HONOLULU – The end of a fascinating recently published book has President Barack Obama saying: “It was a sense that beneath our surface differences, we’re all the same, and that there’s more good than bad in each of us. That’s precisely the naivete and idealism that was part of her. And that’s, I suppose, the naive idealism in me.”
Obama was reminiscing about his late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in a book written by journalist Janny Scott titled. “A Singular Woman.” It’s a riveting account of a feisty Kansas-born white woman with a curious mix of idealism and pragmatism. Scott interviewed about 200 people who knew Dunham intimately, including President Obama and his half-Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.
Her male first name Stanley immediately raises eyebrows. Her mother, Madelyn, was a Bette Davis fan and liked the film in which the actress played a character named Stanley. That was also the name of Ann’s father. But that was only the beginning of an extraordinary life for a girl born in 1942 that would spiral in and out of Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia and to many parts of the world. At age 17, she moved to Hawaii with her parents, enrolled as a freshman at the University of Hawaii. And at 18, she married the first African graduate student, Barack Obama Sr., at the university, later giving birth to the future president of America, who was called Barry as a boy. At that time, interracial marriages were frowned upon or forbidden.
Barack Sr. went to Harvard to get his PhD and was supposed to send for his wife and Barry later. But the soon-to-be absentee husband returned instead to his native Kenya, where he was already married before he went to Hawaii. In fact, he married again a third time on his return to Kenya. It was many years before he saw Ann and Barry again.
Ann, meanwhile, had met another foreign student from Indonesia, Lolo Soetoro, who was an East-West Center grantee in Hawaii. She married him and joined him in Java, where she gave birth to Maya, who met her half-brother Barry only when he moved to Indonesia to be with the family.
But fate was unkind to the adventurous woman a second time around. Her marriage to Lolo didn’t work out either and they got divorced. It seemed Ann became more Indonesian as Lolo became more American. He worked for an American business firm in Java. Ann, determined to become an anthropologist, struggled to gather lots of field data on Indonesian village industries, like batik-making, to write up as a dissertation. She asked for extensions to finish her PhD and her understanding adviser, anthropology professor Alice Dewey, always obliged, knowing how talented Ann was.
So after two failed marriages with two young children needing care and education, an unfinished dissertation and an uncertain future, Ann immersed herself in work to tide her over. The Ford Foundation hired her and sent her to other places like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and New York, where she got involved in Women’s World Banking. Ann became an expert in microfinance, long before the term was invented, given her extensive expertise on Indonesian villages.
But her main priorities were Barry and Maya, and her love for them kept her going. She had home-schooled both of them in Indonesia, waking the boy at four in the morning to tutor him in his subjects. He would occasionally complain, but she would always say, “Look, buster, this is no picnic for me either.”
A workaholic, she barely slept, according to some friends. She was also messianic and was determined to help villagers improve their lives, crossing rivers and climbing mountains in remote places.
“She had an unusual ability to adapt,” notes Scott’s book. Despite her frenzied life, she never neglected her children. In 1984, she took Maya on a “grand tour” of Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. She constantly checked on Barry, now called Barack, arranging itineraries for him to Honolulu, to Java, to wherever he was at the time – Los Angeles, Columbia and Harvard, where he was the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
Ann was vainglorious about her “unusually gifted” son. She would continue to send him messages like, “If you want to grow into a human being, you’re going to need some values.” These values were shaped by her Midwestern roots and those of her adopted homeland, Indonesia. They include tolerance, compassion, hard work, discipline and caring for others.
The multiple stresses over her family stretching over oceans, her constant need for adequate financial resources, unfinished dissertation and work-related demands began to take a toll on her. She struggled to finish her dissertation now overdue by 20 years. Her adviser asked her to cut it down and focus on only one village industry. Still it spanned a thousand pages, a record in the annals of dissertation writing anywhere. Meanwhile, her father, Stanley Dunham, who had taken care of Barack in his teens in Hawaii, died. Her mother was left alone occasionally taking care of Maya. In 1995, Ann fell ill with what was diagnosed as uterine cancer. Dreading gynecologists, she had ignored increasing signs of pain. Compounding her misery, she was denied disability benefits.
She died at age 52 with Maya and her mother at her side. Barack flew home to Honolulu from Chicago where he was elected state legislator. In a solemn ceremony, he and Maya went over to their favorite beach on southeast Oahu to scatter their mother’s ashes into the sea and wind – and into eternity.
What an incredible life indeed for a woman unlike any other. It was a bittersweet life and what was so sad was that, she didn’t live long enough to see her little boy Barry become the first African-American president of the United States. She would have been so proud!
Retired professor of political Science and Asian Studies, Belinda A. Aquino was also director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.