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a review of Janny Scott's A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother (2011)
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?
—NATASHA TRETHEWEY, “Pastoral”
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” said Cornel West in an interview published on the political blog, TruthDig in May 2011. “It’s understandable,” he continues, “As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening ... Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.”
West claims to understand quite a lot about Obama, intuited from the most general facts of his upbringing in an interracial and international family context. According to West, this upbringing has directly shaped (or perhaps “distorted” is the better description from West’s point of view) his political formation, alienating him from his people (“deracination”) and thus making him ideally suited to become what West calls “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
"It is a tried and true ritual of American politics to interpret
interracial intimacy and mixed race subjectivity
as a sign of suspect political loyalty."
When he made these statements, West was participating in a tried and true ritual of American politics—the one in which interracial intimacy and mixed-race subjectivity are interpreted as sign of, or explanation for, suspect or insufficient political loyalty. George W. Bush performed the ritual in 2000, successfully smearing John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary with a whisper campaign that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. Most recently, in a widely read and discussed New York Times opinion piece published just a few months after the West interview, Drew Westen, psychologist and self-described “scientist and strategic consultant,” explained Obama’s perceived political betrayal as a consequence of his insufficiently integrated identity. In Obama, Westen writes, we have “a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his reelection. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in Dreams from My Father appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there—the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in” (emphasis added).
These statements rely on familiar stereotypes of mixed race people—psychologically conflicted, confused, race traitors—for their impact, and evidence no more than a cursory knowledge of the details of Obama’s family life. Not that more detail about those relationships matters much to those making these kinds of political speculations. Ideologies, as Barbara Fields reminds us in the New Left Review, “are real, but it does not follow that they [need to be] scientifically accurate” in order to do their work. They work because they reflect the daily rituals that people engage in to make them seem plausible—rituals like the ones West and Westen are performing—that assert, while claiming to merely describe, the political impact of mixed-race subjectivity.
Janny Scott’s biography emerges in this moment in which the political utility of interracialism reveals itself yet again. If statements about the significance of Obama’s upbringing in his political decision-making proceed largely on the basis of supposition and innuendo,A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, published by Riverhead Press, provides some much needed context. Scott did not get to comment on this most recent controversy since the volume went to press before it occurred. Yet, her book can be read as a long (nearly 400-page) retort to those who would so blithely use interracial kinship and mixed-race subjectivity in this way.
Scott, a former New York Times reporter who was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for their series on race in America and who covered the then-Senator Obama during the presidential campaign, seeks to provide a corrective to the minimalist caricature of the president’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, as “a white woman from Kansas.” This statement is about as illuminating of Ann (her preferred name), Scott wryly tells us, as describing her son as “a politician who likes golf.” “Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story,” which Scott tells in great detail for the rest of the book.
West’s comments inadvertently underscore Scott’s point. The “white context” he marks as having been so consequential to Obama’s political formation includes his “white, loving grandparents” and his “brilliant African father.” Absent is any reference to Obama’s mother, the woman who raised him and the person Obama describes in Dreams from My Father as “the single constant in my life.” Scott’s stated mission is to restore context and dimension to the caricature that has thus far described Ann Dunham and in so doing, “provide new insights into the president.”
"It is the children, after all, who have to
live the reality of their parents’ ideals"
There are many ways one might read Scott’s rendering of Ann’s life: as an exploration of the challenges of being a single working mother in an age where there were few cultural supports in place for them; as a window into the life of an applied anthropologist committed to fostering women’s economic development; as an inquiry into the motivations of a woman who spent most of her adult life living outside her native country; and as an attempt to understand how she came to be a mother of biracial children in an age when interracial kinship was illegal in parts of her native country, and highly stigmatized if not illegal in the countries to which she traveled.
Scott’s work explores in detail all of these experiences, which is principally why the book so effectively shows the shallowness of reductionist assessments of interracialism generally, and Obama specifically.
