The Story of Barack Obama’s Mother

barack-obama-mother-ann.jpgEach of us lives a life of contradictory truths. We are not one thing
or another. Barack Obama’s mother was at least a dozen things. S. Ann
Soetoro was a teen mother who later got a Ph.D. in anthropology; a
white woman from the Midwest who was more comfortable in Indonesia; a
natural-born mother obsessed with her work; a romantic pragmatist, if
such a thing is possible.

“When I think about my mother,” Obama told me recently, “I think that
there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was,
what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was
always searching for something. She wasn’t comfortable seeing her life
confined to a certain box.”

Obama’s mother was a dreamer. She made risky bets that paid off
only some of the time, choices that her children had to live with. She
fell in love–twice–with fellow students from distant countries she knew
nothing about. Both marriages failed, and she leaned on her parents and
friends to help raise her two children.

“She cried a lot,” says her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng, “if she
saw animals being treated cruelly or children in the news or a sad
movie–or if she felt like she wasn’t being understood in a
conversation.” And yet she was fearless, says Soetoro-Ng. “She was very
capable. She went out on the back of a motorcycle and did rigorous
fieldwork. Her research was responsible and penetrating. She saw the
heart of a problem, and she knew whom to hold accountable.”

Today Obama is partly a product of what his mother was not.
Whereas she swept her children off to unfamiliar lands and even lived
apart from her son when he was a teenager, Obama has tried to ground
his children in the Midwest. “We’ve created stability for our kids in a
way that my mom didn’t do for us,” he says. “My choosing to put down
roots in Chicago and marry a woman who is very rooted in one place
probably indicates a desire for stability that maybe I was missing.”

Ironically, the person who mattered most in Obama’s life is the
one we know the least about–maybe because being partly African in
America is still seen as being simply black and color is still a
preoccupation above almost all else. There is not enough room in the
conversation for the rest of a man’s story.

But Obama is his mother’s son. In his wide-open rhetoric about
what can be instead of what was, you see a hint of his mother’s
credulity. When Obama gets donations from people who have never
believed in politics before, they’re responding to his ability–passed
down from his mother–to make a powerful argument (that happens to be
very liberal) without using a trace of ideology. On a good day, when he
figures out how to move a crowd of thousands of people very different
from himself, it has something to do with having had a parent who gazed
at different cultures the way other people study gems.

It turns out that Obama’s nascent career peddling hope is a
family business. He inherited it. And while it is true that he has not
been profoundly tested, he was raised by someone who was.

In most elections, the deceased mother of a candidate in the
primaries is not the subject of a magazine profile. But Ann Soetoro was
not like most mothers.

Born in 1942, just five years before Hillary Clinton, Obama’s mother
came into an America constrained by war, segregation and a distrust of
difference. Her parents named her Stanley because her father had wanted
a boy. She endured the expected teasing over this indignity, but
dutifully lugged the name through high school, apologizing for it each
time she introduced herself in a new town.

During her life, she was known by four different names, each
representing a distinct chapter. In the course of the Stanley period,
her family moved more than five times–from Kansas to California to
Texas to Washington–before her 18th birthday. Her father, a furniture
salesman, had a restlessness that she inherited.

She spent her high school years on a small island in
Washington, taking advanced classes in philosophy and visiting coffee
shops in Seattle. “She was a very intelligent, quiet girl, interested
in her friendships and current events,” remembers Maxine Box, a close
high school friend. Both girls assumed they would go to college and
pursue careers. “She wasn’t particularly interested in children or in
getting married,” Box says. Although Stanley was accepted early by the
University of Chicago, her father wouldn’t let her go. She was too
young to be off on her own, he said, unaware, as fathers tend to be, of
what could happen when she lived in his house.

After she finished high school, her father whisked the family
away again–this time to Honolulu, after he heard about a big new
furniture store there. Hawaii had just become a state, and it was the
new frontier. Stanley grudgingly went along yet again, enrolling in the
University of Hawaii as a freshman.

