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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.