And yet, Ann’s relationship to interracial kinship is perhaps the least well-developed aspect of the book. There are silences in Ann’s story (or Scott’s rendering of it—or both) concerning the significance of race in her life and that of her children. This is somewhat ironic given that it is this aspect of Ann’s biography that drives much of the interest in her story (both in her public framing and in Scott’s motivation to tell her story). As the mother of a president who occupies a singular place in history as the first president of African descent, race and interracialism are central to the narrative of who Ann is and to her “singular” place in history.
My reference to these silences is potentially problematic, I realize, since framing them as such suggests that Ann should have said more, thought more, or considered more about racial difference than she did, or than Scott’s book analyzes. I am less interested in what any particular individual ought to have done. Rather, I am interested in thinking about the sources of these silences. Some are the result of forces inherent in biography as a form of historical writing—its reliance on the flawed and changing nature of memory and the common problem that biographical subjects often leave behind few direct pieces of evidence that communicate the ideas and feelings motivating their actions. Some are specific to the dilemmas that interracial kinship poses for Americans both at mid century and now—generational gaps in experience, and ideological blindspots that shape what people see and do not see about the significance of race, or lack thereof, in their lives and in the lives of others.
Life on a Racial Frontier
Already the words are changing. She is changing.
from colored to negro, black still years ahead.
This is 1966—she is married to a white man—
and there are more names for what grows inside her.
—NATASHA TRETHEWEY, “My Mother Dreams Another Country”
When eighteen-year-old Ann Dunham and twenty-four-year-old Barack Obama, Sr. married in 1960, they entered relatively uncharted territory on America’s racial frontier. In marrying, they joined 157,000 other interracial married couples in the United States—a mere 0.4% of all marriages at the time, according to the Census Bureau. When they married, the couple had only known each other a few months, meeting on the campus of the University of Hawaii at the start of Ann’s freshman year, their marriage hastened by Ann’s pregnancy.
Unmarried women who became pregnant in this period faced stark choices including illegal abortion, with all its attendant medical and social risks, surrendering one’s child for adoption, the stigma of keeping one’s child, or marriage to the father. The choices facing white women pregnant by black men were even starker given the threat to racial membership that bearing black children (as dominant classification criteria would categorize them) posed for them and their families, and the threat to the racial order it posed more generally. Unlike some of these women, Ann lived in a state in which it was possible to legitimize the union (and her child, as it were) through marriage.
How women in this situation at that time made these choices is a subject not fully explored, due in part to the stigmatized and hidden nature of the phenomenon then and still. Uncounted numbers of white women gave their children up for adoption in direct response to the costs that bearing a biracial/black child entailed—costs they experienced (or feared) and the diminished lives they anticipated for their children and themselves. Some of that history is revealed in the stories told by the children these women relinquished. June Cross tells a particularly painful story in Secret Daughter in which her white mother—in part to protect her daughter from the difficulties of living in a white world, in part to protect her own privilege—gave her to a black family to be raised, requiring June to pose as her niece or adopted daughter when they were together.
"What is this whiteness that threatens to separate me
from my own child? Why haven’t I seen it lurking, hunkering down,
encircling me in some irresistible fog?"
Given such a context, the question of how this “white woman from Kansas,” came to be the kind of person who could defy social conventions of sex, gender, and race becomes particularly interesting. Scott speculates less than she might about how the options available to an eighteen-year-old, unmarried white woman, pregnant by a black man in the early 1960s might have shaped her decisions. Instead, she looks for clues in Ann’s personality and in her family history. Drawing from hundreds of interviews with Ann’s family (including her two children), friends, and coworkers, Scott sketches a portrait of a woman with “a certain restlessness and willingness to take risks,” a trait she shared with her father. Her friends describe her as “feisty,” with an edge and a “huge sense of humor.” Her children describe her as sentimental, pragmatic, idealistic and fair, with a deep sense that “people’s lives could be made better, and that it was important to try.”
All note that she was an unconventional woman, hungry for travel and unusually bright. While born in Kansas in 1942, Ann lived very little of her life there, moving seven times to five different states by the time she reached her early teens. She spent her high school years in suburban Seattle, and though offered admission to the University of Chicago, was not permitted to go. Her father preferred instead that she remain close to home, which by this time was the newest state of Hawaii.