Mrs. Barack H. Obama
Shortly before she moved to Hawaii, Stanley saw her first foreign film. Black Orpheus
was an award-winning musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus, a tale
of doomed love. The movie was considered exotic because it was filmed
in Brazil, but it was written and directed by white Frenchmen. The
result was sentimental and, to some modern eyes, patronizing. Years
later Obama saw the film with his mother and thought about walking out.
But looking at her in the theater, he glimpsed her 16-year-old self. “I
suddenly realized,” he wrote in his memoir, Dreams from My Father,
“that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen
… was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years
before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to
a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life,
warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

By college, Stanley had started introducing herself as Ann. She
met Barack Obama Sr. in a Russian-language class. He was one of the
first Africans to attend the University of Hawaii and a focus of great
curiosity. He spoke at church groups and was interviewed for several
local-newspaper stories. “He had this magnetic personality,” remembers
Neil Abercrombie, a member of Congress from Hawaii who was friends with
Obama Sr. in college. “Everything was oratory from him, even the most
commonplace observation.”

Obama’s father quickly drew a crowd of friends at the
university. “We would drink beer, eat pizza and play records,”
Abercrombie says. They talked about Vietnam and politics. “Everyone had
an opinion about everything, and everyone was of the opinion that
everyone wanted to hear their opinion–no one more so than Barack.”

The exception was Ann, the quiet young woman in the corner who began to
hang out with Obama and his friends that fall. “She was scarcely out of
high school. She was mostly kind of an observer,” says Abercrombie.
Obama Sr.’s friends knew he was dating a white woman, but they made a
point of treating it as a nonissue. This was Hawaii, after all, a place
enamored of its reputation as a melting pot.

But when people called Hawaii a “melting pot” in the early 1960s, they
meant a place where white people blended with Asians. At the time, 19%
of white women in Hawaii married Chinese men, and that was considered
radical by the rest of the nation. Black people made up less than 1% of
the state’s population. And while interracial marriage was legal there,
it was banned in half the other states.

When Ann told her parents about the African student at school,
they invited him over for dinner. Her father didn’t notice when his
daughter reached out to hold the man’s hand, according to Obama’s book.
Her mother thought it best not to cause a scene. As Obama would write,
“My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people
playing in her head.”

On Feb. 2, 1961, several months after they met, Obama’s parents
got married in Maui, according to divorce records. It was a Thursday.
At that point, Ann was three months pregnant with Barack Obama II.
Friends did not learn of the wedding until afterward. “Nobody was
invited,” says Abercrombie. The motivations behind the marriage remain
a mystery, even to Obama. “I never probed my mother about the details.
Did they decide to get married because she was already pregnant? Or did
he propose to her in the traditional, formal way?” Obama wonders. “I
suppose, had she not passed away, I would have asked more.”

Even by the standards of 1961, she was young to be married. At
18, she dropped out of college after one semester, according to
University of Hawaii records. When her friends back in Washington heard
the news, “we were very shocked,” says Box, her high school friend.

Then, when Obama was almost 1, his father left for Harvard to
get a Ph.D. in economics. He had also been accepted to the New School
in New York City, with a more generous scholarship that would have
allowed his family to join him. But he decided to go to Harvard. “How
can I refuse the best education?” he told Ann, according to Obama’s

Obama’s father had an agenda: to return to his home country and
help reinvent Kenya. He wanted to take his new family with him. But he
also had a wife from a previous marriage there–a marriage that may or
may not have been legal. In the end, Ann decided not to follow him.
“She was under no illusions,” says Abercrombie. “He was a man of his
time, from a very patriarchal society.” Ann filed for divorce in
Honolulu in January 1964, citing “grievous mental suffering”–the reason
given in most divorces at the time. Obama Sr. signed for the papers in
Cambridge, Mass., and did not contest the divorce.

Ann had already done things most women of her generation had
not: she had married an African, had their baby and gotten divorced. At
this juncture, her life could have become narrower–a young,
marginalized woman focused on paying the rent and raising a child on
her own. She could have filled her son’s head with well-founded
resentment for his absent father. But that is not what happened.

