatural properties. In her posthumous book, Surviving Against the Odds, Ann describes the ceremonies that accompany the making of traditional daggers, which is indeed a dying art, but she found some of the last practitioners, old men, still much revered, but without younger people to whom to pass on their skills.
Ann spent many months in the villages of Kajar, sleeping in huts without plumbing or electricity, making notes, taking pictures, but not before gaining the trust of people who had never known a foreigner before. An anthropologist who worked with Ann told Janny Scott that “the predominant anthropological method is to put yourself in the village context. You are the outsider, the childlike neophyte. You let them socialize you into their worldview.”
This takes endless patience, empathy, and thought. The idea of Ann Dunham as a hippy-dippy dreamer in batik shirts could not be more wrong. Her son described her presence in “a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship” as that of “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.” She may have been all of that, but Obama also told Janny Scott that “in her field of study and her work, she was deadly serious about what she was doing, willing to take on a lot of sacred cows, and really committed.” Her book is a testimony to that.
Ann Dunham’s talent for developing personal relationships with people whose cultures and experiences appear to be very remote to most Westerners proved to be invaluable to various organizations that employed her in Indonesia. Frequently separated and increasingly estranged from her second husband, she did what she could to help her son through school in Honolulu, and to provide for her daughter Maya. As a result, her academic work often had to wait while she took on jobs for the Ford Foundation, or the International Labor Organization, or the People’s Bank of Indonesia (Bank Rakyat Indonesia).
People sent out from the US lacked the language skills or the knowledge to get much beyond English-speaking elite circles in Jakarta. It was Ann’s job to go around the country to see how money could best be spent to develop small-scale economies. She realized that “entrepreneurial attitudes are a part of the traditional culture.” The problem is access to capital. So she developed a model of extending credit to small entrepreneurs that is now commonly used in Indonesia. In doing this, however, she didn’t just look at numbers and statistics. Her experience had made her unusually sensitive and knowledgeable about the social consequences of development, about how too much deregulation, for example, might help urban ethnically Chinese businessmen, but ruin local cottage industries.
She took her job for the Ford Foundation as seriously as her anthropological field work. At one point she found herself in a tidal-swamp area of South Sumatra, wading up to her chest through flooded rice fields, fending off swarms of mosquitoes. One of her coworkers told Scott: “She loved it. She could create a rapport with these people very easily, because she was sympathetic and she liked them. They realized that she was there trying to find out things to help.”
If Ann’s initial attraction to her Javanese husband had been a combination of his dashing turnout on the tennis court and highminded ideals to improve his nation, the erotic component of her enthusiasms never entirely disappeared. Her liaisons with Indonesian men were unconventional, but hardly casual. One of them was with Adi Sasono, a former student leader, engineer, and labor activist. Another was with a much younger journalist named I. Made Suarjana, whose looks reminded Ann of Mike Tyson. They had what he called “a romantic-intellectual relationship.” Quite what he meant by this, he didn’t divulge. The important thing to Ann was that these men provided a way for her to connect to the society she loved. In her own words: “I’m able to find really impressive people that I respect greatly, who are Indonesians and not privileged foreigners like myself, but who are working with down-and-out and poor people.”
This kind of attitude can lend itself to easy mockery. Her son observed that “there was a sweetness about her and a willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt, and a sort of generosity of spirit that at times was naive.” There were times, he said, “when she was taken advantage of in certain situations.”
Obama also told Scott that he felt his mother’s spirit when he defied all the odds and did well in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. Scott asked him what it was that reminded him of her spirit. He said:
It was a sense that beneath our surface differences, we’re all the same, and that there’s more good than bad in each of us. And that, you know, we can reach across the void and touch each other and believe in each other and work together.
He continued: “That’s precisely the naiveté and idealism that was part of her. And that’s, I suppose, the naive idealism in me.”
Barack Obama is a politician. I’m not sure he is quite as naive as all that. But if his mother had that quality, it is the kind of naiveté our more cynical times could use a bit more of.
* Duke University Press, 2009. ↩
Duke University Press, 2009. ↩