Many white parents of the era responded to the news that their daughter was to marry a black man by disowning, shunning, or disinheriting them. But Ann’s parents were relatively quick to welcome the father of their grandchild. Cautious and “a little distraught” at first, they would soon become admirers of their Kenyan son-in-law, impressed with his intelligence and ambition.
The marriage did not last long, however. Shortly before his son turned one, the elder Obama left Hawaii for graduate school at Harvard, and the couple drifted apart. By the age of twenty, Ann was effectively a single parent. In 1964, she would marry Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student studying at the University of Hawaii. By 1967, Ann, her six-year-old son, and Lolo lived together in Indonesia, Ann having finally completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology. Three years later, Lolo and Ann’s daughter, Maya, was born. The couple would soon separate due in part to their differing views on Ann’s work. By the mid 1970s, Ann had begun doctoral research, traveling extensively throughout the country while still working full time on various development projects in Central Java. Lolo preferred a more conventional wife who would be a helpmate to him as he advanced his career. By 1980, this marriage would also end.
Despite living outside the borders of the U.S., Ann was subject to the cautionary tales about interracial parenting commonly invoked in the United States; in particular, the oft-expressed “concern for the children” that is intended to discourage entering into interracial relationships. Several of Ann’s friends were subtly critical of her decision to go to Indonesia with young “Barry.” One recalls thinking that it was “unusual and dangerous and difficult raising multicultural children on her own.” One remembers being “floored” that Ann would bring a “half black” child to Indonesia, a place, many note, where anti-black sentiment is especially strong. According to Ann’s friend, Kay Ikranagara, a Dutch woman also married to an Indonesian man, “People tease about skin color all the time. Having dark skin is a negative—as would have been plumpness and curly hair,” referring to other physical characteristics of the nine-year-old Obama. Even Ann’s former co-workers, reports one of them, “made a joke of him” because of the color of his skin.
As a mother navigating this new terrain, Ann’s preferred style seems to have been to teach her son to ignore racial harassment. A former colleague recounts an incident when Indonesian kids threw rocks and shouted racial epithets at Barry. The young Obama treated it as a game, reacting to the rocks as if he was playing dodge ball. When this colleague wanted to intervene, Ann said, “No, he’s okay... He’s used to it.” At first glance this seems like Ann was teaching her son tolerate disrespect so as to get along. Scott suggests, however, that Ann made this decision as a result of a clear-eyed assessment of Indonesian society. “Self-control is inculcated in part in Indonesian schools,” reports Scott, “And it’s done through a culture of teasing.” Kay Ikranagara offers this: “If a child allows the teasing to bother him, he is teased more. If he ignores it, it stops... If you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win.” Seen from this angle, Ann’s apparent nonchalance about racial harassment and the lesson she inculcated in her child seems to be a savvy response well-suited to the Indonesian context.
"The mistake that Cornel West and others make
is not that they imagine too much about what being raised
in an interracial context means, but that they imagine too little."
While we hear a good deal from Ann’s friends and acquaintances about how race was experienced in her life, there are precious few passages that illuminate Ann’s own reflections on her children’s racial position, their experiences, and her feelings about them. Nothing is said here, for example, of how Ann felt about her coworkers teasing her son—or if she even knew. We are told that Ann described this job (at the United States Embassy in Jakarta) as a place she worked “for two horrible years.” It is possible that she was aware of what her co-workers said about her son and how they talked about blacks in the abstract, but we don’t get much directly from Ann.
It is hard to say for certain if this lack is a failure of Scott’s research, a failure of the archive (there are no records of such events), or that indeed Ann did not say much about these issues. Undoubtedly all contribute, though I’m inclined to give some weight to the latter. Though warm, friendly, and talkative, Ann was also a private person. She did not write herself into history. She wrote others’ stories, particularly those of the blacksmiths of Kajar village in central Java, the subjects of her dissertation. Even in her dissertation, since published by Duke University Press, there is no lengthy recounting of her personal experiences in the field of the kind that are now expected in anthropological writing. More to the point, Ann was not one to emphasize racial distinctions between people, especially with respect to her children. For example, a long time acquaintance notes that he did not know her son (by this time back in Hawaii attending the prestigious Punahou Academy) was black until he visited as a teenager.
In Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness, Jane Lazarre’s memoir about her life married to a black man and raising their two sons, Lazarre writes, “When I decided to marry Douglas I had not thought of children or their problems, and if I considered their racial identity at all it was with a combination of denial of its importance and a naive faith in imminent radical social change.” Like Lazarre and many other women who married out in the middle of the century, Ann was committed to challenging the idea that it is natural to look at people through the categories of race and nationality. She believed that it was possible to transcend racial boundaries. “We are so lucky to know both cultures,” Ann’s friend recounts her saying. “This problem about ethnicity, about race—it is not a problem for us.” Virtually everyone who knew Ann notes her uncommonly deep immersion in and understanding of Indonesian culture and her ability to enter worlds most expatriates could not or would not. If indeed Ann said this or something close to it, it is not difficult to imagine that she thought the same was possible for her children.
For the children of interracial couples, however, this refusal to view the world in racial terms, well-intentioned though it may be, can feel like a refusal to see or fully understand its impact on their lives. Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, notes this disconnect between her parents’ ideals and her own experience: “My mother tells me about the hope she and my father had for me, for the world my mixed-race integrated body might help create.” Knowing that when her parents married, her white, Jewish father was disowned by his parents, while her mother’s racial and political loyalties were called into question, Walker marvels at her parents’ optimism. “Given what I know of the seemingly intractable need for human beings to define themselves in relation to a lesser, oppressable Other, it is almost impossible for me to imagine having this kind of faith in the future.”
Maya and Barack view their mother’s optimism about the possibilities of transcending racial boundaries as a bit naive. To them, this naiveté is encapsulated in her love of the “corny” film Black Orpheus, “with its depiction of childlike blacks,” Obama writes in Dreams from My Father, “a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas.” Watching the film with his mother and witnessing her enchantment with it, Obama recalls, “I turned away, embarrassed for her, irritated with the people around me,” and thought, “The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.”
As Obama’s words attest, complicated emotions arise in the context of interracial kinship, where the uncomfortable realities of racial division intrude into relationships that are expected to be free of them. There are moments that reveal that Ann too was concerned about the ways that race might separate her from her children. On the eve of Obama’s graduation from Harvard Law School, when a friend speculates that he must have presidential aspirations, Ann begins to weep. Is she fearful for his safety? Sad at how quickly the years have passed? A colleague speculates that Ann was upset because Barack had “chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity.” He goes on to say that Ann thought this was for “professional” reasons, which would suggest that she felt this identity was not truly reflective of who her son was. At the very least, it suggests that this is not who Ann thought her son was. In that moment, perhaps for the first time, Ann fully recognized that race really had mattered in her son’s life.
Perhaps Ann felt as Jane Lazarre did when her son began to articulate a strong black identification: “Fierce possessiveness lies at the heart of motherhood,” Lazarre writes, “right alongside the more reasonable need to see one’s children become themselves, and now this emotion rises up and chokes me, obliterating vocabulary... What is this whiteness that threatens to separate me from my own child? Why haven’t I seen it lurking, hunkering down, encircling me in some irresistible fog? I want to say the thing that will be most helpful to him, offer some carefully designed, unspontaneous permission for him to discover his own road, even if that means leaving me behind. On the other hand, I want to cry out, don’t leave me... And always, this double truth, as unresolvable as in any other passion, the paradox: she is me/not me; he is mine/not mine.”
“What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father,
was something I suspect most Americans will never hear from the lips
of those of another race: the love of someone who knows your life in the round,
a love that will survive disappointment.” - Barack Obama
For all Ann’s considerable efforts to create an environment for her kids in which race neither defined who they were nor how they evaluated others, the reality for her biracial children, like so many others, is that the world intrudes. Her son’s black identification, rather than being a cynical “professional choice,” reflects that reality and makes their experiential distance more obvious.