When her son was almost 2, Ann returned to college. Money was tight.
She collected food stamps and relied on her parents to help take care
of young Barack. She would get her bachelor’s degree four years later.
In the meantime, she met another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro, at the
University of Hawaii. (“It’s where I send all my single girlfriends,”
jokes her daughter Soetoro-Ng, who also married a man she met there.)
He was easygoing, happily devoting hours to playing chess with Ann’s
father and wrestling with her young son. Lolo proposed in 1967.

Mother and son spent months preparing to follow him to
Indonesia–getting shots, passports and plane tickets. Until then,
neither had left the country. After a long journey, they landed in an
unrecognizable place. “Walking off the plane, the tarmac rippling with
heat, the sun bright as a furnace,” Obama later wrote, “I clutched her
hand, determined to protect her.”

Lolo’s house, on the outskirts of Jakarta, was a long way from
the high-rises of Honolulu. There was no electricity, and the streets
were not paved. The country was transitioning to the rule of General
Suharto. Inflation was running at more than 600%, and everything was
scarce. Ann and her son were the first foreigners to live in the
neighborhood, according to locals who remember them. Two baby
crocodiles, along with chickens and birds of paradise, occupied the
backyard. To get to know the kids next door, Obama sat on the wall
between their houses and flapped his arms like a great, big bird,
making cawing noises, remembers Kay Ikranagara, a friend. “That got the
kids laughing, and then they all played together,” she says.

Obama attended a Catholic school called Franciscus Assisi
Primary School. He attracted attention since he was not only a
foreigner but also chubbier than the locals. But he seemed to shrug off
the teasing, eating tofu and tempeh like all the other kids, playing
soccer and picking guavas from the trees. He didn’t seem to mind that
the other children called him “Negro,” remembers Bambang Sukoco, a
former neighbor.

At first, Obama’s mother gave money to every beggar who stopped
at their door. But the caravan of misery–children without limbs, men
with leprosy–churned on forever, and she was forced to be more
selective. Her husband mocked her calculations of relative suffering.
“Your mother has a soft heart,” he told Obama.

As Ann became more intrigued by Indonesia, her husband became
more Western. He rose through the ranks of an American oil company and
moved the family to a nicer neighborhood. She was bored by the dinner
parties he took her to, where men boasted about golf scores and wives
complained about their Indonesian servants. The couple fought rarely
but had less and less in common. “She wasn’t prepared for the
loneliness,” Obama wrote in Dreams. “It was constant, like a shortness
of breath.”

Ann took a job teaching English at the U.S. embassy. She woke
up well before dawn throughout her life. Now she went into her son’s
room every day at 4 a.m. to give him English lessons from a U.S.
correspondence course. She couldn’t afford the élite international
school and worried he wasn’t challenged enough. After two years at the
Catholic school, Obama moved to a state-run elementary school closer to
the new house. He was the only foreigner, says Ati Kisjanto, a
classmate, but he spoke some Indonesian and made new friends.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, but Obama’s
household was not religious. “My mother, whose parents were
nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual
souls I ever knew,” Obama said in a 2007 speech. “But she had a healthy
skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did

In her own way, Ann tried to compensate for the absence of black people
in her son’s life. At night, she came home from work with books on the
civil rights movement and recordings of Mahalia Jackson. Her
aspirations for racial harmony were simplistic. “She was very much of
the early Dr. [Martin Luther] King era,” Obama says. “She believed that
people were all basically the same under their skin, that bigotry of
any sort was wrong and that the goal was then to treat everybody as
unique individuals.” Ann gave her daughter, who was born in 1970, dolls
of every hue: “A pretty black girl with braids, an Inuit, Sacagawea, a
little Dutch boy with clogs,” says Soetoro-Ng, laughing. “It was like
the United Nations.”

In 1971, when Obama was 10, Ann sent him back to Hawaii to live
with her parents and attend Punahou, an élite prep school that he’d
gotten into on a scholarship with his grandparents’ help. This
wrenching decision seemed to reflect how much she valued education.
Ann’s friends say it was hard on her, and Obama, in his book, describes
an adolescence shadowed by a sense of alienation. “I didn’t feel [her
absence] as a deprivation,” Obama told me. “But when I think about the
fact that I was separated from her, I suspect it had more of an impact
than I know.”

