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Obama's Search for his Mother

Barack Obama is only now coming to grips with his mother

Ann Dunham -- the President's mother -- in Indonesia

President Barack Obama went on a famous journey, retold in Dreams from My Father, searching for his identity. That he conducted this search in Kenya, on his dead father's trail, seems to slight his mother. According to Janna Scott, "Obama placed the ghost of his absent father at the center of his lyrical account of his life. At times, he has seemed to say more about the grandparents who helped raise him than about his mother."

Obama had almost no contact -- save for one visit from him in Hawaii when Barack was quite young -- with his father. He was raised by his mother. Only if Obama believed (you know, like the disease theory of addiction) that his being was determined mainly by his genetic heritage through his absent father does such a search work as the best way to gauge his identity (even as his curiosity about his paternal lineage is certainly understandable in a young man).

Lately, both Obama and others seem to be spending more time thinking about his mother - Stanley Ann Dunham (she dropped the "Stanley"). Scott has written a book, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, a long excerpt from which appeared in the Times, "Obama's Young Mother Abroad." The woman is remarkable, and so influential on the president's life, as Obama himself is revealing.

[S]he shaped him, to a degree Obama has seemed increasingly to acknowledge. In the preface to the 2004 edition of "Dreams From My Father," issued nine years after the first edition and nine years after Dunham's death, Obama folded in a revealing admission: had he known his mother would not survive her illness [she died at 52], he might have written a different book - "less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life."

Pregnant with the president when she was 17 by a brilliant, charismatic African intellectual she met in Hawaii, that relationship soon ended, and Dunham married an Indonesian man, with whom she went to live when she was 24 and her son was 6.

Remember --- this was 1967. Pretty daring.

She was devoted to her son, spoke of him to everyone, stayed up nights reviewing his assignments with and for him, and (yes Donald Trump) frequently mentioned him as a likely first black president: "Ann believed Barry [as he was called then]. . . was unusually gifted. She would boast about his brains, his achievements, how brave he was." When he was in Hawaii, "a letter in Jakarta from her son in the United States could raise her spirits for a full day."

Yet she herself abandoned him - or at least left him to his own devices - twice, the first time when Obama was 10, for three years, when she sent him to live in Hawaii with her parents and she remained in Indonesia with his small sister.

Dunham was a strict mother - both demanding politeness (she ridiculed sassy American children) and intellectual achievement (Obama was already receiving homework assignments from his grandmother in Hawaii while he was still attending school in Jakarta, at age 9). Dunham both expected Obama to mind her, and gave him great independence and latitude: " 'We were floored that she'd bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks,' Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless."

Dunham's treatment of her child encouraged a unique kind of intellectual detachment. In the first place, when Obama and his half-Indonesian-sister, Maya (who has recently come forward with her own book, and has been speaking more freely) disliked someone, their mother encouraged them to imagine being in the other person's place: "If we said something unkind about someone, she would try to talk about their point of view. Or, ‘How would you feel?' Sort of compelling us ever toward empathy . . . . That was constant, steady, daily."

But Obama also had to be detached because the Indonesian culture encouraged it - particularly from a black person. In Indonesia:

"You demonstrate an inner strength by not betraying emotion, not speaking loudly, not moving jerkily," he (an anthropologist) said. Self-control is inculcated through a culture of teasing,. . . . "People tease about skin color all the time." If a child allows the teasing to bother him, he is teased more. If he ignores it, it stops. ". . .this was where Barack learned to be cool". . . .

But Obama also got his detachment due to his mother, partly in reaction to her, partly as a defense. His mother could be emotional and disorganized, which he himself was not. Moreover, when she sent him to Hawaii, he had to form a shell against the separation:

Ann uprooted Barry, at age 6, and transplanted him to Jakarta. Now she was uprooting him again, at barely 10, and sending him back, alone. She would follow him to Hawaii only to leave him again, less than three years later. . . . When we spoke last July, Obama recalled those serial displacements. "I think that was harder on a 10-year-old boy than he'd care to admit at the time," Obama said [notice this detached form of expression], sitting in a chair in the Oval Office and speaking about his mother with a mix of affection and critical distance. . . . being a parent now and looking back at that, I could see - you know what? - that would be hard on a kid."

He spoke about his mother with fondness, humor and a degree of candor that I had not expected. There was also in his tone at times a hint of gentle forbearance. Perhaps it was the tone of someone whose patience had been tested, by a person he loved, to the point where he had stepped back to a safer distance. Or perhaps it was the knowingness of a grown child seeing his parent as irredeemably human.

An interesting upbringing. An interesting man. An interesting mother.

More from Stanton Peele Ph.D.
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