Scott misses this point. She mildly admonishes Obama at several points in the book for contributing to the very caricaturing of Ann that she seeks to undermine. “There is an impression of her,” Scott says in her book’s press packet, “which comes particularly from the president’s own writing about his mother, as a naive idealist.” Though she often calls upon Obama’s memoir to glean an understanding of how Ann felt about race, she has a tendency to dismiss the son’s point of view on his mother as the musings of a child who misunderstands his parent.
This is undoubtedly true to some extent—how much can we really know about the interior lives of our parents? Yet, the reverse is true as well. Parents often do not know or understand their children’s experience, particularly in an interracial family with respect to matters of race. Moreover, the experiential difference between parents and children is often more readily recognized by the children than by their parents. It is the children, after all, who have to live the reality of their parents’ ideals.
Scott is more attuned to the ways that Barack and Maya seem to misunderstand their mother, rather than the other way around. She wants to disrupt the viewing of Ann through a racial prism, one replete with stereotypes of the “white woman from Kansas” who had children with non-white men—the naive idealist, the hippie from the commune—and rightly so. Scott seems so keen to move beyond racial reductionism that she does not see the ways that race did matter—and differently so—in the lives of Ann and her children. But more than that, she does not fully appreciate the significance of that difference.
Ann’s discomfort with her son’s black identification, Obama’s embarrassment at his mother’s “naiveté” about racial matters—these are part of the phenomenology of interracial kinship in which racial considerations are not easily confined to some sphere outside the home and members must deal with their own complicated feelings about racial difference in the context of love. When one deals with these contradictions, it becomes difficult to continue to reduce people to racial categories. Wrestling with the possibility that racialized fantasies of the Other motivated his own parents’ union, over time Obama comes to a deeper realization: “I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up—their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart.” He comes to realize that though indeed his mother was “that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head,” those misconceptions were replaced over time with a deep love. Moreover, he comes to understand this as a signal feature of interracial family experience: “What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was something I suspect most Americans will never hear from the lips of those of another race, and so cannot be expected to believe might exist between black and white: the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment.”
…I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave
—NATASHA TRETHEWEY, “Native Guard”
If, as David Blight writes, “deflections and evasions, careful remembering and necessary forgetting, and embittered and irreconcilable versions of experience are all the stuff of historical memory,” this is never so true than with respect to the history of race in America. Historical memory is partial, contradictory, the ground of politics and its effect. Scott makes an intervention in this reality by highlighting one of the stories that has been hidden, forgotten, and unmarked in dominant narratives of the past—both the past of our president and the past of our nation.
Like so many others, Ann Dunham is not here to tell her story. She died in late 1995 of ovarian and uterine cancer a few weeks shy of her fifty-third birthday. She did not live to meet her grandchildren. She did not live to see her son make history. Scott’s intention is to rescue Ann from the “white woman from Kansas” caricature—a label that reduces her to a category and a set of assumptions that obscure rather than illuminate who she was.
The stories of women like Ann Dunham who crossed significant racial and cultural barriers through marriage and motherhood form a growing, but still small, part of the historiography of race in America. Ann’s story illuminates many of the complexities of interracial intimacies, the “tense and tender ties,” to use Ann Stoler’s evocative phrase, that characterize intimate relations across racial boundaries. Telling these stories is important. Examining how real people, not abstractions, manage the challenges entailed in crossing one of the most salient boundaries of the American system of racial domination moves us beyond the easy stereotypes and tendency to psychologize, and pathologize, mixed-race subjectivity.
The mistake that Cornel West and others make is not that they imagine too much about what being raised in an interracial context means, but that they imagine too little. Rather than thinking about what that experience might entail, they employ readily available cultural scripts about the putative correspondences between hybrid identities and suspect political loyalties. These assertions contribute to silencing and marginalizing people. They also reflect a rather crude bifurcated vision of the past (and present) that proceeds as if the world neatly conforms to the ideology of race encoded in our racial categories. The promise of work, like Scott’s biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, that engages interracial intimacy seriously is its potential to show the limits of such bifurcated visions of race and history, to underscore the ineluctable connections between black/white, oppressed/oppressor, native/exile and to expose the ideological underpinnings of attempts to marginalize or erase stories of interracial intimacy, be they in historical memory or in contemporary political debate.
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