A year later, Ann followed Obama back to Hawaii, as promised,
taking her daughter but leaving her husband behind. She enrolled in a
master’s program at the University of Hawaii to study the anthropology
of Indonesia.

Indonesia is an anthropologist’s fantasyland. It is made up of
17,500 islands, on which 230 million people speak more than 300
languages. The archipelago’s culture is colored by Buddhist, Hindu,
Muslim and Dutch traditions. Indonesia “sucks a lot of us in,” says
fellow anthropologist and friend Alice Dewey. “It’s delightful.”

Around this time, Ann began to find her voice. People who knew
her before describe her as quiet and smart; those who met her afterward
use words like forthright and passionate.
The timing of her graduate work was perfect. “The whole face of the
earth was changing,” Dewey says. “Colonial powers were collapsing,
countries needed help, and development work was beginning to interest

Ann’s husband visited Hawaii frequently, but they never lived
together again. Ann filed for divorce in 1980. As with Obama’s father,
she kept in regular contact with Lolo and did not pursue alimony or
child support, according to divorce records.

“She was no Pollyanna. There have certainly been moments when
she complained to us,” says her daughter Soetoro-Ng. “But she was not
someone who would take the detritus of those divorces and make
judgments about men in general or love or allow herself to grow
pessimistic.” With each failed marriage, Ann gained a child and, in one
case, a country as well.

After three years of living with her children in a small apartment in
Honolulu, subsisting on student grants, Ann decided to go back to
Indonesia to do fieldwork for her Ph.D. Obama, then about 14, told her
he would stay behind. He was tired of being new, and he appreciated the
autonomy his grandparents gave him. Ann did not argue with him. “She
kept a certain part of herself aloof or removed,” says Mary Zurbuchen,
a friend from Jakarta. “I think maybe in some way this was how she
managed to cross so many boundaries.”

In Indonesia, Ann joked to friends that her son seemed interested only
in basketball. “She despaired of him ever having a social conscience,”
remembers Richard Patten, a colleague. After her divorce, Ann started
using the more modern spelling of her name, Sutoro. She took a big job
as the program officer for women and employment at the Ford Foundation,
and she spoke up forcefully at staff meetings. Unlike many other
expats, she had spent a lot of time with villagers, learning their
priorities and problems, with a special focus on women’s work. “She was
influenced by hanging out in the Javanese marketplace,” Zurbuchen says,
“where she would see women with heavy baskets on their backs who got up
at 3 in the morning to walk to the market and sell their produce.” Ann
thought the Ford Foundation should get closer to the people and further
from the government, just as she had.

Her home became a gathering spot for the powerful and the
marginalized: politicians, filmmakers, musicians and labor organizers.
“She had, compared with other foundation colleagues, a much more
eclectic circle,” Zurbuchen says. “She brought unlikely conversation
partners together.”

Obama’s mother cared deeply about helping poor women, and she
had two biracial children. But neither of them remembers her talking
about sexism or racism. “She spoke mostly in positive terms: what we
are trying to do and what we can do,” says Soetoro-Ng, who is now a
history teacher at a girls’ high school in Honolulu. “She wasn’t
ideological,” notes Obama. “I inherited that, I think, from her. She
was suspicious of cant.” He remembers her joking that she wanted to get
paid as much as a man, but it didn’t mean she would stop shaving her
legs. In his recent Philadelphia speech on race, in which he
acknowledged the grievances of blacks and
whites, Obama was consciously channeling his mother. “When I was
writing that speech,” he told nbc News, “her memory loomed over me. Is
this something that she would trust?” When it came to race, Obama told
me, “I don’t think she was entirely comfortable with the more
aggressive or militant approaches to African-American politics.”

