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The untold story of Obama's mother

Last updated on: June 21, 2011 13:31 IST
Barack Obama's mother was a truly unusual person, a woman with a curiosity, a keen intellect, and an internationalist orientation much ahead of her times, says B S Prakash after reading A Singular Woman 

Hitherto many knew a bit about Obama's papa, but less about his ma. One reason is Obama himself. In his moving book, completed even before he had became a US senator, let alone the president, titled  Dreams from my father, Obama had told the story of his dad: an intelligent, charismatic and  proud Kenyan who had gone back to his country after fathering Obama, and who had died in Africa much before Obama started rising.

The senior Obama, coming from Kenya as a part of a programme to prepare promising young men for the country's administration after independence, had fallen in love with a young and a somewhat impetuous white girl in Hawaii. Their union in 1961 had resulted in the birth of the personage who was to become the 44th president of the US. The mother was alive at the time the book was being written, and though Obama's love for her came through in between the lines, she was not the 'heroine' of the story. The 'dreams' came from the absent and dead father whom Obama had barely known, but who had left an indelible imprint, above all, let us face it, in the colour of the son's skin.

The lack of details about the mother's extraordinary life and character have now been  remedied through a thoroughly researched biography published recently, aptly titled A Singular Woman. Ann Dunham, Obama's mother, had died of cancer at 52 in 1995 before seeing her son's real successes, but fully confident that he would have it one day. 

With a twinge of regret about his relative neglect of her in his book, Obama had said movingly, that had he known that she would not survive longer, he would have probably written a different book: 'Less a meditation on the absent parent (meaning his father), more a celebration of the one who is the single constant in my life. What is best in me, I owe it to her.'

The story of Obama's ma is not a typical American story of her period, but almost its opposite. It is the story of a truly unusual person, a woman with a curiosity, a keen intellect, and an internationalist orientation much ahead of her times. Considering Obama's own unique profile, it is instructive to see the role that his mother's personality played in shaping him.

Ann came from a very ordinary white family from Kansas, a relatively backward part of the US. After a series of failures in his career, her father migrated and settled down in Hawaii, which had joined the US as the fiftieth state. At the age of 17, a student in the University in Hawaii, Ann met the tall and forceful Obama Senior in an optional Russian class that both had enrolled into.

The Kenyan student had great dignity and spellbinding oratory. Though considerably older and already married -- a fact that he hid from her -- he swept her off her feet. Ann also seems to have been an incurable romantic and the idea of this unconventional romance with a black aristocrat from a foreign land was very attractive to her. They got married in 1961 when she was already three months pregnant bearing the future president.

The marriage was not a success, but the failure was mainly because of the senior Obama's careerist reasons. In 1962, just a year after the marriage, he was accepted by Harvard and left the young wife and child for the prestige of the university. Later, he went back to join the government in Kenya, eventually to become an embittered and alcoholic bureaucrat. Ann continued her studies in anthropology at Hawaii. A greatly influential period in Obama's life was when his father came to visit the family in Hawaii when Obama was 10 and the father and son spent some 'quality time' as Americans would term it.

Ann Dunham, the mother's life trajectory continued to waver, true to her free spirit. Still studying in Hawaii, she met and fell in love with a kind and fun-loving Indonesian student, Lolo Soetoro. They married and when Obama was six years old, the family moved to Jakarta, where Obama spent four formative years of his life with the Javanese step-father, his hard-working mother and a whole gang of neighbourhood kids in a typically middle class and fun-filled environment. 

Searching for the early influences for President Obama's open, tolerant, and universalist outlook, many analysts have attributed it to this period: a mother immersed in Indonesian culture with a genuine interest in working with local craftsmen, a smiling and benevolent step-father ready to play soccer with 'Barry' the black American kid, and a noisy and vibrant community life around them. Not the typical background from where American presidents have come!

With Obama in school at the age of 10, the mother made an important decision. Sensing a lack of discipline and rigour in his education, Ann felt that the best gift that she can bequeath to her son is to assert her American nationality and to send him back to Hawaii for completing school. Obama was sent away to stay with the grandparents back in the US. His academic performance gradually improved in a good school and with each good result, his confidence and ambition grew. Some of that story, I had narrated two years back in these columns after reading Obama's book about his father: Obama and your grandmother.

After the young Obama left for the US, Ann continued in Indonesia with her work and her husband. Her professional interests were village crafts, women's empowerment and micro-credit. Just as in her personal life, in her working life too she seems to have been a little ahead of the curve, as all these issues today are fashionable and marketable.

The second marriage too did not work out, over differences about her role as a wife and as a working woman. She continued to live in Asia and completed her PhD in anthropology.

What kind of a relationship did Obama and his mother have? A complex one is the simple answer. Obama seemed to be awed by his absent father whom he met only once. As a young man, Obama traveled to Kenya to look for his father's legacy and met his half-brothers and cousins. The father made an impact on him, but there is not much evidence of love. In any case, absence marked that relationship.

The mother was 'absent' too in a different sense, with her own preoccupations and activities, though she gave the boy unconditional love, as Obama himself has admitted. Current biographers of Obama can trace aspects of his personality to the two very different personalities of his parents: the formidable intellect, the aloofness, and the slightly detached style to the Kenyan father; the tolerance, empathy and non-confrontational style to the mother and the years in Indonesia. Is this pop-psychology? Perhaps, but can we deny the science in genetic predispositions?

Obama has referred to himself as his 'mother's experiment'. A commentator has remarked tartly that Obama had perhaps meant that his mother was more in love with the idea of having a child from a black man, than in love with the black man or the child. This is cruel. Whatever the facts are, the experiment has already proved to be a success in transforming US presidential history and in validating the notion that in a democracy change is possible and that,  'yes, we can'.

Image: A young Barack Obama with his mother Ann Durham, in this Reuters photograph from the 1960s

B S Prakash is India's Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br
BS Prakash