Books – America’s complex First Mother

2011-05-26 11:04

On January 1 1985 Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother, was living in Honolulu, where she had returned after years in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

That New Year’s Day, she recorded the following list of resolutions:

(1) Finish PhD

(2) 60K

(3) in shape

(4) remarry

(5) another ­culture

(6) house + land

(7) pay off debts (taxes)

(8) memoirs of Indon

(9) spir. develop (ilmu batin)

(10) raise Maya well

(11) continuing ­constructive ­dialogue with Barry

(12) relations w/friends + family (corresp.)

When she died a decade later from uterine cancer, ­Dunham left many of these goals unaccomplished.

And yet, the life she left behind at 52 was much richer and more complex than this catalogue could reveal.

Driven, earnest, big-hearted, large-boned, messy, tolerant of ­everyone but prigs and fools, Ann, as she was known, cut a striking figure in her world.

In an ambitious new biography, A Singular Woman, Janny Scott travels from Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia to account for the disparate forces that forged Dunham and, by extension, her son.

Scott, a reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2008, sets out to complicate the familiar ­image of Obama’s mother as simply “a white woman from Kansas”.

Through interviews with ­Dunham’s relatives, friends and colleagues; at least one possible lover; and her two children, Maya Soetoro-Ng and Barack Obama; Scott pursues a more perplexing and elusive figure than the one Obama mentions in his books.

Right from the start, Scott ­challenges some of the details of the president’s account.

The first discrepancy ­concerns his mother’s birthplace, which seems to have been Wichita Hospital, and not, as Obama wrote, Fort Leavenworth (where his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, was stationed).

And instead of the “awkward, shy American girl” Obama ­describes in Dreams From My ­Father, seduced at age 17 by an African genius, Scott introduces us to a woman who bucked against social convention from an early age.

In many ways, Dunham’s life tracked the increasingly progressive times in which she came of age. At home, sex roles were changing.

While Stanley drifted between sales jobs, Ann’s mother, Madelyn, rose to prominence as one of the first women to be vice-president at the Bank of Hawaii.

For most of her life, Dunham worked long days, first as an ­anthropologist and later as a grant officer for the Ford Foundation and other NGO groups. She was bright, hard-headed and fierce.

Dunham was married twice: first to Barack Obama Sr, a 24-year-old Kenyan she met at the University of Hawaii; then to Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student she met a few years after the elder Obama had left for Harvard (and, eventually, Kenya), leaving her with a baby son.

Barack Obama was six when his mother took him from the comfort of his grandparents’ home in ­Hawaii to live on the edge of ­poverty in Indonesia.

Jakarta shaped Barry, as his mother called him. Skin colour was even more of an issue there than in America, Scott notes.

Barack’s seeming rootedness, Scott suggests, was forged in ­deliberate response to his mother’s restlessness.

Several of the book’s most revealing passages quote ­letters she sent to friends as Obama progressed through law school and eyed a political life.

When Obama was elected ­president of the Harvard Law ­Review and articles about him ­began to appear, Dunham was ­dismayed – even “crushed” – to have her role in his life reduced to a single sentence: “His mother is an anthropologist.”

Another letter by Dunham?– who, Scott notes, “prided herself on ­raising her children to have a ­global perspective”?– described Michelle Robinson, Obama’s future wife, as “a little provincial and not as international as Barry”, but she added: “She is nice, though.”

The book’s oddest moment is one that Scott, to her credit, does little to parse.

When an Indonesian friend mentions that her son, ­graduating from Harvard and headed to do pro bono law in Chicago, must want to ­become America’s president, ­Dunham weeps.

Her pride in her son and her personal sense of loss seem ­inextricably bound. This leads to the mistake Obama has said he ­regrets most in his life.

On November 7 1995, Dunham died in a Hawaiian hospital. Her daughter, Maya, was by her bedside. Her son, not realising the speed of his mother’s decline, didn’t make it in time.

In his interview with Scott, Obama reflects on his mother’s dreams, the greatest of which, ­perhaps, was about the man her son might become.

“You know,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh, “sort of a cross between Einstein, Gandhi and Belafonte ... somebody who was strong and honest, and doing worthwhile things for the world.”

– New York Times

» Griswold is the author of The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam

A Singular Woman by Janny Scott

Publishers: Riverhead Books
Page total: 376
Price: R253


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