In the expat community of Asia in the 1980s, single mothers
were rare, and Ann stood out. She was by then a rather large woman with
frizzy black hair. But Indonesia was an uncommonly tolerant place. “For
someone like Ann, who had a big personality and was a big presence,”
says Zurbuchen, “Indonesia was very accepting. It gave her a sense of
fitting in.” At home, Ann wore the traditional housecoat, the batik
daster. She loved simple, traditional restaurants. Friends remember
sharing bakso bola tenis, or noodles with tennis-ball-size meatballs, from a roadside stand.

Today Ann would not be so unusual in the U.S. A single mother of
biracial children pursuing a career, she foreshadowed, in some ways,
what more of America would look like. But she did so without comment,
her friends say. “She wasn’t stereotypical at all,” says Nancy Peluso,
a friend and an environmental sociologist. “But she didn’t make a big
deal out of it.”

Ann’s most lasting professional legacy was to help build the
microfinance program in Indonesia, which she did from 1988 to
’92–before the practice of granting tiny loans to credit-poor
entrepreneurs was an established success story. Her anthropological
research into how real people worked helped inform the policies set by
the Bank Rakyat Indonesia, says Patten, an economist who worked there.
“I would say her work had a lot to do with the success of the program,”
he says. Today Indonesia’s microfinance program is No. 1 in the world
in terms of savers, with 31 million members, according to Microfinance
Information eXchange Inc., a microfinance-tracking outfit.

While his mother was helping poor people in Indonesia, Obama was trying
to do something similar 7,000 miles (about 11,300 km) away in Chicago,
as a community organizer. Ann’s friends say she was delighted by his
career move and started every conversation with an update of her
children’s lives. “All of us knew where Barack was going to school. All
of us knew how brilliant he was,” remembers Ann’s friend Georgia

Every so often, Ann would leave Indonesia to live in Hawaii–or
New York or even, in the mid-1980s, Pakistan, for a microfinance job.
She and her daughter sometimes lived in garage apartments and spare
rooms of friends. She collected treasures from her travels–exquisite
things with stories she understood. Antique daggers with an odd number
of curves, as required by Javanese tradition; unusual batiks;
rice-paddy hats. Before returning to Hawaii in 1984, Ann wrote her
friend Dewey that she and her daughter would “probably need a camel
caravan and an elephant or two to load all our bags on the plane, and
I’m sure you don’t want to see all those airline agents weeping and
rending their garments.” At his house in Chicago, Obama says, he has
his mother’s arrowhead collection from Kansas–along with “trunks full
of batiks that we don’t really know what to do with.”

In 1992, Obama’s mother finally finished her Ph.D.
dissertation, which she had worked on, between jobs, for almost two
decades. The thesis is 1,000 pages, a meticulous analysis of peasant
blacksmithing in Indonesia. The glossary, which she describes as “far
from complete,” is 24 pages. She dedicated the tome to her mother; to
Dewey, her adviser; “and to Barack and Maya, who seldom complained when
their mother was in the field.”

In the fall of 1994, Ann was having dinner at her friend
Patten’s house in Jakarta when she felt a pain in her stomach. A local
doctor diagnosed indigestion. When Ann returned to Hawaii several
months later, she learned it was ovarian and uterine cancer. She died
on Nov. 7, 1995, at 52.

Before her death, Ann read a draft of her son’s memoir, which
is almost entirely about his father. Some of her friends were surprised
at the focus, but she didn’t seem obviously bothered. “She never
complained about it,” says Peluso. “She just said it was something he
had to work out.” Neither Ann nor her son knew how little time they had

Obama has said his biggest mistake was not being at his
mother’s side when she died. He went to Hawaii to help the family
scatter the ashes over the Pacific. And he carries on her spirit in his
campaign. “When Barack smiles,” says Peluso, “there’s just a certain Ann look. He lights up in a particular way that she did.”

After Ann’s death, her daughter dug through her artifacts, searching
for Ann’s story. “She always did want to write a memoir,” Soetoro-Ng
says. Finally, she discovered the start of a life story, but it was
less than two pages. She never found anything more. Maybe Ann had run
out of time, or maybe the chemotherapy had worn her out. “I don’t know.
Maybe she felt overwhelmed,” says Soetoro-Ng, “because there was so
much to tell.”

Source: TIME

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